"There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them": Procedurality and The Naked City

Curator's Note

From the moment of its release in March 1948, Jules Dassin’s enigmatic police procedural The Naked City stood as one in a series of adaptations.  The title, taken from Weegee’s 1945 collection of semi-documentary photographs, aligns the film with this aesthetic of isolated, tabloid shots sequenced in order to depict the larger flows of New York.  Later, Dassin’s film inspired the successful 1958-63 ABC tv series also known as The Naked City.  The film’s famous closing line––“There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them”––was simply itching for a serial treatment.  Each week, this catchphrase would restore the city to a place of equilibrium after each of its episodic emergencies.  But the translation of The Naked City from photography to cinema to television wasn’t primarily accomplished using a common grammar of storyline or characters.  Rather, The Naked City “universe” is held together by a specific form of procedurality, one which integrates the narration of crime and its detection into a larger effort to map the whole of “the city itself.”

The opening sequence of Dassin’s film, shown here, provides us with a distributed eye over the passage of one night into day.  In two minutes, we range from the heights of an airplane—which along with the omniscient narrator provides the reassurance of someone, somewhere monitoring this situation—all the way down to a truck spraying the day’s filth down the gutters.  But among the interleaving stories that take place at that very moment throughout the city, the murder of Jean Dexter (as well as another, related murder) remains seemingly undifferentiated.  “And even this too can be called routine in a city of eight million people…”

The scenes that space out the events of the primary murder plot distinguish The Naked City from other police procedurals. While these micro-narratives provide the crime with temporal dimensions we might not otherwise have access to, they are not causally related to the murder itself.  The routine lives of eight million people (i.e. stories) provide the complex background against which the main plot must be then ferreted out by the police.  Thus the work of detection involves selecting this single sequence amid the noise of eight million others. 

However, interrogation, forensics, and police patrol constitute only one dimension of the overarching procedure of The Naked City.  In order to depict the city as a system constantly refined and remade, the film proceeds through transportation infrastructures, domestic life, and communication networks.  For instance, the event of Dexter’s murder, once broadcast (~5:45), is amplified with electric speed through telephone and telegraph switchboards so that it might be traced back to its origins through the much slower workings of police procedure.  (The switchboard is an eminently cinematic device, one which can be located at the very beginnings of narrative film.  It’s connection of remote spaces along a unified timeline provided the dimensions by which audiences could accept the reality of the cross-cut.  See D.W. Griffith’s “The Lonely Villa” [1909].  Dassin’s switchboard sequence thus provides us not only with an archaeology of postwar police procedure but of diegetic technique in general). Plugging individual jacks into particular telephone extensions provides a form of narrative selection amid background noise distinct from the selection the police eventually do in the film (unlike the feedback between technology and detection detailed in Amelie Hastie’s post).

Procedure in The Naked City provides an occasion to network the affordances of many different mediatic imaginaries, so that the switchboard, tabloid journalism, cinematic and televisual narrative, and police detection (one form of which was so nicely anatomized in Jules Odendahl-James’s post) might be experienced as a whole.  As an overarching technologic, procedurality aligns these depicted and depicting media toward a common pursuit.  It allows us to see patterns in the contours of the individual story (or life) as it traverses a range of intersecting media worlds.


Grant --

What a great post to remind us how much Dassin's film really sets the pulse for big and little screen crime narratives. I was struck by how many crime TV series dedicate at least one episode to exploring the crossing "wires" of crime and investigation. I'm thinking of the Law & Order episode "Mayhem" from Season 4, CSI episode "4X4" from Season 5. And then I think of my beloved Homicide which I think really captures the simultaneity of a city, and its crimes, and its investigators. Not only were there story arcs that spread across seasons, but multiple episodes juggled more than just the typical main/sub plot structure. Although there's a minimal invocation of technology (though the camcorder -- and its operator, Brody -- became a series regular around Season 5), whenever I think of Homicide I think of the phone, the rings that punctuate what is a brilliant and bleak audioscape. Another call, another case, another crime, another cry.

I'm also glad to be reminded of what Naked City does with technology, and as Jules notes, there is often an echo of the film's opening in TV procedurals: not only in the multiple storylines of "4x4" or "Viva Las Vegas" episodes of CSI, but in the opening shots of the Vegas (or Miami, or Manhattan) skyline which in effect visualizes a snapshot of the naked city before the camera zooms in on one of the many thousand of stories.

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