November 21, 2008

THE NAKED STREET (1955)






The first time I saw the 1941 Greer Garson film Blossoms in the Dust I was surprised that Hollywood could manage an entire production (not to mention one with four Academy Award nominations) about the crusade to have the word illegitimate removed from birth certificates in the state of Texas. Apparently, the stigma attached to the word at that time was enough to handicap the unfortunately labeled child for life. No jobs, no education, no inheritance. There are countless films from the golden era of Hollywood that use scandal (and what characters will do to avoid it) to create dramatic tension. Scandal may be the most utilized filmic mainstay of Hollywood’s golden age that has since lapsed from contemporary film.

In The Naked Street, mob enforcer Phil Regal (Anthony Quinn), who regularly has men beaten and killed, is so frightened of the idea that his knocked-up kid sister Rosalie (Anne Bancroft) might have to raise a bastard child that he fantastically engineers the release of her beau from the death house at Sing Sing. It is positively stunning to consider that audiences would empathize with the idea that a hardened, violent killer would go to such means to protect his sister and her child from the whispers and smirks of square-type citizens. The young hoodlum and father of the child, one Nicky Bradna (Farley Granger), is currently awaiting the big zap for knifing an elderly clerk during a bungled liquor store heist. Regal hires the best lawyer in New York and intimidates key eyewitnesses into rethinking their testimony just so Bradna can beat the rap and make an honest woman of Rosalie. This outrageous story twist is what makes The Naked Street so interesting, and the filmmakers’ failure to follow the melodramatic possibilities to the finish make it something of a disappointment.

As the story continues to unfold the plot twists evolve as well — after Rosalie loses the baby and Bradna begins to philander, Regal decides the kid is expendable. He endeavors to have a jewelry fence killed just so he can frame Bradna for the crime, effectively giving him another date with the hot seat.When the boy returns to the big house the movie abruptly shifts from hard-boiled to preachy. The voice over narration provided by crusading reporter Joe McFarland (Peter Graves) begins to take over, and the dialogue veers from melodramatic to overtly socially conscious, especially as Bradna’s date with destiny approaches. The film’s only chance for success lies in making good on the outrageous melodrama of the first hour — yet it fails to do so, and merely deteriorates into a commentary on the system. The dramatic tension subsides and the denouement becomes obvious and perfunctory, thanks in part to very poor foreshadowing. A film of this type simply can’t start on one trajectory, no matter how unbelievable, and end on another.

Quinn turns in typical Quinn in The Naked Street, but the film does offer the opportunity to see pretty boy Granger in a role other than the sensitive and boyish patsy that was his bailiwick. Make no mistake, Granger is a kind of patsy in The Naked Street as well, but not to Quinn, or even to fate. By 1955 film noir had begun to scrutinize the effect of an unjust social system — bureaucracy run amok — as the latent source juvenile delinquency and the wellspring of dramatic tension. It’s an unjust social system that is to blame here — Granger isn't asked to pay, like Burt Lancaster a decade before in The Killers, for some mistake made long ago. Instead, he's the unfortunate victim of a social order that has forgotten him — reduced by an editorializing McFarland to “a victim of the slums, a victim of the rackets, a victim of himself.”

One final note: From time to time I’ll get a sneaky suspicion that no one associated with Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide has actually seen one of the films reviewed. Their one-sentence review for The Naked Street reads as follows: “Capable cast wasted in bland yarn of reporter exposing crime syndicate.”

Ouch.

The Naked Street (1955)
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Director: Maxwell Shane
Screenplay: Leo Katcher (Story) and Maxwell Shane (Screenplay)
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Farley Granger, Peter Graves, and Anne Bancroft
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 84 minutes

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