During Naked City’s four seasons on ABC (encompassing 138 episodes, running from 1958 to 1963), the show was acclaimed for its psychologically complex crime stories, its adult subject matter, and its use of real New York City locations. But New York didn’t just give Naked City its look; it also gave the producers access to some of the best young actors of that era, many of whom had flocked to the city in the wake of the emergence of Marlon Brando and The Actors Studio. The five-disc DVD set Naked City: 20 Star-Filled Episodes showcases some of the biggest names ever to appear on the show: Dustin Hoffman, Peter Fonda, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall (twice), Dennis Hopper, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, James Caan, Peter Falk, Christopher Walken, and more. Some only appear for a scene or two; others are the primary guest stars. Collectively, they represent the change bearing down on the entertainment industry at the dawn of the ’60s—and show how that change could be wrenching.
Naked City itself changed over its five years. In its first season it was a half-hour show, with the majority of the episodes written by creator Stirling Silliphant and about half the episodes directed by underrated auteur Stuart Rosenberg (who later helmed Cool Hand Luke and The Pope Of Greenwich Village). James Franciscus and John McIntire co-starred initially as NYPD detectives, until McIntire left and was replaced by Horace McMahon. It was briefly cancelled, then brought back as an hourlong show, starring McMahon and Paul Burke. But in none of Naked City’s incarnations were the cops as important as the crimes. Burke’s character’s personal life was a factor—he dated an artsy woman, and brought some of that perspective to his investigations—but fully half or more of each episode was given over to desperate people accused of heinous illegality.
The extent of that heinousness is alarming even now. In “The One Marked Hot Gives Cold,” for example, Duvall plays an ex-con suspected of child molestation. In “Shoes For Vinnie Winford,” Hopper is an overmatched second-generation corporate shark who moonlights as an abusive burlesque kingpin. In “Tombstone For A Derelict,” Redford leads a group of frighteningly idealistic college kids who stab homeless men to death and then leave swastika stickers next to their corpses. In “Portrait Of A Painter,” William Shatner plays an abstract artist who thinks he killed his wife, and the detectives study his canvases to understand his mental state. The maturity of the plots is matched by Naked City’s interest in the motivations of the accused.
The intense “realness” of Naked City sometimes pushes the drama too far into the red. Urged to eschew Hollywood phoniness and to put into practice what they’d learned in acting classes, amped-up youngsters like Hopper, Sheen, and Robert Morse shout and tremble prolifically, and chew the scenery as though it were Chiclets. But the show’s writing is always punchy, and the direction always stylishly noir-ish; and the pervasive darkness means that Naked City can be absolutely terrifying at times. It’s a kick to see a young Robert Redford, sure. But a young Redford in a Nazi uniform explaining how he’s going to hold a black mirror up to the world? That’s why Naked City is still so well-remembered.
Key features: There are 20 stories in the Naked City DVD set. There is not one special feature.