Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hey, That’s Life in the Big City

My recent post about this month marking the 50th anniversary of Peter Gunn’s television debut brought a reminder from a friend of mine that September 2008 also happens to be the half-century anniversary of Naked City, an influential ABC-TV police procedural inspired by a 1948 black-and-white big-screen film noir of the same name. That series--which was really two series, broadcast successively from 1958 to 1963--focused on the doings of detectives from New York City’s 65th Precinct. It was first shown 50 years ago today.

Designed, according to its executive producer, Herbert B. Leonard, as “a human interest series about New York told through the eyes of two law enforcement officers,” Naked City was originally a half-hour Tuesday night series. It was also the first network series shot completely in New York City. A majority of its original scripts were written by Stirling Silliphant, who is better known nowadays for penning In the Heat of the Night, Marlowe, and The Poseidon Adventure. (Silliphant was also responsible for giving us the film Shaft in Africa and the unsuccessful TV pilot Travis McGee, but let’s try not to hold those against him.)

In its first incarnation, the program starred James Franciscus and John McIntire as the same two cops who’d been featured in the semi-documentary film The Naked City. It was a compact little crime drama bookended by a narrator’s voice telling us, first, that the series wasn’t filmed in a studio, but “in the streets and buildings of New York itself,” and closing with the assurance that “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” Unfortunately, an Emmy nomination for Best Drama did not protect Naked City from cancellation after its first year.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. At least one of the show’s sponsors encouraged producer Leonard to try again, this time within an hour-long format, and ABC was persuaded to finance the experiment. After being off the air for 13 months, Naked City returned to ABC in October 1960, this time on Wednesday nights. Gone in this second series were McIntire (who left the show following a dispute with Leonard) and Franciscus (who would turn up later in another Sillipant-scripted series, the blind-private-eye drama Longstreet.) They were replaced by Paul Burke, as Detective Adam Flint, and Harry Bellaver, playing Sergeant Frank Arcaro. As Silliphant grew busy penning scripts for Leonard’s newer production, Route 66 (1960-1964), additional writers were brought in to work on Naked City, including Howard Rodman (who later created the David Janssen TV serial Harry O) and a young Gene Roddenberry. Opening the series up to other writing voices and plotting ideas proved valuable, according to a profile of this show at the Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC) Web site:
With a company of serious writers and more time for story and character development, Naked City’s anthology flavor became even more pronounced. Stories became more character-driven, with a more central focus on transient characters (i.e., “guest stars”), and more extended psychological exploration. This dimension of the show was informed by a distinctive roster of guest stars, from well-known Hollywood performers like Claude Rains and Lee J. Cobb, and character players like Eli Wallach, Maureen Stapleton, and Walter Matthau, to such up-and-coming talents as Diahann Carroll and Dustin Hoffman. A 1962 Time profile called the series’ array of stars “the best evidence that Naked City is not just another cop show.” Its stories provided even stronger evidence. Naked City’s structure placed less emphasis on investigation and police work than did police-procedurals in the Dragnet mold--and less emphasis on the detectives themselves. As Todd Gitlin has put it, on Naked City “the regular cops faded into the background while the foreground belonged to each week’s new character in the grip of the city.”

With its stories generally emphasizing the points-of-view of the criminals, victims, or persons-in-crisis, Naked City exhibited a more complicated and ambiguous vision of morality and justice than traditional policiers, where good and bad were clear-cut. Most of the characters encountered by Flint and Arcaro were simply people with problems, who stumbled up against the law by accident or ill fortune; when the occasional hit man, bank robber, or jewel thief was encountered, they too were humanized, their motives and psyches probed. However, sociopaths and career crooks were far outnumbered by more mundane denizens of the naked city, thrust into crisis by circumstance: an innocent ex-con accused of murder; a disfigured youth living in the shadows of the tenements; a Puerto Rican immigrant worn down by poverty and unemployment; a lonely city bureaucrat overcome by suicidal despair; a junior executive who kills over a parking space; a sightless boy on an odyssey through the streets of Manhattan. Eight million stories--or at least 138 as dramatized in this series--rooted in the sociology and psychology of human pain.
Other now-familiar stars who once guested on Naked City: Peter Falk, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Robert Redford, William Shatner, Mildred Natwick, Jack Warden, and Dustin Hoffman. They were likely drawn to the show by its unusual storytelling techniques and its willingness to see criminals as three-dimensional figures, not simply stereotypes against whom to launch stern-jawed law-enforcement types. The other distinctive characteristic of Naked City, as the MBC article points out, was that while “every episode of Dragnet ended with the record of a trial (and usually a conviction), Naked City was seldom able to resolve its stories quite so easily. The series offered narrative closure, but no easy answers; it did not pretend to solve social problems, nor did it mute, defuse, or mask them. Although some episodes ended with guarded hope, happy endings were rare; resolutions were just as likely to be framed in melancholy bemusement or utter despair. Naked City’s ‘solution’ was to admit that there are no solutions--at least none that could be articulated in the context of its own dramatic agenda.”

Although it was finally canceled at the end of the 1962-1963 season, Naked City helped set the stage for a long succession of compassion-tinged urban crime dramas to come, among them The Defenders, Police Story, Homicide: Life on the Street, and NYPD Blue. Nowadays, many TV viewers either don’t remember Naked City (which, as a small boy, I thought must be about some metropolis-size nudist colony), or they don’t recognize its influence. Fortunately, three sets of the series are now available on DVD. If you haven’t gotten Naked in the last 50 years, maybe it’s time you gave it a shot.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, BUT... how could you have forgotten the great Horace McMahon as Lt. Mike Parker? It was he who replaced John McIntire in the show's first season (Harry Bellaver's Arcaro was there all along). Here in Chicago two local stations, ME-TV (ch23) and MEtoo (ch48) are running the hour shows every night post-midnight; as noted, it's the TV equivalent of 'where's Waldo?'(The stations are also showing ROUTE 66.) While I'm at it, I'll throw in a brief mention of that narrator, who called himself 'Bert Leonard, the producer' but was in fact the omnipresent Lawrence Dobkin.

Anonymous said...

I believe pretty much (if not all) of the hour-long series is on DVD; but the original, and possibly even better, half-hour series with the Silliphant scripts is M.I.A.

Also, with all due respect -- SHAFT IN AFRICA is a terrific P.I. movie, and my favorite of the series.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

OK, Max, if you think Shaft in Africa is worth a second look, I shall add it to my Netflix list. I remember it as a disappointing follow-up to the original Shaft, but I am willing to be wrong. Perhaps my opinion of it, now that I'm a couple of decades older, will be different.


Wallace Stroby said...

NAKED CITY also spawned one of the early TV tie-in paperbacks (1959), with eight of Silliphant's scripts novelized in one volume by that old pro Charles Einstein (not so old at the time). Though Silliphant is credited as author on the spine, Einstein's name is on the title page. They read pretty well, even now. Very evocative of New York in that period.

Unknown said...

I have been watching this show on Me-TV for the past year. I remember it well as a kid and thought it great. Fifty years have not changed my opinion. Still a wonderful show. I enjoy such programing and believe that only the original 'Law and Order' and 'Law and Order: Criminal Intent' (the early edition) can compare. I have just treated myself to the full set of episodes from Amazon. Now I can watch it into my dotage!