Naked City, which had two incarnations between 1958 and 1963, was one of American television's most innovative police shows, and one of its most important and influential drama series. More character anthology than police procedural, the series blended the urban policier a la Dragnet with the urban pathos of the Studio One school of television drama, offering a mix of action-adventure and Actors' Studio, car chases and character studies, shoot-outs and sociology, all filmed with arresting starkness on the streets of New York.
The series was inspired by the 1948 "semi-documentary" feature, The Naked City (which borrowed its title from the photographic collection by urban documentarist/crime photographer Weegee). Independent producer Herbert Leonard (The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers, Circus Boy) developed the idea as a half-hour series for Screen Gems, hiring writer Stirling Silliphant for the pilot script. Leonard outlined his plan for the series to Variety in 1958 as an attempt to tell anthology-style stories within the framework of a continuing-character show. It was to be "a human interest series about New York," the producer declared, "told through the eyes of two law enforcement officers." Leonard's agenda for the series' setting was equally unique: it would be shot completely on location in New York, duplicating the trend-setting realism of its feature film progenitor. This was an ambitious, if not radical, move at this moment in television history, for although New York still retained a significant presence as the site of variety shows, a few live anthologies, and the quiz programs, no other telefilm dramas were being produced there at the time.
Naked City's first season on ABC presented 39 taut, noirish half-hours (31 scripted by Silliphant) that mixed character drama, suspense, and action. The characters for the series' two regular detectives were carried over from the feature film: Lt. Dan Muldoon (John McIntire), the seasoned veteran, and his idealistic young subordinate, Detective Jim Halloran (James Franciscus). When creative differences arose between McIntire and Leonard at mid-season, Muldoon was written out of the series via a fiery car crash, and replaced as the 65th Precinct's father-figure by crusty Lt. Mike Parker (Horace MacMahon). The show's signature was its narrator, who introduced each episode with the assurance that the series was not filmed in a studio, but "in the streets and buildings of New York itself," and returned thirty minutes later to intone the series' famous tag-line (also borrowed from the feature): "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them."
Despite an Emmy nomination for Best Drama, Naked City's downbeat dramatics did not generate adequate ratings, and it was canceled. Unlike other failed shows, however, Naked City was not forgotten. In the fall of 1959 one of the show's former sponsors urged producer Leonard to mount Naked City for the following season in hour-long form. The sponsor's interest led ABC to finance the pilot, and in Fall 1960 Leonard was at the helm of two hour-long prime-time drama series (the other being Route 66 at CBS).
New York remained the show's most distinctive star, and extensive location shooting remained its trademark. Horace MacMahon returned as Lt. Parker, but with a different compassionate young colleague, Detective Adam Flint (Paul Burke), who was partnered with good-natured Sgt. Frank Arcaro (Harry Bellaver), and engaged to aspiring actress Libby Kingston (Nancy Malone). Silliphant wrote the pilot, and stayed on as executive story consultant, but wrote fewer scripts due to his heavy involvement with Route 66. Leonard brought in anthology veteran Howard Rodman as story editor and frequent scripter, and was able to attract other writers with a penchant for social drama, including anthology alumni like Ernest Kinoy and Mel Goldberg, Hollywood blacklistees such as Arnold Manoff (writing as "Joel Carpenter"), Abram Ginnes, and Ben Maddow--and budding TV auteurs like Gene Roddenberry.
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.
Naked City revised the traditional cop-show commitment to crime and punishment. Unlike their prime-time counterparts Joe Friday and Eliot Ness, Detectives Flint and Arcaro did not toil in the grim pursuit of "facts" with which to solve cases and incarcerate criminals. Rather, they pondered human puzzles, bore witness to suffering, and meditated on the absurdities of urban existence. With compassion more typical of TV doctors than TV detectives, they brought justice to the innocent, helped lost souls fit back into society, and agonized over broken lives they could not fix. Indeed, as critic David Boroff put it in an essay on "TV's Problem Play," the detectives of Naked City were "as much social workers as cops."
Whereas 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. "One of its strengths," wrote Boroff in 1966, "was that it said nothing which is neatly paraphraseable. It was, in truth, Chekhovian in its rueful gaze at people in the clutch of disaster. Naked City was, in essence, a compassionate--not a savage--eye. This I have seen, it said."
Naked City was one of ABC's most prestigious shows during the early sixties, nominated for "Outstanding Achievement in Drama" Emmy every season it was on the air, and winning several Emmies for editing and cinematography. The series was canceled at the end of the 1962-63 season, but its influence was already clear. In its day, it paved the way for the serious, urban dramas that followed a la The Defenders, and East Side, West Side, and sparked a modest renaissance in New York telefilm production in the early sixties. At a larger level, it experimented with the formal definition of the series, demonstrated that complex drama could be done within the series format, and expanded the aesthetic horizons of the police show. Echoing Weegee's photographic studies, which captured the faces of New York in the glare of a camera flash, television's Naked City offered narrative portraits, exposed through the equally revealing light of the writer's imagination. Ultimately both versions of Naked City are less about society or a city than people, which is why the portraits are often disturbing, and always fascinating.
Detective Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (1958-l959).............. John McIntire Detective Lieutenant
Jim Halloran (1958-1959)..................James Franciscus
Janet Halloran (1958-1959)..................... Suzanne Storrs
Patrolman/Sergeant Frank Arcaro.............. Harry Bellaver
Lieutenant Mike Parker (1959-l963)...... Horace McMahon
Detective Adam Flint (1960-1963).................. Paul Burke
Libby (1960-1963).................................... Nancy Malone
Herbert B. Leonard, Charles Russell
September 1958-September 1959 Tuesday 9:30-10:00
October 1960-September 1963 Wednesday 10:00-11:00
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"Naked City More Like a Naked Nightmare (Now It Can Be Told)." Variety (Los Angeles), 12 June 1963.
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"On the Streets." Time (New York), 7 September 1962.
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Rowan, Arthur. "We Travel Light and We Travel Fast." American Cinematographer (Hollywood, California), August 1959.
Silliphant, Sterling. Papers., UCLA Special Collections.
"We Can Make 'Em Just as Cheap or Cheaper in N.Y.: Herb Leonard." Variety (Los Angeles) 26 February 1958.