Shot in the Naked City: Cinematic Mysteries and Film Noir Before 1960

Movies and television programs that film on location in New York are fairly ubiquitous these days. Walking through the city it's easy to stumble upon movie crews and their rows of equipment and catering trucks and rolls of cable necessary for shooting a scene. Contemporary audiences come to expect that a story set in New York should include recognizable streets and landmarks such as Grand Central Terminal, the Metropolitan Museum, the United Nations, Times Square and so forth. Yet, filming on location has not always been a requirement for a movie set in a particular place. The Thin Man, for example, as previously discussed, was shot in Hollywood, relying on references in the dialogue to situate the story along Fifth Avenue and the east side.

The earliest days of cinema before the move to Hollywood did feature real New York locations from time to time, as the city was the center of filmmaking from 1895 to 1910. For a glimpse of New York in 1901, just have a look at "What happened on Twenty-third Street, New York City" by Thomas Edison (Library of Congress). There are more short films like this one from the early era. The availability of talent on the Broadway stage provided a convenient local source for actors and stage personnel. Outside the city, places like Fort Lee, New Jersey and Cuddebackville, New York became popular for their picturesque natural scenery, providing excellent substitutes for imagining the Wild West. By the 1920s, the Astoria Studios in Queens, built by Paramount Pictures, turned out several films, including the Marx Brothers' first features (see extended post on Astoria and the Marx Brothers), but the productions normally stayed inside the walls of the studio. By the early 1930s New York as a center of filmmaking lost out to Hollywood.

The popularity of mysteries, crime dramas and the film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, however,  benefited from the look of a real city, and setting the story in recognizable urban locations contributed to the sensation of real suspense. One of the first directors to reengage audiences with a real New York was none other than Alfred Hitchcock. With Saboteur (1942), a story about a wartime munitions worker falsely accused of sabotage, the director made use of several New York locations, including the finale at the Statue of Liberty. One of the memorable scenes in Spellbound (1945) takes place at Grand Central Terminal. Many more Hitchcock films exploit the tensions naturally available on crowded urban streets. Movies by other directors would soon follow.
Shot in the Naked City: Cinematic Mysteries and Film Noir Before 1960

The Naked City (1948) In the book Scenes From the City: Filmmaking in New York (Rizzoli, 2006), editor James Sanders writes of this film's breakthrough as "a talking picture shot almost entirely on location in New York." No less than 107 separate locations - from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side - were used for the story. The crime drama focused on efforts by the Homicide Division to find the killer of a young woman, a basic premise that would be duplicated a thousand times and more in subsequent television dramas. A final chase sequence takes places on the Williamsburg Bridge.

• Force of Evil (1948) This film noir directed and co-written by Abraham Polonsky stars John Garfield as a lawyer who compromises his own morality when he defends a powerful gangster. For those annoyed by the relentless and often manufactured cheer of the happy holiday season, please take note of the review of the film in the New York Times from December 27, 1948:

Force of Evil"It may be that "Force of Evil," which opened at Loew's State on Christmas Day, is not the sort of picture that one would choose for Yuletide cheer. It's a cold, hard, relentless dissection of a bitter, aggressive young man who let's himself get in too deep as the lawyer for a "policy racket" gang. And as such it is full of vicious people with whom the principal boy associates, it reeks of greed and corruption and it ends in death and despair."

The death and despair do end in a scary scene near the George Washington Bridge. For hardened realists, Force of Evil would be a good movie to cue up on Christmas Day. As an additional note, the film's director was subsequently blacklisted by the studios, forcing him to lose work and write screenplays under pseudonyms. He later wrote the screenplay Madigan (1968) under his own name, but he remained a committed leftist until the day he died in 1999.

Pickup on South Street (1953) "How many times you've been caught with your hand where it doesn't belong?" Writer and director Samuel Fuller drew upon his experience as a New York City crime reporter to set this Cold War police detective drama near the seaport in lower Manhattan. Starring Richard Widmark ("as Skip, the pickpocket who got his fingers into everything"), Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter, the movie follows Widmark as he becomes the target for Communists.

Killer's Kiss (1955) One powerful sequence for writer and director Stanley Kunrick's early film is set under the beautiful canopy of the tragically demolished Penn Station, the McKim, Mead and White masterpiece from 1910. The film noir centers on a New York boxer as he tries to protect a dancer from the grip of her evil boss.

The Wrong Man (1956) Alfred Hitchcock again makes use of Gotham locations in yet another story of mistaken identity. This time a musician in New York's Stork Club (played by Henry Fonda) is confused by the police for a robber. The stress of his arrest and the subsequent trial causes his wife to suffer a nervous breakdown. Based on the true story of "Manny" Balestrero and a book by Maxwell Anderson, locations in the film include the Stork Club at 3 East 53rd Street near Fifth Avenue, City Prison in Queens, Balestrero's home in Jackson Heights on 74th Street, and several bars and delis in Brooklyn and Queens. Bernard Herrmann's score accentuates the anxiety of mistaken identity.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
I've recently written a post about this memorable film noir, describing it as "a dark tone poem about the moral hazards accompanying the nearsighted pursuit of power, fame and fortune." Cinematographer James Wong Howe makes the night street scenes in New York look both fatally attractive and well, fatal.

Image: Screen capture from The Wrong Man (1956).

See related post: Thelma Ritter: An Appreciation


Laura S. said...

Thanks so much for this list. I found all the ones I haven't seen on Netflix. I am a huge John Garfield fan and can't wait to watch "Force of Evil". I also added Killer's Kiss and Pick up on South Street. I love all films that are filmed in NYC

Teri Tynes said...

Hi Laura S. So glad you found this list helpful. I'm a Garfield fan myself. The films go very well together, I think, and for New Yorkers, show parts of the city that are either gone or are slowly fading to black.

Laura S. said...

I was born and raised in New York and have a deep love for its history. I enjoy seeing real location shoots and these early ones are particularly interesting. Thanks again for all you do. I follow your blog regularly. I live in NJ now but love to come into the city regularly and walk around. Maybe we have passed each other in the Village.

Teri Tynes said...

Thanks again, Laura S., for reading WOTBA. Maybe we have walked by one another in the Village. Maybe one day we will both wind up in the background of a New York movie.

Laura S. said...

It just doesn't get better than that!

Flaneurbanite said...

I saw the quintessential Big Apple classic Breakfast At Tiffany's just last week - albeit, on stage, and in London. No real NYC scenes of course, but lots of beautiful classic Big Apple backdrops made the context come alive, even on stage. This post just took me back there. :)

Tom B said...

I've always wondered if people ever recreated NYC movie scenes on their home video camera, starring themselves. Like 'The Way We Were' in front of The Plaza and others. Scenes that are short and memorable.

Terry B, Blue Kitchen said...

An excellent post, Teri! Just last night we watched a French film noir, Touchez Pas au Grisbi, "Don't Touch the Loot." Now you've got me in the mood for NYC noir. A fascinating thing about the opening of The Naked City, by the way, is that the city is much less vertical, with far fewer skyscrapers. Almost looks like downtown Chicago.