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Tag Archives: Barry Fitzgerald

The Naked City (March 4, 1948)

The Naked City
The Naked City (1948)
Directed by Jules Dassin
Universal Pictures

The Naked City was — sadly — the second and final collaboration between producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin. Their first collaboration was the hard-hitting prison drama Brute Force (1947), and we can only imagine what their third collaboration might have been had Hellinger not died on December 21, 1947, at the age of 44.

Hellinger was a hard-living, hard-drinking newspaper columnist. At the height of his popularity, he reportedly had 18 million readers. Like his friend Walter Winchell, Hellinger had an instinctive knack for writing what people wanted to read, and his insight into the criminal demimonde was unparalleled.

Unparalleled except, perhaps, for his love of New York City and all its inhabitants, from Lower East Side deliverymen to Park Avenue titans of industry. In his review of The Naked City in the March 5, 1948, issue of the NY Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that the film was “a virtual Hellinger column on film. It is a rambling, romantic picture-story based on a composite New York episode, the detailed detection of a bath-tub murder by the local Homicide Squad. And it is also a fancifully selective observation of life in New York’s streets, police stations, apartments, tenements, playgrounds, docks, bridges and flashy resorts.”

By “fancifully selective,” of course, Crowther meant that the film was Hellinger’s vision, and Hellinger was more drawn to mugs, thugs, and crooks than he was to schoolteachers or veterinarians. On the other hand, The Naked City is a police procedural (arguably the very first of its genre), and cops spend more time rousting crooks than they do schoolmarms.

The film is so thoroughly Hellinger’s vision that he narrates the film himself. After a guided nighttime tour of the city that never sleeps, full of his trademark witticisms and wry observations, he tells the viewer that his film will attempt to show “…the buildings in their naked stone, the people without makeup.”

The opening sequence introduces us to most of the film’s major players. (Whether or not the first-time viewer will catch everything, however, is another matter.) The two mugs murdering a beautiful young woman at 52 West 83rd Street, the charming Frank Niles (Howard Duff) and his fiancée Ruth Morrison (Dorothy Hart) out at a nightclub, young NYPD detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) and his wife Jane (Anne Sargent) and their young children at home in Jackson Heights, Queens, and the crotchety old Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald), whom we see in his undershirt and suspenders, preparing breakfast.

Most of Hellinger’s narration is engaging and fun to listen to. Some of it is even necessary, especially considering that The Naked City was released before Dragnet existed, even on the radio, and the finer points of police procedure might have been unknown to the average viewer. But there are aspects of his narration that don’t play so well. For instance, the images of the city and its inhabitants are powerful on their own. The overlay of Hellinger’s voice-over “thoughts” and “dialogue” for a variety of average New Yorkers captured on film just comes off as hokey.

The film’s biggest weakness, however, is its two leads. Some people find Barry Fitzgerald charming, but I find his whole grumpy leprechaun shtick as Det. Lt. Muldoon — essentially the same role he played as a priest in Going My Way (1944) — annoying. But at least he has a personality, unlike Don Taylor, who plays Muldoon’s young partner and protégé Det. Halloran. Taylor has a “golly gee shucks” attitude and not much else. He also doesn’t seem to know what to do with his face when he’s on camera but doesn’t have any lines.

Taylor and Fitzgerald and their dialogue undercut much of the vérité quality of the film, but certainly don’t ruin anything. As a cinematic experience, I don’t think The Naked City is as satisfying as Brute Force, but it’s still a tremendously entertaining, well-made picture. When Dassin and Hellinger allow the action to speak for itself, as they do in the final, bravura chase along the Williamsburg Bridge, the film is untouchable.

The Naked City was nominated for three Academy Awards; Best Story (Malvin Wald), Best Cinematography, Black and White (William H. Daniels), and Best Film Editing (Paul Weatherwax). It won in the categories of Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.

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And Then There Were None (Oct. 31, 1945)

Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, originally published in England in 1939 under the unfortunate title Ten Little Niggers, is tied with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the second best-selling novel of all time (only J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has sold more copies). This makes it the most widely read mystery novel of all time, so hopefully nothing I say here will be giving much away. (But don’t worry … I’m not going to reveal “whodunnit.”)

In And Then There Were None, eight people are invited to an island off the coast of Devon by a Mr. and Mrs. “U.N. Owen.” (Get it?) When the guests arrive, they are informed that Mr. Owen is away, and that the guests will be attended to by servants Thomas and Ethel Rogers, bringing the cast of characters up to ten.

Even 70 years ago, the N-word was a more sensitive topic in America than it was in England. Presumably because of this, the novel was published in the U.S. as And Then There Were None in 1940, the name of the island was changed from “Nigger Island” to “Indian Island,” and the song that provides the structure of the story was changed from the original, which had been a standard of blackface minstrel shows since 1869, to “Ten Little Indians”:

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in half and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Indian boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Indian boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two Little Indian boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Indian boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

Each guest finds a framed copy of this gruesome little poem in his or her room, and is informed over dinner, via a phonograph record, that everyone on the island has gotten away with murder in one way or other, and that all are going to pay. Then the fun begins, as the characters are dispatched in the manner of the rhyme. The first guest drinks cyanide at dinner (choking), the second has an overdose of sleeping pills (oversleeping), the third declares that no one will leave the island and soon after is bludgeoned (one said he’d stay there), and so on.

The novel is a case of truth in advertising. At the end, all the characters are dead. The film is somewhat lighter, and allows a couple of them to escape unharmed. It follows Christie’s own 1943 stage adaptation of her novel, which softened the grim denouement. Given what’s come before, however, the happy ending feels like a bit of a cheat, and modern viewers might find themselves rolling their eyes at the finale.

And Then There Were None is still a great little mystery picture, though, and its cast of veteran character actors play their parts to the hilt. The film occasionally borders on farce, but never in a bad way. I especially enjoyed Walter Huston’s performance as the quietly maniacal Dr. Armstrong, but Louis Hayward as the cat-like Lombard and Barry Fitzgerald as the phlegmatic Judge Quinncannon are both memorable, as well.