bad films, bad movies, Barry Fitzgerald, bars, cinema, Citizen Kane, comedies, crime film, Danny Devito, ensemble casts, Film, Girl Walks into a Bar, Gothika, Jimmy Halloran, Jules Dassin, Los Angeles, Lt. Daniel Muldoon, Mark Hellinger, Movies, New York City, Robert Forster, Rosario Dawson, Sebastian Gutierrez, Snakes on a Plane, terrible films, The Naked City, voice-over narration, Z-movies, Zachary Quinto
As a rule, I like to counter-program whenever I watch multiple movies: too much of any one thing can get tiring. There are exceptions, of course, such as my annual horror movie marathon in October: that’s pretty much just an entire month of horror films. Other than that, however, I usually like a little variety. Sometimes, however, I counter-program without even knowing it. Such was the case last Wednesday when I inadvertently paired up a pretty good film-noir (The Naked City) with a god-awful skid-mark called Girl Walks into a Bar. None of the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Not all films deliver the goods in big ways. Some films (many films, if we’re being completely honest) are more about small moments, individual pleasures. You could probably fill an airplane hangar with the “pleasant diversions” that I’ve watched over the past 30 years, although I doubt if I could remember much about most of them save the titles. Sometimes, a film isn’t groundbreaking, vital or earth-shaking: sometimes, a film is just pretty good…and that’s good enough.
The Naked City is a pretty good film, less a film noir (which it at first resembles) than a police procedural. Ostensibly, the film is about the police manhunt for the individual (or individuals) who murdered a young, blonde model in her apartment. Lt. Daniel Muldoon (played with so much mischievous energy by Barry Fitzgerald that the character is practically a leprechaun) and officer Jimmy Halloran (a wide-eyed Don Taylor, evidently pretty fresh from the farm) are on the case, tearing the city apart in their quest for answers and justice.
Right off the bat, there’s something a little off about The Naked City. The film begins with an aerial view of New York City as producer Mark Hellinger (who doubles as the film’s narrator) explains to us that the film was not shot on sound stages but, rather, on the gritty streets of New York, itself. This is a film, he lets us know, that is as much about the city as the people who live there. It’s an interesting tact that makes sense when you consider the staged nature of most films released in 1948.
This attempt to get into the heart (and mind) of the city is, at first glance, quite disorienting. We spend almost ten minutes jumping around from cleaning lady to switchboard operator to late-night radio DJ and back, hearing their (mostly mundane) thoughts on their lives, jobs, etc…It’s an almost documentary-esque technique that is only shattered when the camera strays into the victim’s apartment and we witness two mysterious men kill her. For a time, the film really does seem like it will consist of day-in-the-life vignettes.
Another trait that marks The Naked City as a bit of an odd duck is the oftentimes intrusive narration by Hellinger. Much of the time, Hellinger functions less as narrator than as Greek chorus, color commentator or surrogate character in the unfolding drama. As Officer Halloran is scouring the city for clues, Hellinger’s narration is a constant companion: “Look at your city, Halloran;” “The dress shop is next, Halloran.” This can become a bit distracting, particularly once the action picks up in the latter half and Hellinger becomes a TV commentator: “Run over there, Halloran…he turned to the left…look up above you!…what’s that over there?” To further confound things, Hellinger’s narration and inflection seem rather inappropriate for a crime film. It’s hard to describe but anyone who grew up on old Disney films will, presumably, know what I’m talking about. Imagine the kindly-voiced narrator from Dumbo narrating a crime drama and you begin to get the picture. This could be a hold-over from old radio programs but Hellinger’s narration is always either too flip or snide to convey any sense of mystery.
Structure-wise, the film is very much indebted to Welles’ Citizen Kane, released a scant seven years before The Naked City. Officer Halloran travels about the city, talking to anyone and everyone that knew the dead girl, in an attempt to piece together just who she was. It’s an effective structural-choice and lends the film a sturdy framework that helps immeasurably when it (occasionally) decides to spin its wheels.
There are little moments in the film that I enjoyed quite a bit: a discussion between Halloran and his wife about spanking their son turns, out of nowhere, into a really interesting argument on gender roles; the public’s fascination with every detail of the unfolding murder-mystery was the same then as it is now; there’s a blind man and his seeing-eye dog that reminded me immediately of the blind man and dog in Argento’s Suspiria, right down to the type of dog and the man’s clothing (could Argento have been a fan?); Barry Fitzgerald’s absolutely joyous portrayal of Lt. Muldoon (rarely have I seen an actor not named Richard Harris or Robert Downey Jr. tear his teeth so lustily into a role like this) and the ending is very strong.
All in all, The Naked City was really fun to watch, albeit kind of weird and a little silly, at times. While nowhere near a great noir or crime film, The Naked City is a perfectly fine way to whittle away 90 minutes. As Hellinger states at the end: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City…this has been one of them.” Damn straight, Mark: damn straight, indeed.
Full disclosure: I absolutely hated this film. Positively detested it. In fact, I dare say that I have seen few films that I actively disliked as much as this hackneyed, pretentious, stupid, blissfully unaware, towering horse manure-monument to narcissism. I can’t even say that I was glad when it was over, since I then had time to focus my disgust inwards, wondering what mental deficiency necessitate that I spend even one minute with this aggressively brain-dead waste of trust funds. I, by association, was as guilty as Sebastian Gutierrez and every other misbegotten individual involved with this cinematic abortion.
Sebastian Gutierrez…Sebastian Gutierrez…why does that name sound familiar? Had the name sounded more familiar before I began, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. You see, writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez was also the genius who wrote Snakes on a Plane and Gothika. A little history: those two films are fucking terrible, pardon my French. Snakes on a Plane may have had Sam Jackson and a big pop culture push but, in reality, it was an awful film, a self-aware bit of stupidity that strove for cult status without ever realizing what made cult films “cult” in the first place. Gothika was an aggressively stupid, unpleasant, worthless supernatural thriller that starred Halle Berry and, by itself, would have been enough reason for me to curse Gutierrez’s name from now until the stars burn out.
So, we have one of the worst writers in the biz: not good so far. But we also have huge stars like Danny Devito, Zachary Quinto, Rosario Dawson, Robert Forster (!), Gil Bellows and Josh Hartnett, you might say. Of course, we do. We also have them spewing the filmic equivalent of baby diarrhea: you don’t want a big cup of that, do you? I felt bad for every actor in the film but reserved a special reserve of pit for Robert Forster. I mean…really? Robert Forster…in this? My heart hurt for him, I won’t lie. The rest, barring Quinto (who’s still got time), have been in their fair share of embarrassments but this must be an all-time career low for Forster, even including his stellar turn in Scanner Cop II.
How about the plot? Well, there’s a hit woman and she has to go to ten different bars because she’s looking for the guy who stole her wallet while playing pool and each person she meets gives her another clue until she…oh, who gives a shit? Plot is, quite frankly, the last thing that anyone involved with this debacle is interested in. Plot holes? More like a smidgen of plot surrounded by the black hole of deepest space. To add insult to injury, the whole thing is episodic, taking place entirely in first one bar then the next then the next ad infinitum. I kept thinking this must have been an adapted stage play but who am I fooling? I’m pretty sure that the last play Sebastian watched was his elementary-school Christmas pageant. More likely, it’s just a really sloppy, lazy way to tell a story.
At this point, I would normally list all of the things that I really liked about a film. In this case, why don’t I just list the elements that made me black out from anger?
— the long, tedious, drawn-out fantasy sequence where Terri the stripper imagines one-upping the scuzzy guys in the club. A perfect example of a scene that thinks it’s exceptionally clever when it’s actually drooling in the porridge.
— Danny Devito’s entire time in the movie consists of him telling a dumb joke…what a waste.
— “What are you good at? You look like you’re really good at something but I just can’t put my finger on it.” — I can’t believe a human wrote this line: this has chimp fingerprints all over it.
— every single second of film that Rosario Dawson was in. How one individual could manage to be so annoying is a question for the ages.
— the nudity in the swinger’s club is censored with black bars because…it’s clever, I guess? Again, this was a case of Dumb and Dumbererer thinking it’s The Seventh Seal.
— Terri and the hit-woman play a game that consists entirely of them coming up with “imaginative” euphemisms for cunnilingus. I don’t laugh at these scenes when they involve boorish men and this was equally tasteless and stupid.
— the film ends with the three main characters country-line dancing in an empty bar because, honestly, how the hell else would you end something so offensively stupid?
I’ll leave you with the very last note that I took as I finished watching this cinematic masterpiece: Fuck you, Sebastian Gutierrez…fuck you very much.