The Naked City
“There are eight million stories in the Naked City,” as the narrator immortally states at the close of this breathtakingly vivid film—and this is one of them. Master noir craftsman Jules Dassin and newspaperman-cum-producer Mark Hellinger’s dazzling police procedural, The Naked City, was shot entirely on location in New York. Influenced as much by Italian neorealism as it is by American crime fiction, this double Academy Award winner remains a benchmark for naturalism in noir, living and breathing in the promises and perils of the Big Apple, from its lowest depths to its highest skyscrapers.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their 2007 DVD edition of Jules Dassin’s The Naked City to Blu-ray, presenting the film in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Criterion is thankfully not making use of the same high-definition restoration used for the DVD, as fine as it was, and are instead using a brand new 4K restoration. This restoration, which took a couple of years to complete, was sourced from 13 different elements (according to the restoration notes that precede the film), though primarily a nitrate fine grain and a safety duplicate negative (the original nitrate negative is long gone).
The upgrade over the DVD is significant, probably one of the biggest I can recall, at least in recent memory. The DVD’s presentation, as I mentioned off-hand previously, isn’t bad. In fact, I was always impressed with it considering how the film’s rights have changed hands through the decades. Yet its age showed thanks to a less-than-optimal source print (a composite print) that was marred by scratches and dirt. Detail was decent enough, but damage was surprisingly heavy.
This new restoration has just about cleaned up all of that damage, with only a handful of marks remaining. The scratches that rained through the previous presentation, the constant flicker and pulses throughout, all of that has just about been eradicated here. Some scratches and marks can still show on the sides of the frame but they’re minimal and barely noticeable. The image is shockingly clean, just about spotless.
The image is also significantly crisper and sharper. I have always been pleased with this aspect of the DVD, but I didn’t realize how open it was to improvement. The image here is crisp and crystal clear, and despite the fact that 13 different sources were apparently used, I can’t say I noticed a severe drop in quality, other than maybe slight drops in footage that was more than likely stock or second unit footage (shots of the streets, the city, and so on). Fine object detail is so much crisper here, and this is evident in patterns in clothing and suits, where threading is even distinct. Film grain is rendered cleanly, and the digital presentation handles it all impeccably, the presentation looking photographic in the end. Contrast and gray scale is also improved upon, with gorgeous transitions in the grays. Blacks and whites are also clean.
In all, this looks absolutely fantastic and the restoration has certainly gone above and beyond anything I would have ever expected for the film, and the encode doesn’t muck any of it up. It really is a thing of beauty.
The film’s audio—presented here in lossless 1-channel PCM mono—is also improved upon. It sounds a bit sharper and cleaner and is free of any sever damage or distortion. It doesn’t sound to have been filtered (or severely filtered at least) and there is some modest range, things getting a little edgy during louder moments, like with music swelling.
Criterion ports over everything from their previous DVD, starting with an audio commentary featuring The Naked City’s screenwriter, Malvin Wald. I really wish my opinion has changed on this one but I’m still not particularly fond of it, and I think a lot of it just comes down to the fact Wald is tasked with having to fill the entire track when a 30 to 40-minute interview probably would have sufficed. Wald does talk about how he, Dassin, and producer Mark Hellinger were intent on making a realistic police procedural, which called for focusing on the more mundane elements of police work: it wasn’t a thriller per-se, but an examination. He contextualizes this by talking about most crime films of the time, and then explaining the impact this film had (comparing it to how critics and audiences would have reacted to Pulp Fiction for example). He also talks about issues that arose because of the investigations by the House of Unamerican Activities Committee (which of course effected Dassin) and how this (and the fact the film showed the disparity between the wealthy and the poor) gave Universal cold feet on the film.
All of this, along with Wald going over his research, which included actual cases, is interesting, but Wald can unfortunately drone on at times, and I feel it’s because he’s just trying to fill the track. At best it’s probably best to sample the track, though Criterion has made the unfortunate decision to remove the chapter stop titles for the commentary that were on the DVD, making it harder to pull up topics that might interest you.
Things get better with the remaining supplements. Criterion next provides two video interviews: a 28-minute one featuring film scholar Dana Polan and another, running 26-minutes, featuring author James Sanders. Polan’s contribution looks at the film in relation to other crime films of the time, particularly film noir, which this film doesn’t fall under he feels because, as a police procedural that follows the police, it offers a feeling of order and hope. He also looks at it in the context of the time period in which it was made and how the film shows a post-war America in relation to the family structure, economics, and so forth. He also gets a little into the impact the film had on crime films since, and even gets into the television series of the same name, which captured the redundancy of police work in that after a crime is solved the detectives just move on to the next case.
It's a good overall examination, though at first comes off lacking a focus. I preferred Sanders’ contribution and his observations on how the film makes use of New York and how it compares to New York’s presentation in previous films. Since films were rarely shot on location and produced in California, New York was always reconstructed on stage, which led to a mythical, fantasy-like quality. This film uses the real New York and creates a harsher environment, and Sanders admires how the filmmakers didn’t just use a small area of the city, but actually spread out and covered a vast area, which leads to representation of the various cultures and communities throughout. It’s a rather in-depth and fascinating look at the city at the time, as well as how it has been represented in Hollywood before and since.
Next is an archival feature: a 41-minute interview with director Jules Dassin, recorded at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (I assume for some retrospective) in 2004. It’s a very loose and surprisingly funny discussion with the director (he first-off reminds his audience he’s an American director, not a French one), who recounts his career and shares a number of stories around the production of his films. He doesn’t focus too long on any particular film, with The Naked City and Rififi receiving most of the allotted time, but it’s an enjoyable and fun inclusion.
Criterion (surprisingly) ports over the still gallery from the DVD edition (they usually drop galleries in their Blu-ray upgrades) though present the images differently: instead of a gallery the user can navigate through using the remote Criterion instead edits it all together and presents it as a video, with text notes over top of the images. This is fine (and runs 6-minutes), though I wish they did something similar to Arrow where you could still skip through the images using chapter stops. The photos are a collection of various production and on-set stills, as well as promotional material. Criterion also ports over their booklet, which features a short essay on the film and its production by Luc Sante, along with a reprint of a letter producer Mark Hellinger wrote to Dassin, addressing his concerns around the film’s ending. They actually didn’t have a solid ending, which is brought up in the commentary and Dassin’s interview, and Hellinger writes out his ideas for it here.
The supplements are solid for the most part, the commentary maybe being the weakest inclusion. Missing, though, is more around the television series that followed, along with material photography book Naked City by Arthur Fellig (aka, Weegee), which also inspired the film (both are only mentioned in passing throughout the features). Otherwise, the material is decent enough.
With a striking new presentation from a 4K restoration and all content ported over from the DVD, this Blu-ray comes with a very high recommendation, even for those that may have already picked up the DVD.