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Truth and Fiction in the Depiction of Post-war New York City

Part 2 Dissertation 2004
Delziel Cook
University of Westminster | UK
This dissertation addresses issues of depiction and realism in New York City, through a discussion of Dassin’s The Naked City and its precedent in Weegee’s photography of reportage. The essay draws on film theory in terms of concepts of ‘noir’ and ‘realism’ to study the use of the background of everyday life in New York, and also to discuss the characteristic backdrop of the city itself.

Today, cinematic film is possibly the most successful format for illustrating current social conditions; through visual format and dialogue or voiceover, it lends itself more readily to realisation and perceptual understanding than any other method. Now it is not uncommon to see film crews on the streets of our cities, and furthermore it is hard to imagine a time when shooting on-location was deemed unnecessary and too costly compared to the Hollywood sound stages. The importance of sound stages and film sets were never in question – movies have benefited from the creation of substitute realities to portray a time or a place. But still the film industry sought to capture reality, to strengthen fictions, and document time as it occurred.

In 1948 The Naked City was released to audiences after being filmed on the streets of New York City. The producers were intent on depicting the city as it was, and moved cameras around the neighbourhoods to capture the essence of post-war New York. Aided by a ‘noir’ storyline, the city was intended to become a character in the film, and not merely a backdrop for the unfolding events. My dissertation centres on this incorporation of ‘reality’, where a thin line between simulation and ‘actuality’ occurs; the need to tell the story whilst simultaneously documenting the period.

In order to question this documentary aspect to making the film, other concepts of realism are brought into the frame: the still photography of Weegee, who captured New York’s crime for the newspapers during the 1940s; the Neo-Realism of Italian film, which also attempted to record post-war life in cities but in a different context.

Delziel Cook

Delziel’s study focussed on Dassin’s film ‘The Naked City’ and its precedent in Weegee’s photographic reportage in post-war New York.

The contemporary technical, and logistical, difficulties, inherent in organising, and visually framing, a film, which balanced a ‘documentary’ intent with the construction of an accessible narrative ‘story’, are pieced together from available accounts.

Subsequently the concepts of film noir and realism are examined in relation to the film’s particular use of the background of everyday life in New York, and the characteristic backdrop of the urban landscape.

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