Monday, April 12, 2010

Underrated TV on DVD #7: Naked City

Series: Naked City
Years: 1958-1963, 39 half-hour episodes, 99 hour-long episodes
Creator: Sterling Silliphant
Stars: Paul Burke, Horace McMahon

The Concept: Each week, they shot a gritty little noir on the streets of New York City. Each episode feels like its own mini-movie because the focus is on the psychology of the guest-star criminals, not the workaday cops, who often just lurk in the background ...until they pounce at the end.
Recommended If You’re a Fan Of: the novels of Jim Thompson or Ed McBain.
How it Came to be Underrated: Everybody remembers the tagline “There are eight million stories in the naked city; this was one of them” but few people today have actually seen the show.

Sample Episode: 3.06, The Tragic Success of Alfred Tilloff
Writers: Howard Rodman and Leonard Bishop
The Story: Alfred is a two-time ex-con who just wants to stay out of trouble, but his wife dreams up a cynical kidnap plan—take a poor woman’s daughter and then demand that a benevolent rich person pay the ransom. There’s just one problem: Alfred’s disguise reminds him too much of his own dad, giving him a pang of conscience…

Why It’s Great:
  1. This show was first and foremost an actor’s showcase, and it eventually featured all of the great NY actors of its day. This time it’s Jack Klugman’s turn to sweat it out as Alfred, and he breaks your heart as the kidnapper who just wants a kid of his own…
  2. This show was the opposite of the other great 50s TV noir, Dragnet. While that show lent a sympathetic ear to the frustrations of the detectives, this show plunged viewers every week in the moral quagmire of the criminal’s mind, which is pretty astounding to see on TV. This was the heyday of the Warren court, when America was toying with the idea that criminals might be human beings, too. It didn’t stick.
  3. The detectives played by Burke and McMahon are decent men, but the format of show does them no favors, as they rarely get to understand the depth or complexity of the criminal’s story. Frequently, they exchange a satisfied look after a sympathetic crook meets his fate, and we’re horrified. It’s a credit to the stars that they were willing to take on these thankless roles.
  4. With almost no sets, this show was shot on-the-fly on the streets of NYC, and the portrait of the living city that forms the background of every episode is sumptuously detailed. This show was spun off a 1948 movie of the same name that was considered the first “semi-documentary” noir, and this show, too, is a document of a very real time and place.
How Available Is It?: Many but not all of the episodes are available on a series of “Best Of” DVDs.
But Don’t Take My Word For It: The show is nowhere to be found online, and the DVDs are going out of print. You can still get them off Netflix, or buy them here while they’re still in stock.

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