January 24, 2018

Naked City and the existence of a man

It is our wont, in the Hadley household, to watch Naked City on DVD Friday nights. (Perhaps it also says something about our social lives that we spend Friday nights watching TV, but I'll let that pass for now.) And a couple of weeks ago, we saw an extraordinary episode; I know that I use this phrase from time to time, and perhaps overuse it, but in this case I thought it really was extraordinary, even as the episode was unfolding. It was called "Which Is Joseph Creeley?" and while sometimes the titles of '60s dramas get a bit pretentious, I thought this one meant exactly what it said, though we'll get to that in a moment.

It's an unusual episode in many respects, not the least of which being that of the Naked City regulars, only Detective Adam Flint (Paul Burke) and his girlfriend Libby Kingston (Nancy Malone) appear in the episode; none of the other detectives are shown, or even mentioned in the opening credits - but then, this is not their story. The cold open gives us Adam and Libby headed up the steps to where some type of legal proceeding is being held. Adam is clearly tense, with Libby providing moral support. She heads into the courtroom, while Adam first detours to another room, where he meets with Joseph Creeley and Creeley's defense attorney. At this point we still have no real idea what the episode is about, except for this intriguing tidbit: Creeley tells Adam that if he, Creeley, is guilty, then he wants to be punished for it.

The story is dominated by Martin Balsam's performance as Creeley, a man who finds himself at a crossroads few of us should ever hope to face. He's on death row, awaiting execution for a murder committed during a botched robbery, when he collapses from what turns out to be a brain tumor. The doctor gives him two choices: undergo an operation to remove the tumor, which may or may not succeed, or do nothing and see whether it kills him before the electric chair does. Adam, who was the original arresting officer and has been guarding Creeley in the hospital, is thrown into the maelstrom when Creeley asks him what he should do. For Adam, life is precious because it allows for hope, and he urges Creeley to undergo the surgery even if it changes nothing in the long run. Creeley signs over a Power of Attorney, and Adam authorizes the surgery.

And now it gets interesting.

As it turns out the surgery is a success, with one caveat: in removing the tumor, the operation also wipes clean about ten years of Joseph Creeley's memory. He has no recollection of the crime, of his wife having divorced him, (or even having been married), of the circumstances that led him in desperation to the robbery that killed a man and left him on death row. It's as if his entire life ended ten years ago and has now started up again, with a giant hole in the middle. Furthermore, his doctor believes the tumor was probably responsible for his behavior up to and including the time of the robbery, which means he may not have been legally responsible for his actions.

All of this we learn from flashbacks generated by Adam's testimony on the stand, and now we understand just how we've gotten to this courtroom, on this date. Creeley's attorney has successfully won a new trial based on the doctor's opinion, and he's now going about demonstrating that there were two Joseph Creeley's: the one before the tumor, and the one after. He uses the testimony of people who have known Creeley throughout his life to demonstrate how his behavior had changed; a priest remembers him as a studious, polite boy; his ex-wife says that she divorced him because he was no longer the man he had been when she married him (a phrase which we often hear but in this case is meant to be taken literally), even Adam says that Creeley had the look of a wild man (i.e. crazy) when Adam arrested him.*

*Key point in understanding Adam: despite this wild look, Adam did not shoot (and risk killing) Creeley; he wouldn't take such action if he didn't have to, and in this case he didn't think he had to. 

The defense's insanity plea is an unusual one, in that the attorney suggests not only that Creeley was not legally responsible for his actions at the time due to the tumor, but that his memory loss (likely permanent) means he can never be that man, and that punishing him would be an injustice. The prosecution does not contest the notion that Creeley is a different man today, but their contention is that this is all immaterial: the Creeley who committed the crime did understand, for the purposes of the legal definition, the difference between right and wrong, and whether or not he remembers it today is beside the point as far as the administration of justice is concerned.* He calls as a witness the widow of the man Creeley killed, who herself was seriously injured in the attack, to share how her life has forever changed as a result of Creeley's actions.

*It's a line of thinking that invokes Dismas, the Good Thief who confessed the divinity of Christ on the Cross. Christ promises salvation for Dismas - but does not pardon him the from earthly punishment for the crimes he had committed.

Quite a conundrum, isn't it? As the defense attorney says in his closing summation, the jury has now heard two versions of who Joseph Creeley is. According to one, he's a man who poses absolutely no threat to society, who has no memories of the man he was, and who should be allowed to live to be the man he is today. According to the other, he's a man who robbed and murdered, who knew that it was wrong regardless of why he did it, and who now must pay the penalty. The question for the jury to decide: which of these is Joseph Creeley.

We never find the answer to that question; the episode ends with the verdict yet to be given. It's an appropriate way to end the story, I think, because the answer to this question really lies within ourselves, how we see and define the humanity of an individual.

Is it true that a man is the sum total of his memories? The philosopher John Locke used, as the criterion for personal identity (the self), not the substance of either the soul or the body, but the psychological continuity of consciousness - the memory. In other words, you are what your memory shows you to be.* Locke contends that you "are in truth only responsible for the acts for which you are conscious," which lies at the heart of the insanity defense, that if you are not aware (or conscious) of an act, you cannot be held accountable for it. Without that memory of who he was, he is not the same man. The court would, in effect, be punishing the wrong man for having committed the crime.

*Displayed in his analogy of "The Prince and the Cobbler," where a prince, whose soul (and memories) were transferred to the body of a cobbler (whose soul had departed), would continue to think of himself as a prince, even though he finds himself in appearance to be a cobbler. Think Here Comes Mr. Jordan, or its remake, Heaven Can Wait, as examples. This is, of course, the same premise upon which Doctor Who is based.

Against this, the argument can be made that Locke has no lock on the truth. In discussing the concept of "identity over time," the Catholic philosopher Peter Geach denies the idea "that there is a single absolute relation of identity rather than a host of relative identity relations." In other words, it is impossible to say that the prince is identical to the cobbler. "Instead there must be a concept of a kind of thing, a so called sortal concept, that serves to answer the question." We would have to ask: is the prince the same what as the cobbler? The same man? The same thinker? The same craftsman? The same husband? The same leader? Likewise with Creeley: Is he the same man? The same murderer? The prosecution might well contend that while he is not the same man, he is the same murderer, and must be punished accordingly.

It's no surprise that Naked City could generate this type of discussion. In the book The Philosophy of TV Noir, Robert E. Fitzgibbons labels Naked City as an example of a "relativist" television series, one that insists that there is no clear definition of the truth at any given time. Dr. Wirtz, Creeley's doctor in the episode, says as much: "Sanity is a relative term." Even when someone in the program does something we might define as "wrong," Fitzgibbons insists, the viewer "was left - indeed almost forced - by the end of many episodes to wonder whether perhaps these choices might not have been right in some way." The concept of moral relativism, expressed in this manner, dovetails with Locke's would-be insistence that Creeley today cannot be judged as if he were Creeley yesterday - because that man no longer exists at this moment in time.

So what does this all mean? There is no closure to this question, since we never see the verdict come in. Gilbert Ralston, the writer of this episode, almost certainly intended for the viewer to be the jury, and to let each one of us make the decision for ourselves. Although I am not a moral relativist, I find myself for the most part agreeing with Creeley's attorney that it would not be in the interests of justice to hold Creeley accountable for a crime which he has no memory of, which in fact he may not have been legally responsible for having committed in the first place. And yet justice does demand an answer; it's similar to a terrorist who commits suicide after having perpetrated his mass murder. We're left with an empty feeling, a sense that the circle has not been squared.

Ultimately, what I love about this episode is not just the lack of a neat conclusion, but that it dares to raise this kind of a question in the first place. Had the story ended with a jury verdict, we need not have agreed with that verdict to have been stimulated by the questions presented in the episode. Perhaps only The Defenders would have dared to go into this type of territory at the time; most of the discussions offered in contemporary television usually consist of straw man arguments that are eventually knocked down by the cast member acting as surrogate for the writer. I never got that feeling from "Which is Joseph Creeley?" Regardless of how Ralston wanted us to think about Creeley, and whether or not he should be punished, he gave us more than enough to chew on, more than enough for us to come to our own conclusion about just how it is that we define the existence of a man.  TV  


  1. Thank you so much for your thought provoking posts. Naked City is such a unique and wonderful series. This episode is one of my favorites, though there are many great episodes. It was remiss of me to not pass on my thanks for your posts about Breaking Point, another high quality Camelot era drama.

  2. "The Defenders" did go there - kind of, in an episode called "The Treadmill." The plot had a man arrested for a crime he committed prior to being institutionalized for 25 years. Now he was cured, but would now stand trial and likely be found guilty and executed. He wasn't the same man anymore, so would it be right to punish him now? The issue was handled nearly as deftly as the Naked City episode you've so eloquently described. But this show also provided an answer.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!