Kanopy Film Project: The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948)

 

The Hollywood blacklist interrupted Jules Dassin’s career as a filmmaker almost before it had a chance to get off the ground. A veteran of the New York theater (formerly an actor on the Yiddish stage), Dassin started out in Hollywood shortly after World War II, making gritty crime dramas in the noir style, a mode of psychologically and visually dark filmmaking increasingly popular in the United States and abroad. He continued in that vein in exile, producing his beautiful and disturbingly dark story of an American hustler on the run in London, Night and the City (1949). While Dassin was not yet officially on the blacklist, he already had moved to England by the time that film was released. A couple of years later, in order to be allowed back into the industry, fellow director Eddie Dmytryk named Dassin as a member of the Communist Party (Dassin had joined at the height of the antifascist movement in the 1930s). That sealed Dassin’s exile. He remained in Europe, mainly in France and Greece, to the end of his very long life (he died in 2008 at the age of 96), producing “art” films for American and international audiences, such as Riffifi (1954), Never on Sunday (1960) and Topkapi (1964), all critical successes. He remains one of the most highly regarded and influential American directors in European film studies, though he was for a long time largely forgotten in the United States. Dassin is joined in the credits for this film by fellow blacklistee, the novelist and screenwriter Albert Maltz, who went to jail with Dmytryk as one of the Hollywood Ten, directors, producers and screenwriters declared in contempt of Congress in 1947 for refusing to testify against their colleagues.

Though not as stunning as his London film, Naked City (1948) was Dassin’s first big hit, winning accolades for its original story, and Oscars for Paul Weatherwax’s editing and William Daniels’ cinematography. It was also praised for its “gritty” realism – it was not just “a story about a number of people,” as producer Mark Hellinger puts it in his somewhat intrusive voice-over, referring to the film’s boilerplate story of class privilege and murder. It was also about New York, the “naked” city where the action takes place. This was “the city as it is: Hot summer pavements, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people without makeup.” Shooting entirely on location in a documentary style, Dassin drew on several sources of cinematic inspiration, including the “city symphony” films popular in Europe during the silent era, as well as on the work of neo-realists like Vittorio DeSica, who in films like The Bicycle Thieves presented unalloyed images of working-class life in Italian cities crushed by the war and its aftermath.

The blacklist notwithstanding, Dassin’s film went on to be adapted into a critically acclaimed series in the early years of television, running from 1958 to 1963. Opening each week with the line “there are eight million stories in the Naked City,” the series showcased rising stars from New York’s enormous stable of young and veteran actors, such as Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, Christopher Walken, Robert Duvall, Lois Nettleton, Peter Falk, Jack Warden, Jean Stapleton, Sylva Miles, Martin Sheen, Eli Wallach, Maureen Stapleton, William Shatner, Kier Dullea, Sandy Dennis, Walter Matthau and Dustin Hoffman.

This is the fourth in a series of weekly films selected and introduced by Film Studies faculty from the Kanopy streaming service subscribed to by Schaffer Library. You can access the Kanopy service so long as you are on campus or using the college VPN: at https://union.kanopystreaming.com

(notes by Andrew Feffer, History)

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