4 ways Naked City brought film noir cool to television
With its New York locations, sterling cast and hip spin-off, this late-'50s series is classic crime storytelling.
Some shows are meant to be seen in the middle of the night. With its shadowy hues of gray and its brassy jazz scores, Naked City brought film noir to the small screen from 1958 to 1963. It's no wonder it nailed that postwar crime-story tone so well — the series was based on the gritty 1948 flick The Naked City. The anthology series was the creation of Stirling Silliphant, who had won a screenwriting Oscar for In the Heat of the Night. The juicy, pulpy results were rather cinematic for household viewing.
It was a little underappreciated at the time, as the 30-minute iteration was canceled in 1959, before being revived as a hour-long affair in 1960. These days, Naked City flies under the radar. That's a shame. Here are a handful of reasons to pay a visit to the eternally cool Naked City.
1) It was shot on location in New York.
Realism was the aim. "I'm Bert Leonard, the producer," the narrating Leonard would begin early on. "This story was not photographed in a studio. Quite the contrary. The actors played out their roles in the streets and the buildings of New York itself." Naked City would be the first network series shot regularly in the streets of the five boroughs. As each night proclaimed, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." It's a fascinating watch just for midcentury glimpses of the Big Apple. We see Coney Island, Central Park, Harlem, the now demolished Pennsylvania Station, Chinatown and Freedomland USA, a long gone amusement park that sat in the Bronx. The main production was done in Biograph Studios, where Car 54, Where Are You? would also be shot starting in 1961. As with Car 54, the Naked City crew would have to paint its police cars in bright colors to set them apart from real NYC squad cars.
2) The guest stars became A-listers.
As with other anthology shows of the era (The Twilight Zone, etc.) Naked City features a walk of fame in its credits. Actors such as James Caan, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight and Peter Fonda scored their first significant television appearances on the series. William Shatner played a cubist painter. Dennis Hopper, Tuesday Weld, Robert Redford, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Gene Hackman, Peter Falk and dozen more honed their chops here. Even boxing legend Rocky Graziano showed off his acting skills.
3) It spun off Route 66.
The episode "Four Sweet Corner" worked as a backdoor pilot to the hip show with the Corvette. George Maharis plays Johnny, who teams with his Army pal, Link, to rescue his little sister from a crime ring. At the end of the episode, the two are tired of New York and set off for the American road. Johnny and Link were renamed Buz and Tod, and Maharis was kept onboard. Silliphant turned his writing focus to Route 66, and showed an equal flare for human emotion and silvery cool.
4) Star Wars ace Irvin Kershner directed a couple episodes.
There's a reason Empire Strikes Back remains the darkest, greatest Star Wars film, and that would be its director. Kershner cut his teeth in gritty black & white television, early on with a few dozen outings of The Rebel, following that up with two episodes of Naked City, "And by the Sweat of Thy Brow…" and "Bringing Far Places Together." It's no wonder Empire has the feel of film noir and westerns.