The Naked City (Dassin, 1948) and The Terrorist (Sivan, 1998)

I’m off to Turkey on Friday, so barring any unforeseen free time, this may be the last blog post for a few weeks.  Therefore, we’ll go 2-for-1.

Jules Dassin’s The Naked City is not one of his best film.  For my money that’d be either Brute Force (1947), Night and the City (1950), Rififi (1955) or the recently written-about Up Tight! (1968).  Still, The Naked City is notable for being one of a series of “newspaper-noirs” (my name), not in a Sweet Smell of Success kind of way, but rather in the omniscient, 3rd person, police-report-styled voiceover, like Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 from the same year.

The Naked City is also very concerned with the fact that it was shot mostly on location, and the voiceover proudly announces this alongside the accompanying shots of the NYC skyline at the opening.  When a model turns up dead Lt. Muldoon (the great Barry Fitzgerald) and his young detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor, who had a most interesting Hollywood career, going onto direct The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Omen II) take the case and set out into the hot streets of the city to follow a bunch of seemingly unrelated clues.

Fitzgerald is always great to watch.  I remember first seeing him in And Then There Were None (1945), and I’ve enjoyed his performances ever since.  Don Taylor…not so much.  This man is stiff as a board.  I’d put the blame partially on him and partially with Dassin – there are a series of stilted beats and Taylor never seems to know what to do with his hands.  He plays his wholesome but tenacious Halloran like a poor man’s Henry Fonda.

But the photography and a great climax still make The Naked City well worth the watch.  Here’s that opening:

Listen to the emphasis on “the city” (“there is a pulse to the city…”).  The various characters, starting around 0:55, are supposed to be the melting pot of NYC – not only did we shoot here, but look how unique and varied everyone is!  And the voiceover talks to everyone (4:04, for example), putting him in a superior position information-wise, but still at their level in a “I’ve been there” kind of way.

Dassin’s visual skills are also on display here.  Check out the fun graphic match edit at 1:47 where we move from location to location and through time via a water spout – one in the bathtub (death) the other from a street cleaner (new day/life).  It’s just a little tongue-in-cheek way to connect the dots for the audience, before the detectives within the film connect them.  That’s a Scorsese/Schoonmakerinfluence if I ever saw one.

Moving further up the same clip to 2:19 gives us a nice, very Jules Dassin-1940s/1950s frame.  I love this shot, with our two murderers, one in the foreground and frame left, the other in the background and frame right.  If you pause it right at 2:19 it’s amazing how the composition screams danger even though nothing dangerous has happened yet.

It’s that looming rope, the angle of which substitutes for the eyeline of the man whose back is to us: if we follow the diagonal of the rope it leads us to the man in the background.  And that man in the background, drinking his beer, is surrounded by a completely blank sky.  Positive space frame left, negative space frame right.

One last bit worth mentioning from this clip.  Starting at 5:52 we get the telephone operator who connects the city.  Talk about literally connecting the dots.  This is emblematic of Dassin’s goal in the film.  NYC is a puzzle.  Here’s one way that it begins to be solved.

The Terrorist

The Terrorist is one of the most beautiful bad movies I’ve ever seen.  It truly is gorgeous to look at with its insistence on a shallow depth of field, and unique frames that consistently jump from extreme close-ups to wide-shots.   Here’s an early sequence:

This is a very pretty montage.  The first three stills above are one CU shot – tilting down a glass of tea and pulling focus to a bullet.  We then get the cut to the row of soldiers and then back to more CUs – the chamber of the gun, the eye, the gun with a character behind it – before coming back to the female soldiers.

Director Santosh Sivan, who also shot the film, creates a nice mood early-on.  Moving back and forth between these shot sizes obscures the space (where are we?) and the subject (who’s talking?).  It also creates a rhythm that is abrupt, making later shock cuts (moving from an ECU to a moment of violence) more effective.  Lastly, the emphasis on violence (the bullet, the chamber, the gun) and the human (the eye) combine to echo the full theme of the film, which concerns a young female terrorist who faces a moral decision.

But – and this is a big but – The Terrorist falters in a whole lot of other ways.  Firstly, there’s the score, which is skillful enough, but so damn pervasive and intrusive as to be laughable.  Every single beat, change in emotion, change in action, etc has to be accompanied by a change in music.  I actually laughed out loud.  It’s Mickey-Mousing to the nth degree and shows a lack of confidence by the director in his own ability to control the flow of events and the audience’s awareness and emotion.

Secondly, there’s that camera.  The photography is pretty and it’s clear that Sivan has an eye for a nice looking frame, but does every other shot have to pull focus or be on a crane?  I felt like I was watching an early David Fincher music video.  For the love of god, can someone just give me some basic coverage in here?  I would kill for a medium shot.  I mean really, I would commit murder for a medium shot.

The sound design is dubious.  It’s under-mixed and really lacking any tension.  This one is the most excusable of all the mistakes.  It’s clearly – as with most Tamil or Hindi films I’ve seen – a dub job, but it’s got more than just simple issues.  For example, we see a car approaching a mine.  We see people reacting to the explosion, but we never hear it.  And that’s not an artistic choice (well, to be fair, it might be…but then it’s a shitty one).  Instead it feels like the designers just flat out forgot to put the sound of the explosion in.  Whoops.

Now A.O. Scott apparently said (check out 0:35 of this trailer) that The Terrorist is reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s films.

I’m a Bresson fan.  This is insulting.  Here’s where it is reminiscent: both Bresson and Sivan are interested in silences, in mundane actions having large meanings and consequences, and in this aforementioned rhythm of image (see Bresson’s Pickpocket for a master at work).

Here’s where they differ – everywhere else.  Maybe Scott’s quote was taken out of context, but I hope it read something closer to, “Reminiscent of Robert Bresson in his composition and editing and pretty damn bad otherwise.”  And then some marketer (Phaedra Films) was clever enough to take the first half of the sentence and slap it onto the trailer.

Look, when a film decides that it needs to sidetrack to have a terribly acting little boy cry about the death of his family, then fade to the next scene and basically replay that same freaking monologue again, it’s got trouble.

The problem with The Terrorist is also a problem with pacing, which I’ve mentioned in this blog before and will one day dedicate an entire post to.  What is pacing?  I guess on a basic level it’s moving fast when you should move fast and slowly when you should move slowly.

But it’s also how the actors move, the beats they take, and how transitions work.  It’s letting a dramatic moment breathe and a surprise remain impactful after it’s already happened.  The Terrorist knows none of this.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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