October 21, 2014

Additions to the Top Ten: Naked City

PAUL BURKE IN A SCENE FROM NAKED CITY
Most people of a certain age are familiar with the saying, "There are eight million stories in the Naked City," though I'm not sure that it means anything to people today.  But back in the early '60s, the Naked City was New York, and there were indeed eight million stories to be told - many of them on the television series of the same name.

The Naked City was one of the great noir films of the '40s, directed by Jules Dassan in 1948.  It was notable for its gritty, documentary-like style, aided by its extensive use of location shooting in New York City.  (It won an Academy Award for cinematography.)   It followed two police detectives, veteran Detective Lieutenant. Dan Muldoon (Going My Way's Barry Fitzgerald) and his young associate Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) as they investigate a murder.

In 1958, the story made the transition to television as a weekly half-hour drama on ABC, with John McIntyre taking on the role of Muldoon and James Franciscus portraying Halloran, joined by Harry Bellaver as Sergeant Frank Arcaro.  It didn't take long for things to change, though; halfway through the season, McIntyre left the show (his character was killed off in a spectacular car crash), replaced by Horace McMahon as Lieutenant Mike Parker.  The series won critical acclaim but didn't fare so well in the ratings, and was cancelled after that first season.

A year later, though, after lobbying by the show's sponsor and producer, the series returned to ABC with a new title (dropping the article The; it would now simply be called Naked City), a new running time (expanded to one hour), and a new star to join the returning McMahon and Bellaver - Paul Burke, as Detective Adam Flint, replacing Franciscus' Halloran.  This version of the series lasted an additional three seasons before going off the air for good in 1963.

Naked City the series was created by Sterling Silliphant and produced by Herbert B. Leonard, and it shared the movie's trademark location shooting, which means that, like Silliphant and Leonard's other series, Route 66, it serves today as an almost documentary look at the city of New York, much of which no longer exists.  It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that New York City, it all its glory and grime, is as much a star of the show as any of the actors. It's a highly atmospheric show, and it wouldn't be possible with a studio-bound production.

Although I'd read about Naked City for years, it wasn't until a couple of years ago that I actually got to see an episode of it, courtesy of MeTV.  The first few episodes took a while to grow on me, but once I got hooked it became one of my favorites.  The chemistry between the three leads - with Burke as the young, intellectual, sensitive Flint, McMahon as the grizzled, gruffy veteran with the astute eye, and Bellaver as a solid, hard-working cop who also provides much of the show's humor - is perfect.  Like another of my favorite series, Burke's Law, the viewer can't help but be impressed by the competency of the cops.  They don't get a lot of screen time (more on that in a moment), but they so fully inhabit their characters that you can see the wheels turn every time they're confronted by another tough case.  Best of all (to my thinking) is that the series rarely strays into the characters' personal lives.  Oh, there's Flint's girlfriend Libby (Nancy Malone), but she's not in every episode, and often she's shown helping Flint think through a difficult part of the case, or dealing with the stress of police work.  No quirkbots here, no soap opera stories.

One reason why the series stays out of the personal lives of the leads is because most stories focus on the guest stars - the victims of crime, or the perpetrators.  It's their stories that make up the bulk of Naked City, and unlike procedurals of today, they're fully fleshed-out characters, with backstories and motivations that make the cases far more complex and less black-and-white than the normal police show.  I think, for example, of Jack Klugman as a henpecked husband talked by his domineering wife into a kidnapping.  He's a disappointment to his ambitious wife, he knows, and a disappointment to himself as well.  But he loves his wife so much that in order to keep her, he'll do anything to make himself a "big man" - and when she suggests kidnapping a young girl in order to bankroll a more luxurious life, he has no choice but to go along with the scheme.  Klugman, an actor with a limited range but a marvelous expressiveness within that range, wonderfully portrays a man who wants nothing more than to be a father (to the chagrin of his wife), and his genuine affection for and worry about their victim makes him a lousy kidnapper, but a good man.  It's that kind of depth that typifies the stories on Naked City.

Another thing that distinguishes the series is the absence of cynicism that clouds so much of television today.*  Not every case turns out the way Naked City's detectives would like - sometimes they don't get the breaks, sometimes it's just the way the system's made up.  But through this, the detectives always keep in mind that they're public servants, hired to protect the people of the city.  They don't view the public as their adversary, they don't assume that everyone they run into is either guilty or hiding a secret, and they don't greet every accused suspect with a sneer and a smirk.  Flint, the most sensitive of the three, is the most likely to shoot from the heart rather than the hip, but he's always able to back it up with solid police logic; his boss Parker, in turn, emphasizes that if he feels that strongly about his hunch, he has to be willing to do the hard legwork required to see it through to the end.  And although Flint sometimes feels the stress of not being able to change the whole world, he never falls victim to a cynical view of the job, never stops trying to make a difference in the cases that come his way.  It's a refreshing change from today's shows.

*Which I intend to write about at length one of these days.

One of the things I worried about when I started watching Naked City is Silliphant's penchant for writing preachy, achingly earnest scripts, filled with dialogue that's about as far from how real people talk as you can get.  But once Route 66 started, Silliphant devoted most of his time and energy to that series, and it's to Naked City's benefit.  The show never shies away from offering social criticism or taking on the issues of the day, but in so doing it remembers that it's first and foremost a police drama, and never fails to deliver an intricate investigation, highlighting the hard work and frustration that make up the unglamorous lives of detectives.

Naked City is terrific drama and terrific storytelling, backed up by a terrific cast.  It's gritty, grimy, and original.  (And would have been a disaster in color.)  It's free of the cliche and crassness of today's television, and its protagonists are actually likable.  Best of all, with its movie parent, it shares the closing narration: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City.  This has been one of them."  Truth in advertising, to be sure.  Maybe it didn't tell eight million stories, but the 138 it did tell were pretty damn good.

2 comments:

  1. I was fortunate to have this as part of local Channel 11's late night lineup while I was in college (and staying up a lot, with mostly afternoon and early evening classes) circa 1988-89. Really got hooked on it. Burke was never better, and Bellaver was always impressive.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agree on both. And McMahon serves as a great counterbalance - irascible, but with a great wealth of experience; willing to let Burke chase down his theories if he believes in them enough to do the hard work; and though he may have a high boiling point when it comes to the public and the accused, when he's finally had it he isn't afraid to let fly.

      Delete

And now for something completely different.