Voice over in film has always been a particular point of interest for me; so much that I have even considered authoring a book on the topic as it pertains to movies made prior to 1970.
The narrator, as he is employed in The Naked City, embodies amongst one of the most compelling manifestations of the voice-over. Narrating Naked City is producer Mark Hellinger, speaking as himself, which is the unusual aspect of his role.
Typically a narrator is simply an omniscient unidentified voice. Is it supposed to represent "god"? A collective human psyche? That it is up for us to debate.
Voice-over narration has also taken on the form of a specific character from the plot, who is reflecting on the experience of a recent or distant past.
As my personal tendency is such, I will take a quick moment to present a historical footnote: it should be mentioned that Mr Hellinger tragically died of a sudden heart attack after a preview of The Naked City. Knowing this fact makes hearing his words spoken aloud in the film that much more eerie....
Hellinger's disembodied voice proclaims Naked City as a documentary, amidst stark aerial shots of New York City with particularly stunning painterly light exhibited in the camera work, and lead us into subsequent haunting black shots of the city at night. If you watch the film for only one reason, it should be for this first five minutes, while Hellinger expresses poignant and philosophical thoughts about the concept of a city, juxtaposed with evocative images of New York in the late 1940s: "The question: Do the machines in a factory ever need rest? Does a ship ever feel tired? Or is it only people who are weary at night? There is a pulse to a city and it never stops beating."
He pronounces the actors just as that: actors. His words do away with the necessity of opening credits shown as text. Despite this lack of credits, hearing them spoken aloud in narrative form distinctively highlights the film's literary source, almost giving us the sense that we, the viewers, are being read to from a book. From this first sequence, we are highly conscious that this is a "staged" documentary film played out in the background of real life.
"Ladies and gentleman, the motion picture you are about to see is called The Naked City. My name is Mark Hellinger, and I was in charge of its production. And I may as well tell you frankly, that it's a bit different than most of the films you've ever seen. It was written by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald. Photographed by William Daniels and directed by Jules Dassin. As you see, we're flying over an island, a city. A particular city. And this is a story of a number of people, and also a story of the city itself. It was not photographed in a studio. Quite the contrary. Barry Fitzgerald, our star, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Ted de Corsia, and the other actors, played out their roles in the streets, in the apartment houses, in the skyscrapers of New York itself........and along with them, a great many thousand New Yorkers played out their roles as well. This is the city as it is. Hot summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people, without make-up."
Jules Dassin recognized the documentary style as informing his artistic motives, which were primarily to convey "truth".
"What interests me is the truth," says Dassin, "and I think I find it in the framework of documentary. A certain poetry must complement the documentary aspect however....what you see in my films, this mixture of documentary and poetry, is my modest investigation of an expression of truth, even when one is limited to thrillers or detective stories."
Dassin may have seen these plots as a bit limiting, but he certainly contributed to the definition of film noir, by using murderous secrets and revelations of truth as plot devices.
"Conceived at roughly the same time as the atomic bomb, film noir was also born secret.....Given their capacity to generate plots and fracture identities, the secrets in film noirs act structually and thematically as atomic engines, or even bombs." (Mark Osteen)
The Naked City's quest is the truth, discovered by "asking a thousand questions to get one answer," carving out another facet in the tradition of police documentaries. Righteous investigators are presented in the pursuit of that courageous truth which has the power and will to disrupt the evils of a noir underworld.
"A hero too, albeit more complex, is the short Irish detective of The Naked City, who believes in God and consecrates his nights to the triumph of justice. An edifying film, the American police documentary is, in fact, a documentary to the glory of the police....." (Borde and Chaumeton. A Panorama of American Film Noir, page 7)
In a noir vision typical of Dassin, who also directed Night and the City (1950), The Naked City and the objects of the film take on anthropomorphic roles. In fact, as cited in A Panorama of Film Noir by Borde and Chaumeton, the pair who first defined the noir genre, Dassin seems to expand upon "the tradition in American cinema of subordinating a human story to the endurance of an engine or a scrap of material. Dassin renews the drama of objects...in terms of their everyday handling, some objects are bound up with impending danger."
The objects, the urban landscape are transported into a surreal realm, where they can take on a persona of their own. Film noir is qualified by projecting surrealism in plot and images, which is "crucial to the reception of any art described as noir." (James Naremore)
The trail of objects leading to the murderer in The Naked City, have all the mythic, scandal-ridden and freakish qualities of a "noir fairy tale." A glass bottle of sleeping pills. A gold cigarette case. A stolen engagement ring. A publicity photo of a wrestler who has a penchant for playing the harmonica.
But what really defines The Naked City as one of the greatest noir films, is the way in which the city of New York takes on its own life, an asphalt jungle that is sleepless, merciless, corrupt. Pulsating with a cold urban triumph, a black and white grid depicted from oblique angles which induce claustrophobia in the protagonists, and especially in us, the suspended viewers.
"In the country, the darkness of night is friendly and familiar, but in a city, with its blaze of lights, it is unnatural, hostile, and menacing. It is like a monstrous vulture that hovers, biding its time." (W.Somerset Maugham)
The most chilling portrayal in the film, that perhaps drives home Dassin's original artistic motives of truth, is the first shot of the murder victim. One can clearly see, this victim is a beautiful young woman. Preceding this shot, the viewer is plyed with images of city nightlife. It makes it far more ominous for us to know that these events, good and bad, are occurring simultaneously. A normal evening out for some people, strangulation and drowning for others....."and even this too, could be called routine, in a city of 8 million people."
In conclusion: "There are 8 million stories in The Naked City. This has been one of them."
Author's note: In 2007, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."