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Film Noir, Documentary Realism, and the Social Problem Drama - CASE STUDY:MARK HELLINGER’S THE KILLERS, BRUTE FORCE ,AND THE NAKED CITY

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In 1946, after five years of enforced optimism and prosocial posturing, American movie screens suddenly darkened. “Whoever went to the movies with any regularity in 1946 was caught in the midst of Hollywood’s profound postwar affection for morbid drama,” wrote Life magazines David Marsham. “From January through December deep shadows, clutching hands, exploding revolvers, sadistic villains and heroines tormented with deeply rooted diseases of the mind flashed across the screen in a panting display of psychoneuroses, unsublimated sex and murder most foul.”

What Marsham described, of course, was film noir , which underwent a tremendous surge in 1946 that actually intensified in the coming years. And beyond its now-familiar terrain of hard-boiled detective thrillers and female Gothics, film noir also had a significant impact on two other postwar cycles: the semidocumentary crime film and the social problem drama (or message picture). Both cycles—as outgrowths, in a sense, of the war film—reflected Hollywood’s increasing preoccupation with realism, in fact, these film noir , realist, and social problem trends actively, perhaps inevitably, cross-fertilized in the postwar era. A 1946 New York Times review of the detective noir THE DARK CORNER , for instance, noted the “atmospheric realism” in what was essentially a “sizzling piece of melodrama.” 39 And James Agee, discussing a spate of 1946 noir thrillers in The Nation , praised THE KILLERS for its “journalistic feeling” and its “jazzedup realism.” In terms of social immediacy, Agee saw THE KILLERS as symptomatic of the crime thriller generally: “For many years so much has been forbidden or otherwise made impossible in Hollywood that crime has offered one of the few chances for getting any sort of vitality on the screen.”

Despite its social-realist dimension, film noir was at base a highly stylized treatment of contemporary social and human conditions. As noted earlier, film noir’s distinctive way of telling stories and distinctive way of seeing included: low-key lighting and expressive camera work; a penchant for night scenes, rain-slick streets, and dark claustrophobic interiors; convoluted narrative construction, often employing romantic voice-over narration, flashbacks, nonlinear plot development, and an unsatisfactory or ambiguous outcome; an emphasis on character psychology and obsessive sexuality; an overall mood of anxiety, alienation, and despair; and a general distrust of legitimate social authority and institutions that, together with the preceding elements, often created a powerful (albeit implicit) social critique.

Immediately after the war, these elements were most clearly evident in the hardboiled detective film, which reached a peak of sorts in 1946 with films like THE BIG SLEEP , THE KILLERS , THE BLUE DAHLIA , THE LADY IN THE LAKE , THE DARK MIRROR , THE DARK CORNER , and BLACK ANGEL . The year’s “morbid dramas” also included a number of dark romances featuring star-crossed lovers, like THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (John Garfield and Lana Turner) and GILDA (Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth), with money and murder as well as adultery on their minds. As in their predecessor DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), the dominant viewpoint in these films is that of a cynical male who falls victim to a duplicitous femme fatale . The female viewpoint, meanwhile, was privileged in films like THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS and TEMPTATION , which center on a murderous heroine (Barbara Stanwyck and Merle Oberon, respectively), thus effectively melding the woman’s picture with the noir thriller.

Hollywood’s two pioneering noir stylists, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, continued to shape its development in 1946—Hitchcock with NOTORIOUS and Welles with THE STRANGER , each of which effectively blends the Gothic romance with the warrelated espionage thriller in a classic noir film. Another film worth mentioning here is Welles’s THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (costarring Orson Welles, who also wrote and directed), a Rita Hayworth vehicle initiated in late 1946 as a follow-up to GILDA . Veering wildly from black comedy to sexual psychodrama to murderous intrigue, the film presents Hayworth as coolly homicidal and sexually manipulative—the consummate femme noire . Upon its completion in early 1947, however, Columbia’s Harry Cohn was not happy with the film or the depiction of his top star, and he withheld THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI until 1948.

In 1947, Hollywood’s film noir output accelerated and took on a new complexity as the period style began to cross-fertilize with other emerging postwar strains. Sometimes noir only slightly shaded an established formula or recombined a bit with another genre. CROSSFIRE , for example, is very much a hard-boiled crime thriller except for two elements which interject elements of both the message picture and the police procedural: the killer (Robert Ryan) is an ex-GI motivated by rabid anti-Semitism, and he is eventually brought to justice by a police detective (Robert Young) operating very much by the book. Other genres were also effectively reworked in 1947 as noir intrigues with a social angle: the boxing film in BODY AND SOUL , tracing the rise of a fighter (John Garfield) by any means necessary, including his cooperation with the mob; and the prison drama BRUTE FORCE , in which inmates (led by Burt Lancaster) revolt against a sadistic head guard and a corrupt criminal justice system. The gangster genre collided with film noir in KISS OF DEATH (1947), a downbeat film about a mobster (Victor Mature) who is captured and turns state’s evidence; after testifying, he and his family are stalked by a former cohort (Richard Widmark in his stunning film debut as a cackling, psychopathic killer).

KISS OF DEATH also evinced an emerging realist trend, both in its depiction of police procedures and its use of location shooting and sound. The film was directed by Henry Hathaway, whose two previous films, THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945) and 13 RUE MADELEINE (1946), were produced for Fox by the March of Time veteran Louis de Rochemont. Those films established the currency and basic conventions of the semi-documentary investigative drama—including objective voice-over narration, location shooting, use of nonactors, and little or no musical scoring. Those films had been warrelated espionage thrillers involving U.S. federal agents, but KISS OF DEATH was a straight crime film. Other crime thrillers pushed even more aggressively into the realm of documentary realism, notably BOOMERANG and T-MEN in 1947, and CALL NORTHSIDE 777 and THE NAKED CITY in 1948. Shot on location and based on actual criminal cases, all of these films followed an investigation through its various procedures to an inevitably favorable outcome.

At first glance, the semidocumentary crime dramas seem antithetical to film noir , and in fact these films do indicate important changes in the Hollywood crime film. “The semi-documentaries are a good example of the shift away from the radicalism of film noir,” notes Michael Walker, in that they “celebrate the efficacy of the American crimefighting institutions” and tend to “marginalize or discredit” the low-life types and losers who are more sympathetically portrayed in noir thrillers. Although shot on location, they favor daylight scenes and well-lit interiors, and the dominant setting of a police headquarters conveys a sense of order. The voice-over in most semidocumentaries, like the authoritative “voice of God” of the documentary and newsreel, is “completely foreign to the highly subjective, frequently painful” narration in noir films. And the linear, cause-and-effect development of the semidocumentary narrative is fundamentally at odds with the convoluted structure of most noir thrillers. 41 In terms of character and theme, as Frank Krutnik argues, the semidocumentary crime thrillers “signaled a shift away from the ‘tough’ thrillers obsession with psychological breakdown and sexual malaise, or at least they recast these elements within a perspective which stressed the normative processes of law and social order.” 42 Generally eschewing a romantic subplot or central female character, these films focus closely on “the case,” which invariably is solved by film’s end.

As both Walker and Krutnik recognize, however, few semidocumentary thrillers maintained this clear distinction from film noir . In fact, the two seemingly antithetical forms—the realistic, reactionary, reassuring, authoritative, upbeat semidocumentary versus the expressionistic, subversive, disturbing, confusing, and downbeat film noir —clearly began to intermingle as soon as the semidocumentary veered from war-related spy films to crime thrillers after the war. BOOMERANG , for example, was a de Rochemont production for Fox filmed entirely on location in a small town in the Northeast and was based on an actual case. It traces the dogged efforts of a disillusioned state’s attorney (Dana Andrews) to prove that a maladjusted war veteran (Arthur Kennedy) did not murder a   Directed by Elia Kazan (his second feature), BOOMERANG was far darker and more complex than the previous de Rochemont productions and was scarcely a testimonial to institutional authorities and the machinery of social justice. Nor did it commend the process of postwar rehabilitation. Andrews’s attorney does manage to overcome his own malaise and clear the wrongly accused vet, but only by exposing local prejudices and the ineptitude of the criminal justice system. Moreover, the failure to apprehend the actual murderer offsets the film’s upbeat outcome.

Kazan directed another breakthrough film for Fox in 1947, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT , an investigative drama with an explicit social problem theme centering on socially sanctioned anti-Semitism. Shot largely on location in New York City, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT features a journalist (Gregory Peck) who poses as a Jew to experience firsthand the deep-seated prejudices of mainstream American society. A prestige project scripted by Moss Hart (from Laura Z. Hobson’s best-seller) and costarring John Garfield and Dorothy McGuire, the Zanuck production was a tremendous hit. Considered daring and progressive in its day, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT impressed critics, scored Oscars for best picture and best director, and was among the year’s top box-office performers. Coming on the heels of THE LOST WEEKEND in 1945 and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES in 1946 (both of which also won best-picture Oscars), GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT affirmed the currency of the realistic, male-oriented social problem film. Along with CROSSFIRE , GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT indicated that Hollywood movies might effectively present more liberal-humanist, if not openly leftist, political views.

The burgeoning social realism and left-liberalism in postwar Hollywood was due to several factors, particularly the influx of new talent and the impact of the war and of warrelated films. The war and immediate postwar era saw the emergence of a new crop of writers and directors in Hollywood, many of whom brought with them a progressive political agenda and a strong interest in film realism. Among these were Kazan, Robert Rossen, Jules Dassin, Abraham Polonsky, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey, Fred Zinnemann, and Anthony Mann. Many were trained in the New York theater during the 1930s, often working with politically and aesthetically radical companies, such as the Group Theatre, the Actors Studio (cofounded by Kazan), and the Theatre Union. Equally important was the war itself and its on-screen treatment in Hollywood features and documentaries. In a sense, the war had presented Hollywood with a massive “social problem” which utterly consumed the industry from 1942 through 1945 and demanded a more overtly social, political, and realistic approach to filmmaking than ever before. Filmmakers continued to refine this approach after the war, despite the phasing-out of the war film itself, and audiences (and critics) clearly responded.

By late 1947, however, serious counterforces were militating against Hollywood’s nascent social realist movement. In fact, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT was released only weeks after the HUAC hearings, the Waldorf Statement, and RKO’s consequent firing of Adrian Scott and Edward Dmytryk (the producer and director of CROSSFIRE ). As these and other developments indicated, the conservative forces both inside and outside the movie industry meant to stifle any trace of left-leaning liberalism in movies. The Motion Picture Alliance railed against the “sizable doses of Communist propaganda” in scores of recent movies, including PRIDE OF THE MARINES , THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS , and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES . The right-wing novelist and screenwriter Ayn Rand, on behalf of the Alliance, drafted a “Screen Guide for Americans” with such headings as “Don’t Smear the Free Enterprise System,” “Don’t Deify the ‘Common Man,’” “Don’t Glorify Failure,” and “Don’t Smear Industrialists.” Even Eric Johnston, head of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), climbed onto the conservative bandwagon. “We’ll have no more Grapes of Wrath , we’ll have no more Tobacco Roads,” vowed Johnston in 1947. “We’ll have no more films that show the seamy side of American life.”

In the aftermath of HUAC and the blacklist, many questioned whether Hollywood would dare to venture beyond the safe and predictable forms of light entertainment, while others saw the emerging realistic aesthetic as a reason for optimism. James Agee voiced both of those views in a January 1948 piece in The Nation as he pondered the success of GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT and CROSSFIRE in light of recent events: “It is hard to believe that absolutely first-rate works of art can ever again be made in Hollywood, but it would be idiotic to assume that flatly. If they are to be made there, they will most probably develop along the directions worked out during the past year or two; they will be journalistic, semi-documentary, and ‘social-minded,’ or will start that way and transcend those levels.”

Other indications were less encouraging, however. John Huston told the New Yorker’s Lillian Ross about battling Warners simply to include the word labor in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE , which he had recently completed; he was having similar problems on his current Warners project, KEY LARGO , over a line of dialogue that quoted FDR on the United Nations and the reasons for fighting World War II. Ross also reported that she had been told by William Wyler “that he is convinced that he could not make [THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES ] today and that Hollywood will provide no more films like The Grapes of Wrath and Crossfire .”

Hollywood’s more progressive efforts were indeed stifled in the late 1940s; the careers of both Huston and Wyler are cases in point. The difficulties faced at Paramount by Wyler and his Liberty Films partners already have been described—imagine Capra making a film that did not deify the common man or smear industrialists. Huston was similarly constrained at Warners, once deemed the bastion of film realism and a haven for left-leaning filmmakers. After writing and directing THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and KEY LARGO , both released in 1948 to excellent critical popular response, Huston left Warners in disgust. “The complexion of the place was changing,” Huston later said of the studio. “Its great innovative period was in decline, if not over.” 46 JOHNNY BELINDA , a dark social problem drama about young deaf-mute woman (Jane Wyman) who is a victim of rape and of small-town gossip and prejudice, is another example of Warners’ conservative turn in 1948. Jack Warner so disliked the film that, before its release, he refused to renew the contract of the director, Jean Negulesco. JOHNNY BELINDA went on to become a huge critical and commercial hit, earning $4.25 million and nine Oscar nominations—including best director. At that point, Warner relented, but Negulesco had no interest in returning to the studio.

RKO underwent a reversal similar to Warners’ after the Howard Hughes takeover in May 1948. Hughes’s archconservative political views were utterly at odds with those of RKO’s liberal production chief, Dore Schary, and their differences affected the studio’s filmmaking. A strong proponent of the social problem film and the socially astute crime thriller, Schary had a number of projects in the works at RKO that Hughes intensely disliked. When Schary left for MGM a few months after the takeover, Hughes quashed the “liberal” trends at RKO and temporarily shelved several of Schary’s pet projects, notably Joseph Losey’s antiwar fable THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR (1948) and Nicholas Ray’s noir thriller THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1949).

Schary found the political climate less tense but quite conservative at MGM under Nick Schenck and Louis Mayer. By 1948, MGM’s only ventures into film noir or message pictures were through a Loews distribution deal with Enterprise Pictures, whose releases that year included the masterful film noir FORCE OF EVIL and a semidocumentary drama about European war orphans, THE SEARCH . While Schary subdued his progressive bent at MGM, he did initiate a few low-cost crime thrillers with strong social elements that were released in 1949, notably INTRUDER IN THE DUST , an adaptation of a Faulkner novel with an anti-lynching theme, and BORDER INCIDENT , a semidocumentary about illegal Mexican migrant workers.

Twentieth Century-Fox was the only studio to sustain a steady output of films noirs , semidocumentary thrillers, and social problem dramas in the late 1940s, owing largely to the interests and efforts of Darryl Zanuck. Zanuck had been a proponent of drama “torn from the day’s headlines” since his early career as a writer and production executive at Warner Bros., and he continued to pursue that strategy at Fox. Indeed, his predilection for message pictures resulted in the two “seamy” prewar pictures, THE GRAPES OF WRATH and TOBACCO ROAD , that Eric Johnston had so fervently disclaimed in 1947. And at the time of that disclaimer, Zanuck had his usual run of seamy projects in the works, including GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT , THE SNAKE PIT , and CALL NORTHSIDE .

THE SNAKE PIT was perhaps the darkest of the lot. Based on a true story (and bestselling book) about a woman’s descent into mental illness, the film also presents a powerful critique of the treatment of the mentally ill. Directed by Anatole Litvak in a semi-documentary style, THE SNAKE PIT was released in late 1948 to a strong critical and commercial response, earning over $4 million. CALL NORTHSIDE 777, a s midocumentary crime thriller shot in Chicago, recounts the crusade of a cynical reporter (James Stewart) to prove the innocence of a death row inmate awaiting execution. Clearly influenced by BOOMERANG , CALL NORTHSIDE 777 incorporates noir elements and is less than flattering in its portrayal of the authorities and the criminal justice system. Fox also turned out more straightforward noir films in 1948, such as ROAD HOUSE (directed by Jean Negulesco after leaving Warners) and CRY OF THE CITY . The studio countered these darker crime films in 1948 with an upbeat semidocumentary cold war spy thriller, THE IRON CURTAIN , an exposé of Soviet espionage in Canada.

By decade’s end, Fox was by far the most aggressive studio in the production of message films and socially sensitive thrillers, and it was the only company willing to risk an occasional prestige-level social problem film. As Fortune magazine observed in early 1949: “Innovations in the shape of crusading themes, realism, the psychological view, and documentary style have been adopted notably by Darryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox.” But Fortune also noted that Zanuck “could risk a ‘Snake Pit’ because he had twenty-five or more other pictures a year and Betty Grable.” 48 Zanuck’s principal risk at the time was PINKY , another ambitious social drama in the mold of GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT . Personally produced by Zanuck and directed by Elia Kazan, PINKY centers on the struggles of a light-skinned black woman (Jeanne Crain) who has been living in the North and passing as white; upon returning to her small-town southern home, she decides to forgo her white existence—including her betrothal to a prosperous doctor—and to accept her racial and social identity. Once again, Zanuck and Kazan struck just the right balance of realism and melodrama, of social commentary and personal anguish. And while P INKY was not quite the critical success of GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT or THE SNAKE PIT , its $4 million in rentals was on a par commercially with those two previous hits.

While PINKY dominated the box office in 1949, most of the critical accolades went to ALL THE KING’S MEN , a political drama which took top honors from the New York Film Critics, won the Golden Globe (voted best picture by Hollywood’s foreign press), and also won the Academy Award for best picture. Adapted from Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 best-seller, ALL THE KING’S MEN was written, produced, and directed by Robert Rossen in a quasi-independent deal with Columbia. Loosely based on the career of the infamous Louisiana governor Huey Long, the film traces the rise and seemingly inevitable corruption of small-town politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), who becomes a ruthless yet effective demagogue and eventually is assassinated. In both film technique and narrative construction, ALL THE KING’S MEN is a stylistic tour de force . Rossen shot the film entirely on location (in an unnamed state) using only available light; he cast third-rate character actor Crawford as Willie and used nonactors in minor roles. (Crawford won an Oscar for his performance, as did newcomer Mercedes McCambridge in a supporting role.) Rossen employed various noir techniques as well, notably a complex flashback structure and the brooding voice-over narration by Stark’s introspective and deeply disillusioned political aide (John Ireland). Beyond the downbeat nature of the climactic assassination, the deeper moral and political questions raised are left unresolved.

Judging from the success of PINKY and ALL THE KING’S MEN , Hollywood had not yet written off the social problem drama, and in fact 1949 saw the release of three other successful   “race” pictures—THE HOME OF THE BRAVE , LOST BOUNDARIES , and INTRUDER IN THE DUST . It should be noted, however, that all three were relatively low-risk ventures; none was a high-cost star vehicle based on a celebrated presold property, and each packaged its social message in familiar narrative terms. 51 INTRUDER IN THE DUST is a noir intrigue set in the South about an old woman and a young boy, both white, who solve a murder and thereby prevent the lynching of a black man. an independent de Rochemont production, is a semidocumentary based on a true story and shot on location in small-town New England; the white community discovers that the local doctor and his wife are actually of black descent. THE LOST BOUNDARIES , HOME OF THE BRAVE , produced by the independent Stanley Kramer, traces the efforts of an army psychiatrist to discover the cause of a black soldier’s psychologically induced paralysis, which turns out to be the result of racist treatment.

All three films did well critically and commercially; Bosley Crowther of the Times was a particularly vocal advocate of the “race drama” trend. In May, he termed THE HOME OF THE BRAVE “a drama of force and consequence” and “a most propitious ‘first’ in the cycle of Negro prejudice pictures which Hollywood now has in the works.” In July, he wrote that the “statement of the anguish and ironies of racial taboo [in LOST BOUNDARIES ] is clear, eloquent and moving.” In September, he noted that in P INKY , Zanuck and Fox “shift the scope of observation into that more noted arena of racism, the Deep South … [in] a picture that is vivid, revealing and emotionally intense.” Crowther was most enthusiastic about MGM’s INTRUDER IN THE DUST, which he described in November as “probably this year’s pre-eminent picture and one of the great cinema dramas of our time.” He acknowledged, however, that the “deeper meanings might be utterly missed” by those simply looking for a crime thriller. 52 Variety also was enthusiastic and optimistic about the recent spate of message films dealing with “anti-Negro prejudice.” These films, asserted Variety in late 1949, “proved that there is no subject that is taboo in Hollywood.”

That was scarcely the case, however. In 1950, Hollywood went into a full-scale retreat from message pictures and prestige-level social problem dramas. The retreat was due to a range of factors, many of them well outside industry control—HUAC’s ongoing investigation of Communists in the U.S. government and the 1949 Alger Hiss trial; the Soviet A-bomb tests and the fall of China to the Communists later that same year. Inside the industry, however, the blacklist of the Hollywood Ten was augmented in 1948-1949 by a steadily expanding “graylist” which included many of Hollywood’s more progressive filmmakers. By 1950, there were rumors of HUAC’s imminent return, which in fact occurred in early 1951, resulting in the complete collapse of Hollywood liberalism, the blacklisting of hundreds of “subversives,” and the end of the American cinema’s erstwhile social realist movement.

While progressive message pictures and high-stakes social problem films disappeared from American screens, Hollywood continued to turn out noir films in the early 1950s, including such classics as SUNSET BOULEVARD and THE ASPHALT JUNGLE in 1950. The resurgent war film also displayed a distinct noir influence, most prominently in Fox’s late-1949 release TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH . But besides that Zanuck-produced hit reexamining the “problem” of war—albeit as a more personal and psychological than social problem—Fox backed completely away from the prestige-level social problem drama, opting instead for low-cost, low-risk thrillers like PANIC IN THE STREETS, NO WAY OUT, NIGHT AND THE CITY, and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (all 1950). A few of these treated significant social issues but did so without incurring the wrath of conservative critics and social watchdogs. As Brian Neve notes in Film and Politics in America: “Even when political controversy made explicit social content a liability, films noirs generally evaded scrutiny.” 54 But by 1950, the disillusioned heroes, subcurrents of anxiety, and implicit social critiques of earlier message pictures and crime thrillers were noticeably absent. The moral ambiguity and existential angst so essential to these forms had been excised. Film noir, for the time being at least, was undergoing a belated postwar rehabilitation.


As seen in chapter 4, Mark Hellinger played a key role in the prewar overhaul of the Warner Bros. crime film on pictures like THE ROARING TWENTIES , THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, and HIGH SIERRA . During the war, Hellinger rose to producer status, and in 1945 he signed with Universal as an in-house independent. Hellinger produced three films for Universal after the war: THE KILLERS in 1946, BRUTE FORCE in 1947, and THE NAKED CITY in 1948. All three were hits, and all three were indicative of the dominant postwar trends in the crime film: THE KILLERS is a hard-boiled detective noir; BRUTE FORCE is a prison drama with social problem overtones and a dynamic blend of realism and film noir; and THE NAKED CITY is a semidocumentary police procedural which depicts urban life and day-to-day police work in much more immediate terms than other postwar semidocumentary thrillers.

The formation of Mark Hellinger Productions and Hellinger’s deal with Universal were announced in a page-one Daily Variety story in August 1945. As Variety noted, Hellingers contract as an in-house independent was modeled on Walter Wanger’s—although the actual details were somewhat different. Universal paid Hellinger a salary on a flat-fee, per-film basis: $25,000 for script development and another $25,000 to produce each picture. Universal also would “loan” Hellinger up to one-half the production costs and arrange financing, if necessary, for the balance. Once his film was released, the loan would be repaid and Hellinger would take 25 percent of the profits.

With his initial Universal project, THE KILLERS, Hellinger confirmed his efficiency and creative acumen as a producer, and his savvy sense of the crime thriller as well. The film was based on Ernest Hemingways short story “The Killers,” which describes an enigmatic figure named Swede who calmly waits in his dark rooming house for two hired assassins, whom he knows are coming, to find and kill him. Hellingers plan, as he explained to Hemingway’s attorney, was “to use the story practically in toto as an opening sequence and then carry on from there with the same two killers and in the same established mood.”

After securing the rights to the story, Hellinger hired Tony Veiller to do the adaptation (with eventual uncredited assistance from John Huston). 57 In the script, an insurance investigator learns through a complex, randomly ordered mélange of flashbacks—and flashbacks within flashbacks—that Swede was a washed-up prizefighter and small-time hood who was murdered for betraying his accomplices in a heist, a fatal decision motivated by Swede’s love of a double-crossing femme fatale. Thus, much like the recent reconstructions of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, the adaptation of “The Killers” took on obvious noir dimensions—the flashback structure and convoluted time frame, an obsession with the past and with fate, the enigmatic central character betrayed by a heartless black widow—none of which was in the Hemingway story, though it all seemed to emerge quite naturally from the motivating situation.

To direct THE KILLERS, Hellinger hired noir stylist Robert Siodmak (PHANTOM LADY, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, etc.). He cast Burt Lancaster (in his screen debut) as Swede, Edmund O’Brien as the detective, and Ava Gardner as the deadly love interest. The picture was a straight studio shoot with no location work and few exteriors; it was scheduled for nine weeks and budgeted at $875,000. 59 Hellinger closely supervised production, which closed in late June, two days behind schedule but almost $50,000 under budget. Hellinger oversaw editing in July and had the picture ready for release by August. 60 Completed within weeks of the International merger, THE KILLERS was heavily promoted by Universal as an exemplary product of the “new” U-I.

THE KILLERS was a hit, returning domestic rentals of $2.5 million and worldwide earnings of $3 million. Net profits to Universal were nearly $1 million—with $250,000 going to Mark Hellinger Productions. 61 The film was critically well received and scored Academy Award nominations for Veiller’s script, Siodmak’s direction, and Miklos Rozsa’s score. Hellinger won critical praise as well. The “good strident journalistic feeling for tension, noise, sentiment, and jazzed-up realism,” wrote James Agee in The Nation, “is probably chiefly to the credit of the producer, Mark Hellinger.”

Hellinger’s next project, BRUTE FORCE, was another well-crafted, moderately priced thriller starring Burt Lancaster. The dark, violent prison drama centers on six convicts (Lancaster, Howard Duff, Jeff Corey, et al.) who rebel against a sadistic head guard (Hume Cronyn) in an inhumane, incompetently run prison. While the film is as stylized in some ways as THE KILLERS, especially in its use of chiaroscuro lighting and expressive camera work, BRUTE FORCE also employed realist techniques and included some location shooting. Crucial to this blend was the collaboration between director Jules Dassin and cinematographer William Daniels. Dassin, a relative newcomer with stage experience in New York (including the Group Theatre), had come into cinema by way of radio writing and had directed only a few B-grade features. Daniels, on the other hand, was an accomplished cinematographer—although his celebrated work as Garbo’s cameraman at MGM scarcely seemed to prepare him for something like But Daniels was a consummate professional, who readily adapted to the demands of the shoot, and he worked well with the inexperienced but talented Dassin.

Despite its aggressively downbeat story, BRUTE FORCE. BRUTE FORCE did well commercially, with domestic earnings of $2.2 million in 1947. But it drew mixed reviews, owing largely to the uncommonly violent and depressing story of brutalized inmates and a deadly prison riot in which the rebellious convicts are killed in an apocalyptic finale—although not before the sadistic Cronyn is thrown from a guard tower. A number of critics noted that the film’s condemnation of prison conditions gave it a social problem dimension; many drew comparisons to Nazi concentration camps. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, for instance, posited a direct parallel, “with the prisoners the pitiable victims and the authorities the villains.” Crucial to his view was the portrayal of Cronyn’s sadistic guard: with the inclinations of a Nazi stormtrooper, he is an obvious fascist who listens to Wagner while torturing prisoners.

For his next picture, tentatively titled “Homicide,” Hellinger wanted to chronicle the day-to-day police work of a New York City homicide squad. Reteaming Jules Dassin and William Daniels, the film would be shot on location in a semidocumentary style, and it would be the first such film to follow a murder investigation exclusively from a police detective’s viewpoint. The film also would present an authentic portrait of Hellinger’s beloved New York City, where his own writing career began. In September 1946, just after the release of THE KILLERS and while BRUTE FORCE was in postproduction, Hellinger sold Universal on the project and sent writer Malvin Wald to New York on what was essentially a month-long research junket, mainly to observe the Manhattan Police Department. “At this point I am making no effort to figure out a story line,” Wald wrote to Hellinger in October. “Every case gives me more and more story material and characters. I think when I get back to Hollywood it will be more a job of editing what I have learned than creating something new. The important thing is that I come back … knowing more about New York homicide detectives than any writer in Hollywood.”

By April 1947, Wald and Al Maltz, whom Hellinger hired to coscript the film, had completed a shooting script for “Homicide.” The story, based on actual case files, centers on the brutal murder of a young woman and the subsequent manhunt for her killer, who eventually is apprehended after a chase across the Williamsburg Bridge. While the murder investigation provided the spine of the story, the writers recognized the opportunities inherent in the semidocumentary format to rework the crime thriller. Maltz even included a page of “Production notes for Mark Hellinger” in his final screenplay draft, including this suggestion: “This film will depend for its effect on a sense of absolute authenticity, upon its honest portrayal of people and life, upon the absence of forced effects, forced scenes, forced melodramatics.”

In May 1947, Universal officially approved the film—now titled “The Naked City”—and a $1.2 million budget. Hellinger then dispatched a second unit to New York for an intensive twenty-four-day shoot. 66 The second unit shot in New York for two weeks without the cast, simply filming the various locations where the story was to take place. Bad weather plagued the shoot, as did myriad technical and logistical problems. For a period of four straight days, for example, rain, unruly crowds, and equipment problems kept the second unit from doing a single camera setup. These difficulties underscored the value of working in a studio, but Hellinger was satisfied with the trade-off—capturing the authenticity and atmosphere of Manhattan on film.

In June, Hellinger and Dassin took the cast and first unit to New York for eight weeks of principal photography, with just over half the script to be filmed on location. The shoot went well, but shortly after returning to the studio in August, Hellinger suffered a mild heart attack and was forced to monitor the remainder of the production from his hospital room. Dassin closed production in mid-September, staying on to supervise cutting with Hellinger, who by then was out of the hospital. Frank Skinner and Miklos Rozsa scored the film later in the fall, and Hellinger himself recorded the voice-over narration for the picture, including its now-famous epitaph, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” By mid-December, THE NAKED CITY was ready to preview, but Hellinger never saw the finished product. On 22 December 1947, at age 44, Hellinger died of a massive coronary.

THE NAKED CITY was released in early March 1948 and gave Hellinger Productions another hit, returning $2.4 million and finishing among the top fifty box-office releases of the year. 68 The semidocumentary form by then was quite familiar; in fact, de Rochement’s CALL NORTHSIDE 777 and Anthony Mann’s T-MEN (on U.S. Treasury agents) both were released a few weeks earlier. But THE NAKED CITY is in a class by itself among semidocumentary crime films. It is relentlessly authentic in its treatment of police procedures and makes no effort to idealize or romanticize the central character (Barry Fitzgerald as a police lieutenant), the other detectives, or the criminals. The investigation itself is routine to the point of banality, although the final chase does provide a solid dramatic payoff. Equally important, the film presents a remarkable portrait of postwar New York in all its brutal grandeur, much of it captured by the hidden cameras used in many scenes to augment the documentary quality.

Critical response to THE NAKED CITY was rather uneven, owing largely to the film’s unrelenting documentary quality. Agee in Time praised Danielsmidocumentary crime thriller shot ins “lovely eye for space, size, and light” as well as the “visually majestic finish” (the final chase), but he found little else to recommend the film. 69 Crowther in the Times called it “virtually a Hellinger column on film,” but he found the investigation, except for the “roaring ‘Hitchcock’ end,” altogether tedious: “The drama is largely superficial, being no more than a conventional ‘slice of life’—a routine and unrevealing episode in the everyday business of the cops.” 70 Interestingly enough, other critics would praise THE NAKED CITY for precisely that quality. George Sadoul, for instance, later noted that “the banal plot of this crime thriller is merely an excuse for a semidocumentary portrait of the life of ordinary people in a major city”; he considered that portrait the film’s principal achievement. 71 The Academy also responded favorably to the film’s documentary quality, awarding Oscars to Daniels for his cinematography and to Paul Weatherwax for film editing. (Wald also was nominated for his screen story.)

THE NAKED CITY marked a sharp departure from most postwar crime thrillers, even semidocumentary films like BOOMERANG and CALL NORTHSIDE 777. The film’s aggressive quest for authenticity, its focus solely on the police, and its unsentimentalized view of the workaday cop set it apart from the more socially astute—and at least implicitly progressive—realistic crime dramas of the period. These qualities set the tone for the more conservative police procedurals to come, and also for television “cop shows” such as Dragnet and, of course, The Naked City, the ABC-TV series which ran from 1958 to 1963 and was shot largely on location in New York. Despite its influence, however, THE NAKED CITY remained an exceptional film during the late 1940s—a crime film with virtually no trace of noir stylistics, and a semidocumentary drama with no social problem dimension.

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