Naked City
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   G R A N T   T R A C E Y

Naked City is a stylish, fast-moving police detective show, worthy of revisiting. Image Entertainment has packaged two volumes (four episodes each) from the 1960-61 season, the television series' second year and its first in an hour-long format. Freckle-faced, Irish-looking Paul Burke (his first year with the show) stars as idealistic Detective Adam Flint and Horace McMahon stars as his crusty boss Lieutenant Mike Parker. (In the series' first season, James Franciscus and John McIntire took the lead roles and the drama was confined to 30 minutes.)

Much better than the 1948 movie (Barry Fitzgerald is too cloying; Don Taylor too invisible; and the voiceover narrator too damn cute), this action-oriented TV show set standards that cop programs still follow. Shot in and around New York, the series has a gritty and authentic feel. Night-for-night photography enhances the haunting noir ambiance. The stories' tone varies from quirky to tragic and the emphasis balances following police procedures and revealing the master worlds of criminals.

What I especially like about the series is Paul Burke. He has a kind of quiet dignity: he cares about the people he tries to help, and he's not ambiguous. He's just a nice, hard-working guy. Recently, TV cops — from characters confused over their gender orientation on Homicide to those busting fifty-seven brands of civil liberties on The Shield — are dangerous rogues living on a razor's edge. They fall into the abyss and try to crawl back out. Often they don't make it and wallow in their own miseries. I've just had it with this kind of cop. Ambiguity is overrated and makes for easy, character-driven conflicts. There's something refreshingly old-fashioned and stable about watching a decent cop remain decent within a fallen world.

Volume One: A Death of Princes

"A Death of Princes" (10/12/60)

Eli Wallach guest stars as Banes, a twisted rogue cop, who in the gritty opening sequence guns down an unarmed criminal (Peter Falk in a bit part) atop a rooftop parking lot. Detective Flint saw the incident, and when he confronts Banes, the senior cop dismisses his actions with a laconic leer: "C'mon kid, it's Sunday."

Wallach is sensational in this episode with his condescending attitude, method acting angst, and generally repressed violence. He's ready to explode with electrical charge in any scene.

What weighs him down slightly is a poor script by Stirlng Silliphant. The dialogue is flat and mannered. In one blackmail scene, in which Banes forces three characters with criminal pasts into a heist operation that he is planning, Banes and boxer Tony Bacallas (George Maharis) have the following exchange.

Bacallas: I was just a kid.
Banes: So was Billy. Billy the kid!

The dialogue here is forced and overly obstreperous. It draws attention to itself in its attempt to link with a western outlaw and some kind of dramatic significance that just isn't attained. However, the real dramatic force (outside of Wallach's acting) is in the story's police drama plot: Lt. Parker asks Flint to spy on his partner Banes, to find out what nefarious activities the latter may be involved with. Flint feels like an informer and he's troubled, but Sarah, a friend of Adam's girlfriend Libby (Nancy Malone), tells him that she would accept Parker's mission: "Of course I would . . . man's a social animal, Adam, with responsibilities for which he's accountable." Please. Do people really talk this way?

Anyway, Flint heeds Sarah's advice and the ending is flashy and exciting, but what I really like is the post-shootout scene. Flint has just killed a man and as he walks the streets of New York with Libby he's quietly anguished. "Something happened to you . . . what happened?" Libby asks, and Adam looks down, hands in pockets, and says, "I'll tell you about it. But not now." This is a sensitive police detective, a man who knows his duty but also has a sense of decorum. The scene is rich in understatement and as the couple walks in quiet, the Times Square news ticker flashes details in green light. Wow.

"Debt of Honor" (11/23/60)

This is an immigrant love story. Nick Moray (Steve Cochran in a sympathetic role) is a high-stakes gambler with one foot in crime and the other in legit society. As a favor to an avuncular friend, he brings Marissa (Lois Nettleton) from the old country to America. Marissa, played with wide-eyed beauty and restraint by Nettleton (who never once breaks out of her Italian accent), thinks Nick has arranged for her to be his bride. Nick has no such plans, but the poignancy in this episode is watching Marissa assert her rights and Nick eventually falling in love with her.

Oh, and there's a gangland plot underneath the whole thing. Something to do with double crosses, murder, and a former partner trying to do away with another partner. But who cares. It's the love story that keeps this episode perking along.

"The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half" (12/14/60)

This is the weakest episode on volume one. There's a lot of attention dedicated to watching a jewel heist unfold, including a moment out of Lex Luthor and Superman comic books as Luther Adler with a big, flashing gizmo opens up a safe by speeding up the time lock's pulses with an alternating current.

Director Buzz Kulik gives us some flashy camera play, including exquisite night-for-night photography and oblique angles in mirrors, and Adler, as a Eastern-European type heavy (so many of the heavies in Naked City are from that part of the world-no doubt a nod to the day's Cold War concerns) is truly menacing in his bloodlust for diamonds. In one brash moment, Adler even uses his wheelchair to clip a doctor in order to get information from him!

Walter Matthau's miscast as a jilted husband. As he shouts at his untrustworthy wife, "Give me that bracelet!" Matthau seems to be a contradictory mix of gangland mayhem and Oscar Madison.

But the ending of the episode makes it all worth viewing. One of the criminal masterminds, Koersel (Michael Shillo), lost his diamond cutting skills some time ago. He wants to get them and his manhood back, and in the final scene, in which the gang has the valuable Paraquat diamond, Koersel stays on task. His gangster pals fall around him, and as Parker and Flint close in, Koersel successfully cuts the diamond, preserving his dignity. "You see," he says with triumph.

"Murder is a Face I Know" (1/11/61)

If "The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half" is the weakest episode on volume one, this humdinger is the best. "Murder is a Face I Know" explores life in the suburbs and questions our comfort and quest for normalcy. Theodore Bikel plays Nicholas Ross, a model husband who loves his basketball star son Joey (Keir Dullea-look carefully at the scenes on the court: Dullea can't dribble!), but he has a secret life: he's a hit man for the mob!

Following a warm cozy sequence in the Ross's kitchen (son sinking hoops through dad's open arms and mom smiling at their camaraderie), Nicholas Ross says he has to deliver a package, and then he proceeds to the Hudson River and knocks off five men, including the driver of the skip boat who took him there!

The rest of the episode follows Joey Ross discovering his father's past and accepting him for who he is. The contradictions are immense. On his way to visit his dad, Joey tells Flint aboard a ferry boat, "My father never raised his hand or his voice to me. I've never been hit." Flint nods, turns his back to the camera and laconically looks at the skyline.

At the jail, writer Howard Rodman delivers more edgy dialogue. Joey confronts his dad, and the father hardens. "You want me to explain . . . go to hell." But the son's love for his father is unconditional. "I love you, Pop," he avows. "My name is Joseph Ross." The dad refuses his son's communion. "My name is Nicholas Roginski. So how could we be father and son?" A lot of immigrants changed their last name to fit into the WASP mainstream, but here the name-game history is used for purposes of permanent separation between the old-war past and the new-world American Dream.

Director Arthur Hiller dishes up some great visuals, including several quick-paced action scenes (the opening Hudson murders) and a later shootout on the sidewalks of New York, featuring fine filtered light imbuing the scene with poetry.

Oh, and remember what I said about Adam Flint as a caring cop, a man of dignity? The episode ends with him attending a Ross family funeral. He's the only cop in attendance. Flint feels for the families he tries to help and he believes in paying respects to the living and the dead.

Volume Two: Button in the Haystack

"A Hole in the City" (2/1/61)

Naturalistic and full of fatal determinism, "A Hole in the City" tells us from the outset that the narrative is heading toward death, or as the voiceover forewarns: "And thus began the last day on earth of Lewis Nunda."

The downward arc of the narrative is spooky and apocalyptic. The episode begins with a high-angled car chase, gun fire, men running up a wall of stairs that looks like a setting used in Force of Evil, Flint diving into snow and returning fire, a gangster falling to his death, and the remaining three getting into a second getaway car. But where to from there?

Caught in their old Bronx neigborhood, near Yankee Stadium, Nunda (Robert Duvall in a performance that has that same surreal light surrounding his expressions and mannerisms of his later Col. Kilgore) turns inward, finding his aunt (Sylvia Sidney) and journeying into his troubled past.

While hiding out, Nunda, with theatrical lighting (the background fades to black), recalls past demons, playing football, getting his pants torn, not having money, and trying to grab diamonds out of his uncle's hands. These destabilizing moments (with their canted frames and Duvall, in one memory flashback, kneeling down to observe his younger seven-year-old self) are creepy and feel like they belong in The Three Faces of Eve or Sybil.

As Nunda tries to makes sense of his past, the police close in and Nunda takes hostages. He even brutally kills a sickly man to hold off the police. "It's a stinkin' world," he tells the stranger, "and we're going to make you well," he promises before shooting him and sending him tottering over the railing.

The hostage situation intensifies, Nunda has an epiphany, courtesy of his aunt, and he winds up doing the right thing. As he dies, in a moment of overwritten angst, courtesy of Howard Rodman, he shouts, "Everything is nothing!" Every note in Rodman's script is right except that one!

Anyway, as Detective Flint, a product of the Bronx, observes Nunda's body atop the apartment roof, director David Lowell Rich, cuts to a low-angle shot. "I did know him. He went to the same school as I did," Flint says, the shadows of TV antennas behind him. Flint's moved by the personal connection, and we are moved by just how sadly invisible Nunda was as a child. He wasn't noted. As an adult, and a killer, he sadly is.

"Button in the Haystack" (2/22/61)

A kind of love story, "Button in the Haystack" is somewhat slow-moving. Len Brewer (Albert Salmi) works as a gas-station attendant. A killing takes place at the station, and because he's on parole and afraid of being a suspect, Brewer ditches his .45 onto the bed of a nearby parked truck. A woman sees him and following her lead the police assume that Brewer did the killing and arrest him. His unfired gun is his alibi, but the truck has driven off and no one can find it.

Flint, the compassionate cop, doesn't fall in line with his fellow officers. He believes in Brewer. In the paddy wagon, he pushes Brewer, asking him to think what makes that truck specific and different. Brewer recalls two bumper stickers, "a short life, a long life," and the rest of the episode details Flint's desperate search for the unfired .45.

One of the joys of this episode is watching Salmi and his then wife Peggy Ann Garner working together as an onscreen couple. The "Nest Egg" sequence is truly poignant. Len pulls from his closet a box containing $1200. "Oh, baby, I'm so ashamed," he tells his wife as he avows his love for her. "I wasn't going to share it with you, but now I want you to have it." The money was his escape hatch, if he wanted out of the relationship. But he truly loves his wife and he wants to stay with her. Rodman, I believe is the series's best writer, because he so deftly balances violent tension with moments of this kind of dialectical quiet.

"Shoes for Vinnie Winford" (3/1/61)

Paul Burke's Adam Flint is a working-class hero. As he visits the home of the sadistic Vinnie (Dennis Hopper in another one of his crazed, over-the-top looney tune roles), he has a direct confab with Vinnie's mom. When she objects to his questions and attitudes, he says, "I'm not a guest in your home. I'm a policeman here on police business." When she asks for special rules for her privileged son, he says, "I don't have three or four attitudes. I have one, the same for everybody." When she questions his values and methods, Flint stands and punctuates his actions by saying that her words "were offensive and intended." Burke is never preachy. Instead, his character is resolute and moral.

Flint always has compassion for the downtrodden. Ruby (Hilda Brawner), a former Winford dancehall girl, says that her roommate was maybe killed by Vinnie. But no record of the roomie working at the club exists, and none of the other girls ever heard of her. Whereas everyone else thinks that Ruby is a little crazed (and she is residing at Bellevue), Flint kneels down next to her, looks into her eyes, and says, "I've got a hunch about this, but I can't do anything without proof. Now think and think hard." She recalls a check she wrote for the missing girl, and Flint has what he now needs to put pressure on Winford.

His pursuit of Vinnie is grounded in his sense of egalitarian justice. Vinnie, who has a momma complex and feels trapped in the shadow of his dead father (he even throws an inkwell at his father's portrait in one of the episode's early scenes), takes out his frustrations on women. His dancehall women are his "fillies," property. He harasses them, forcing them to lie to the police. But he beat up one dancer real bad, and he's hiding her out at a hospital. No rich privilege is going to shield him from Flint who seeks to find the girl and, by extension, punish Vinnie's transgressions.

"Vengeance is a Wheel" (3/15/61)

Director Elliot Silverstein delivers a tragic punch in this ripe, Italian-family melodrama. Nino Licosa (Ben Piazza) and Mario Licosa (Paul Stevens) are brothers whose father, a dockside security guard, was murdered by three thieves. Instead, of seeking help from the police, Mario wants to solve the matter with his own hands. Well, vengeance has its consequences, and in the end Mario, attempting to execute the remaining two thieves, inadvertently kills his brother, who was seeking to stop him.

The episode is marred by a kind of thematic overwriting (the title, an Italian phrase, sort of tells it all: he who seeks vengeance will have the wheel turn on himself). But there are some great scenes, including one night-for-night sequence in which the crooked DeLage (Pierre Epstein) is hung upside down from a hoist and dunked into the Hudson. Near drowning, DeLage confesses the names of the thieves that he had hired. And the ending, after the inadvertent killing, is a stunning reverse tracking shot. Flint, hands at his sides, walks out of the garage, as men gather around the dead. Alone, Flint puts his gloves on, and in anguish, opens his mouth, repressing his tears. Early in this episode Flint had found a lost girl (Jenny) and had brought her home to Mario and his neighborhood. Now he knows that her home with her father and their neighborhood will never be the same.

In Closing ...

I highly recommend both volumes of this fine series. Yes, the writing is at times a little hokey, but the acting, especially by the guest stars, is first rate. I also enjoy the stunning use of New York locales (from Yankee Stadium to the Flat Iron Building), Paul Burke's consistent character and Bronx accent, the mix of moods (love stories to tragic grit), the swift-paced action, the vintage 1961 cars covered in salt stains and mud (these aren't collectibles, these are functional vehicles) and the voiceover narrator, always ending with the same mantra: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." Well, this is eight of them, and they're all mighty good to me.

The DVDs contain no bonus features. Maybe in the future, Image could include some voiceover commentary from some of the series' actors, writers, and directors. And I certainly hope more 4-episode volumes will be made available. Perhaps, Image will also consider making other great cop/detective noir available for us fans of the genre. Johnny Staccato, maybe? M Squad? Image, are you listening?

Naked City: Death of Princes and Naked City: Button in the Haystack are now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. Each disc incluces four episodes. A Death of Princes includes the following episodes: "Death of Princes" (Ep. 40, October 12, 1960) starring Eli Wallach and George Maharis; "Debt of Honor" (Ep. 46, November 23, 1960) starring Steve Cochran and Lois Nettleton; "The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half" (Ep. 48, December 14, 1960) starring Walter Matthau; and "Murder Is a Face I Know" (Ep. 50, January 11, 1961) starring Theodore Bikel and Keir Dullea. Button in the Haystack includes the following epidodes: "A Hole in the City" (Ep. 52, February 1, 1961) starring Robert Duvall and Sylvia Sidney; "Button in the Haystack" (Ep. 55, February 22, 1961) starring Albert Salmi; "Shoes for Vinnie Winford" (Ep. 56, March 1, 1961) starring Dennis Hopper; and "Vengeance Is a Wheel" (Ep. 58, March 15, 1961) starring Paul Stevens and Ben Piazza. Suggested retail price: $14.99 each. For more information, check out the Image Entertainment Web site.