Kicking off last Friday, the series Naked City: New York Noir and Neorealism presents ten films, all of which were shot predominately on the streets and in the apartments of Kubrick’s native metropolis between the years 1945 and 1953. During the same period, Kubrick was documenting the changing face of the city, first in the pages of Look magazine and eventually on the screen with films such as Day of the Fight and Killer’s Kiss.
By working within such specific curatorial parameters, we had to exclude a number of notable film noirs because they either weren’t shot on location or they landed too late in the series’ time frame. As such, we were left with an intriguing cross-section of films. Many of them may not fully qualify as film noir by most people’s definition—although most people don’t have a definition of film noir as delightfully far-ranging as the late Raymond Durgnat, who finds noir to be the modern age’s answer to a “black” aesthetic dating back to Greek tragedy. Accordingly, we’ve broadened the series’ title to account for works filmed in the Big Apple that share the contours of film noir, particularly this sub-strand of films shot in situ, but lack its fatalistic DNA and gangland grit.
This Friday, the series enters its second weekend with Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, perhaps the purest noir in the lot due in part to the vertiginous decline of its trench-coat-clad anti-hero (Dana Andrews, all darting eyes and clenched jaw) as well as its claustrophobic, after-hours atmosphere. (Preminger’s film is also the most studio-bound effort in the series.)
One-upping Preminger’s austerity while subtracting Sidewalk’s hard-boiled patois, Russell Rouse’s The Thief is a nervous Cold War thriller about an esteemed nuclear scientist (Ray Milland, anxious) who is spying for an unnamed foreign enemy. Entirely devoid of dialogue and punctuated by the chiming refrain of unanswered telephones, The Thief offers a sparse, existentialist portrait of an increasingly desperate fugitive for whom New York is an ever-contracting, labyrinthine prison.
The film that rests most squarely in the neorealist camp also happens to follow a protagonist on the run: Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive has a threadbare plot-a little boy hides out in Coney Island over the course of a bustling summer day-but a surfeit of personality and local color. This pint-sized drifter, roaming the boardwalk’s Carny wonderland and adjoining soda-bottle strewn beach, is Brooklyn’s precursor to The 400 Blows‘ Antoine Doinel.
Rounding out Saturday’s “kid noir” double-bill is The Window, in which Bobby Driscoll tries to prove that his upstairs tenement neighbors are murderers. Ted Tetzlaff‘s film is set in a pocket of New York at once overcrowded and vacant, an uninhabited wasteland that best resembles a city abandoned in haste after a catastrophe.
The series’ final weekend begins with two films set on the city’s periphery in which brothers betray one another in ruthless cons, and curiously both films have connections to the Hollywood blacklist: Elia Kazan’s ripped-from-the-headlines urban opera On the Waterfront (“a film noir, given Brando’s negativsm and anguished playing,” pace Durgnat) and its spiritual precursor: Abraham Polonsky’s taut and tragic Force of Evil.
After these two portraits of internecine strife, the series closes with a curious duo of hot-footed journeys in and around Times Square on the heels of terse outliers: a heavy-hearted ex-boxer (Killer’s Kiss) and a war-traumatized stowaway (The Glass Wall). Without a darkly charismatic figure like Marlon Brando or John Garfield to anchor them, these films place the congested vastness of New York front and center, a city as unpredictable as any flesh and blood femme fatale.
Bernardo Rondeau, Assistant Curator, Film