A Naked Face in The Crowded City

(Ed. note - CC writer Ian Alterman writes about two of his favorite film classics.)

The Naked City

Two years after making The Naked City, director Jules Dassin would find himself on the Hollywood Blacklist, and move to Europe, never to return to the U.S.  His first film made in Europe, Rififi (1955), would become his most influential, beloved and, arguably, greatest film.  And there are already signs of the naturalist style used in Rififi in The Naked City, though the former is a classic (maybe the classic) heist film, while the latter is a film noir police procedural, complete with narration (which ends the movie with the famous line: “There are eight million stories in the naked city.  This is one of them.”)

Centered around the murder of a young model, and the police investigation that ensues, the film’s visual style was famously influenced by the work of the photographer, Weegee, who had published a book of photographs with the same name (“Naked City”).   The gritty, grainy black-and-white (Oscar-winning) cinematography not only gives the film its visual look, but also adds to the “tension” of the story.  Rarely has black-and-white functioned so much as a “palette” as it does here.  Dassin would use that palette-like effect in Rififi as well.

Another interesting, and at that time unique, aspect of the production was that Dassin shot many of the street scenes from a van with a hidden camera, having the actors walking along with real people who were unaware that a movie was being made.  (Imagine trying to do this today.)  This, too, adds to the tension of the film, since there is a “chance” element involved.  This is yet another technique that Dassin would use in Rififi (in the streets of Paris).  As well, Dassin makes wonderful use of New York City landmarks, as he would do similarly with some of the landmarks of Paris in Rififi.

Dassin is also an actor’s director, and is able to get amazingly “natural” performances from his actors; this is made even more difficult here because the film is in quasi-documentary style.  In Rififi, which is filmed in a more traditional style, the performances are almost impossible natural.

On a personal note, I have a soft spot for this film because it takes place largely in the neighborhood in which I live: not only is the very real 20th Precinct used (I not only live in the 20th, but am president of its Precinct Council), the murder of the model occurs in a building on 83rd Street – which is the block on which I live.

The Naked City is among the best of the film noir police procedurals, including those with Bogie as Sam Spade.  It is shown fairly regularly on TCM, and is well worth watching for, or renting on Netflix.

A Face in the Crowd

With a screenplay by Budd Schulberg (from one of his short stories), A Face in the Crowd is simply one of the best and arguably most prescient films ever made.  It stars Andy Griffith (in his feature film debut) as drunken drifter Larry Rhodes, who, after being found by a big city reporter (Patricia Neal), is restyled as “Lonesome Rhodes,” and develops a growing following on a radio show that is set up for him to sing and talk.  Getting a taste of fame and fortune (which Neal is only too happy to share in), he becomes a huge star, eventually becoming drunk on his fame – and his increasing power to persuade the masses via radio, and then television.  When he gets involved in politics, things really get ugly.

This is an early entry in showing the power of television to influence, and the dangerous intersection of media and politics.  [N.B. It would make a brilliant double feature with Meet John Doe, the 1941 film starring Gary Cooper in a role similar to Griffith (a drifter who is turned into a media darling) and Barbara Stanwyck in a similar role to Neal (the reporter who “makes” him.]  It is almost frighteningly prescient in its depiction of Rhodes, who is an obvious forerunner of Joe the Plumber (i.e., an average guy who ends up a media star and political “influencer”) and, to a slightly lesser degree, Sarah Palin.

Although many believe that Rhodes is based largely on Arthur Godfrey (and there is no question that Godfrey was an influence), Schulberg claims he had Will Rogers in mind (though with a large measure of “amorality and cruelty” that Rogers lacked).

It would be giving too much away to say much more.  This film is on regular rotation on TCM, and is simply top-notch movie-making and a must-see classic. - Ian Alterman

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Mr. Alterman is a founding moderator of Progarchives.com, the number one progressive rock website in the world. He writes there under the name Maani. (Don't ask.)

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