I can't remember another movie that took as many chances as THE NAKED CITY and successfully pulled it off. It doesn't look quite like any movie I've seen before and doesn't play quite like any other movie.
The story is simply enough - a young model is found murdered and the Homicide Squad is called in to solve the case.
Even before the murder, though, we're introduced to something new. We're given and aerial sweep and pan shot of the skyline of New York City. A voice over narrator emphatically tells us that this movie was NOT photographed in a studio; the stars perform "in the streets, in the apartment houses, in the skyscrapers of New York City itself." And so it is. No matter how well the set is designed, you can usually spot it as quickly as you can CG animation, and this ALL looks like NYC to me.
The casting is out of the ordinary, as well. I mean, Barry Fitzgerald as top-star in a crime story? Come on. Get serious. Yeah, maybe if you want a pleasant little slightly inebriated Irish chap - but a homicide detective? Yeah, right.
But it works. Fitzgerald is just right as Lt. Daniel Muldoon because this movie doesn't rely on Mike Hammer-ish brutality, or a brilliant and intuitive crime solver. I think the film makers here were looking for a cast who could meld into the city rather than rise above it, and Fitzgerald is a surprising and inspired choice.
This is a movie about dusting for fingerprints and putting evidence in plastic bags. It's about wearing out shoes interviewing potential witnesses and striking out 90% of the time. The Fitzgerald character works because he fits into the world better than a major star would have. The film-makers seem to be striving for a documentary feel to things (I trying not to use the term cinema veritie here).
Scenes are bracketed by location street scenes - hordes of people entering a subway station, a horse-drawn milk cart and milkman on a quiet city street, two young women admiring a gown in an upscale store window.
There's a price to be paid for relying exclusively on location shots. There are a few scenes that sound like the voice recording were done in an echo chamber. And the film has a flat look to it (not all that bad for a noir-ish crime drama.) The reason we can tell studio shots so quickly is because they look good - the photographer has control over lighting and light sourcing.
If there are detective movies and gangster movies and any number of other sub-genres in the Crime category, I guess you'd call this a police procedural movie. There are a couple of punches thrown and a few guns fired, but for the most part attention lingers on characters and procedures. This is one of the first movies, to my knowledge, that seems to recognize that crimes are more likely solved in the lab than in the brain of an inspired crime fighter.
I unhesitatingly recommend this to everybody. For crime and noir buffs, this is a must see.