Sunday, December 7, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Crime, Not Paying

The idea of location shooting in movies today -- especially with the technology available -- is commonplace. But when director Jules Dassin and producer Mark Hellinger decided to do it with the noirish crime procedural The Naked City in 1947, they were breaking new ground.

Dassin and Hellinger tell the story of homicide detectives from Manhattan's 10th precinct investigating the murder of a young woman, Jean Dexter. The experienced and canny Lt. Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) helps teach the naïve rookie Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) how to work a case as they use old-fashioned shoe leather clue hunting as well as misdirection to keep potential suspects on their toes. Jean's friend Frank Niles (Howard Duff) may know much more than he's saying, especially when what he's saying doesn't add up. But there's also the mysterious Mr. Henderson that no one can find.

Plot-wise, City is a pretty much by-the-book procedural -- no car chases and not a lot of fisticuffs or gunplay. Its major attraction is the slice of life of late 1940s New York City -- Dassin's crew would film street scenes from a van with tinted windows so that passers-by wouldn't realize they were in a movie and he could capture real-life behavior. Fitzgerald is, as always, a hoot even while he masks his wit under a happy-go-lucky Irish bumpkin cover, and Taylor is appropriately earnest as the new young detective (and he bears a resemblance to Chris Noth, who would later take up that same mantle during his original stint on Law & Order).

Dassin, Hellinger and screenwriters Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald wisely keep their simple tale short, so as not to weigh down the spectacular visuals with lingering in a plot that's admittedly not that deep. It helps a viewer appreciate this story, which is one of the eight million that Hellinger's narration assures us is in "the naked city."
Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) is a bounty hunter in the Old West, but he has a special mission besides making money. He looks at every capture for a way to find Frank (Lee Van Cleef), the outlaw who killed his wife several years ago. And now, by apprehending the dimwitted Billy (James Best), he has his lever -- because Frank and Billy are brothers. But the presence of the young widow Carrie (Karen Steele) will complicate Brigade's trek through the wilderness to bring Billy to justice and bring Frank to heel. So will gunmen Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn). They want the bounty for Billy as well, and Brigade knows they will have few scruples about how they get it. So even though he is surrounded by people, Brigade must Ride Lonesome in the 1959 Budd Boetticher-Harry Joe Brown production.

Scott, Boetticher and Brown had worked together several times and here create yet another unassuming-looking B-Western that pays as much attention to the crafts of acting, directing and movie-making as any auteur-driven piece from the forefront of artistic cinema. Brigade may be working on the side of the law, but he is a driven man rather than a good one -- he will place innocents at risk to gain his revenge. Frank is a bad man, but his concern for his brother is genuine and motivates him as much as anything else. Sam Boone has yet to decide how good or bad he will be, and the sparring between Roberts and Scott is a highlight of the movie. In only his third picture, Roberts is already very at ease on screen and that allows him to play off the hyper-taut and driven Scott to the benefit of both their characters. Steele lives up to her name and makes Carrie more than just an incongruously beautiful woman in the middle of nowhere. And in his debut, Coburn takes hold of his role in a way that would get him his eventual attention-grabbing spot in The Magnificent Seven, with Scott commenting on their first scene together, "I like his style."

Ride Lonesome is another example of how so-called genre pictures, in this case an old-fashioned horse opera, can demonstrate a level of craft and art equal to any acclaimed masterpiece, and how when well-done can prompt the same kind of reflection and consideration of the human condition and what it means. It's not two hours of a mime weeping -- Randolph Scott could crush a mime with his squint -- but it's just as thoughtful and a whole lot more fun to watch.

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