restricted access Naked City: The Relativist Turn in TV Noir
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NAKED CITY: THE RELATIVIST TURN IN TV NOIR Robert E. Fitzgibbons Film noirs evolution from the silver screen to the television screen was untidy at best; and this is nowhere more evident than in the transition from the feature-length movie The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948) to the TV show of the same title some ten years later. Although the movie was not the best of the noir genre, it was good and had many of the unmistakable classic noir markings: high-contrast black-and-white photography, stark images, severe camera angles, brutality, (a bit of) suggested sexual promiscuity, mystery, a major touch of evil, and moral absolutes. It was an exciting police story, even if somewhat stylized. But what made the movie especially intriguing for the time was that it was filmed in a semi-documentary style and shot almost entirely on location in New York City. Images of daily life in the city functioned as a backdrop for actors who intermingled with regular citizens, offering an attention-grabbing new milieu that helped The Naked City win two Academy Awards.1 The Oscar night of March 24,1949, might very well have been the high-water mark for The Naked City, had it not been for ABC Television and Stirling Silliphant. In television's early days, ABC typically trailed far behind both NBC and CBS badly in the prime-time ratings. But by the 1958-1959 season, this had begun to change; and one of the major factors was the introduction of ABC's new series The Naked City. The thirty-nine half-hour shows contained many of the features oftheir noirish 1948 feature-length progenitor, including the semi-documentary style and filming on location in New York City. But there were some significant modifications. Although they were still police stories with an element of mystery, the episodes focused much more on the (presumably) real-life stories of different inhabitants of the city than 49 50 Robert E. Fitzgibbons on the police—conforming to the tagline repeated at the end of each show: "There are eight million stories in the naked city. . . . This has been one of them." Stirling Silliphant wrote most ofthe scripts ofthese early shows; they were exceptionally well-done and equally popular. Indeed, contributing significantly to ABC's move toward a position of prominence in prime-time viewing, The Naked City won the 1959 Emmy for the best dramatic series of less than one hour. Then the series abruptly ended, not to be seen in the 1959-1960 season. The Relativist Turn In 1960-1961, however, it returned with a new title—Naked City, having dropped the "The"—and a new hour long format with some very different kinds of storylines.2 Not only had it shed all vestiges of a crime drama, it was no longer even a police story, except incidentally. To be sure, police remained continuing characters and always figured prominently in the script. Yet the dramas—and they were dramas—centered primarily on critical events in the lives of various inhabitants of the city. Each episode depicted another of the eight million stories in the naked city. Many of the core noir characteristics of the original feature film were softened, and some completely disappeared. Most notable among the missing was the stark distinction between absolute good and evil. Evil was replaced by psychological and/or sociological malfunction —neither ofwhich was presented as necessarilybad. The central characters were mostly misfits who suffered from varying degrees ofpsychological and/or sociological deficiencies. They were, in short, abnormal. Yet usually they were sympathetically presented as not really abnormal, as not really immoral. This shift to the abnormal (that seemingly was not really abnormal) introduced a strain of relativism into the previously almost completely absolutist world of prime-time television in general and of noir television in particular. In "Ooftus Goofus," a strange little supermarket worker, who has been sending bizarre letters to the police, first lowers prices in the store to almost nothing and then threatens to explode a bomb in a fight arena as a way of gaining notoriety.3 Arnold Platt, in "To Walk Like a Lion," embezzles from his company to pay his mother's medical bills and finally her funeral and grave-site expenses.4 Since he has spent none of the money on himself, the woman who loves him convinces him to take what he has left and splurge for just one day. After that, she allows, he could surrender...


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Subject Headings

  • Detective and mystery television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Fantasy television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Film noir -- United States -- History and criticism.
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