Monday, March 30, 2009

Movies: Thieves' Highway and The Naked City

Let's make a movie. We'll have a good guy, Nico, a young, good-looking Greek guy who just got back from a trip around the world, who can't wait to see his parents, and his blonde fiance. We'll need a bad guy. Let's make him. . . a money-grubbing produce salesman, who will stop at nothing to maximize his profits on tomatoes and apples.

Wait, you don't think that's a good idea? An evil produce salesman, who let Nico's dad (a produce trucker) lose his legs in an "accident" rather than pay for his truckload of tomatoes? Who will do the same thing to Nico, pay a whore fifty bucks to separate him from his truck, get a couple of thugs to steal his wallet? Jules Dassin thought it was a plenty good idea, so made Thieves' Highway, perhaps the only film noir ever set in California's sunny breadbasket, in which the blonde turns out to be more money-grubbing than the whore (Dassin's got a thing for lofty fallen women). Filled with wrinkled, scummy truckers, and produce-salesman-henchmen that use a small axe as their weapon of choice, this isn't the finest Dassin film you'll see, but it's not quite a midnight movie, either.

The Naked City, on the other hand, is a New Yorker's noir. Narrated by a delightfully hardboiled voiceover, the film zeros in on one murder case, while reminding us that it's only one of the city's 8,000 stories. A beautiful dress model is dead (we see her murderers shaking her body at the film's beginning, while the narrator flies over the city, stopping in on the strangers who will eventually all find themselves tangled in the plot). An old investigator and his green partner need to find out why. The woman had a male friend who was—surprise!—engaged to her best girl friend. The best girl friend had no idea her fiance even know the victim, much less that the two of them were running a jewel-thieving scam in cahoots with a fancy-pants Park Avenue doctor and a scummy Lower East Side boxer: one to provide the apartments to rob, the other to do the robberies. Dassin's cross-section of the city—rich, poor, innocent, guilty, jaded, naive—is the ice cream sundae, and the shots of old New York's buildings and street corners, elevated train tracks and waterfront docks, are the cherry on top. The Naked City is one of the top five New York Noirs I've seen.

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