The Naked Street

Certificate: PG
Running time: 84 mins
Director: Maxwell Shane
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Anne Bancroft, Farley Granger
Genre: Noir, Crime, Drama
Country: USA

When mobster Phil Regal (Quinn) discovers his youngers sister Rosalie (Bancroft) is pregnant there are two issues he feels the need to deal with.  The first is that it’s 1955 and Rosalie is not married to the father-to-be and the second is that said father-to-be is about to go to the electric chair.  Phil’s decision to break Nicky out and play match maker sets a series of events in motion that will change the lives of all who occupy these naked streets forever.

It’s a rare occasion when you’re treated to a cinematic offering that not only carries such a strong case but also one that’s pre ‘Hollywood star mold’, anyone who has watched Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night and witnessed Marilyn Monroe in plaid shirt and jeans will testify to the odd pleasure of seeing a star before they’ve been born.  This is true to an extent with Quinn (Zorba The Greek, La Strada) but more so for Bancroft (The Graduate, The Miracle Worker) who’s usual sophistication is replaced with an uncertainty and naivety that reminds you of the quality of her craft.

The cinematography of The Naked Street is that of a slightly older film noir, as afterall it’s now 1955, America is no longer in the middle of a costly war and film noir has moved from the shadowy back lots of Warner Bros to the lighter contrast of Maxwell Shane’s world.  This could be labelled a criticism of the film and it’s supposed noir heritage but the increased use of light in the cinematography lends itself to an optimism that exists in the film from the get go, even if it is a slightly jaded optimism, and only furthers the gulf in emotion between the beginning of the film and the end.  The camera work is basic, the vast majority of camera work in American cinema of the time was unambitious and served as a device to capture the characters rather than being a character in itself.  This would change as three years later Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil but change is not immediate and the limited movement is not a failing of the film rather a signifier of the trends of the time.  The camera work, at times, in Pick Up on South Street is more than similar and nobody would criticise this masterful Samuel Fuller cinematic offering.

Quinn’s performance as the conveniently religious mobster is excellent.  So often Quinn’s hard side is born out of an emotional reaction, one that can be justified but is the right thing to do.  As Phil Regal he is a passionate and emotional man but he is also a ruthless man and one that will be betrayed by his emotions making him an almost Shakespearian character in his tragedy that will, no doubt, allow for a greater reading of the character and a debate on the fatalistic nature of Regal and film noir in general.  Quinn’s love of his sister is played off against an underlying menace (as most people do what Phil wants of them at the first time of asking) and his ability to showcase both traits at the same time without tipping his hand towards either is testament to acting credentials of the man.  His screen presence is such that it dominates in the right way.  The role of Regal is one of a dominant male and as such he should be a force on screen but there’s a difference between being dominant as the character and dominating as an actor.  Quinn, as an actor, is unselfish in the role and brings out of the best in (what would have been) an inexperienced Bancroft while at the same time carries two wonderful and different rivalries with  Granger and Peter Graves (Joe McFarland) who’s a reporter who is also in love with Rosalie.

Bancroft, as mentioned, is not only extremely strong in the role of Rosalie but naturally talented enough that she is more than a match for the male counterparts she is on screen with.  It’s odd to consider an Anne Bancroft that has to be praised for ‘holding her own’, such is the marvel of the later career, but this is before she became the star she was and alongside such established figures it’s a genuine thrill to see the lady cut her teeth.  Her character has been forced to marry a murderer in order to uphold family values and as such she plays on all the grey areas that the hypocracy creates and does it with great affect.  The one blot on the acting copy book is, sadly, Farley Granger.  Alfred Hitchcock saw, in Farley Granger, a particular quality of acting that lent itself to his dark roles in Strangers on a Train and Rope.  The quality was ever so subtle but it was an initial cold heartedness that once scratched at revealed a nervous and remorseful character who’s main crime was poor decision making (at least until he commited murder).  As Nicky he is required to be free of the nerves and remorse, he is a killer for the mob and one so menacing that he has no issue with plotting against the man who saved his life.  This is a role for an Edward G. Robinson figure and unfortunately for the tension of the film Granger is no match for the brooding screen presence of Quinn, is barely a match for Bancroft and is evenly matched for Graves’ law abiding citizen, which highlights the shortcomings of Granger’s hitman.

Maxwell Shane’s The Naked Street comes along a little too late to be a genuine film noir and it’s light disposition and lack of real chiaroscuro lighting techniques reinforces this issue.  Thematically it has little similaries to a film noir as it is lacking in mystery, a femme fatale though it does have fatalistic undertones but has more in common with the Douglas Sirk dramas than it does John Huston or Howard Hawks.  Nevertheless, The Naked Street, is a well constructed and acted piece of classical cinema that has just enough to it that you’ll leave the cinema feeling comforted that you have witnessed the origins of some true Hollywood stars.


James Gracey said...

Please don't judge me too harshly John, but not only have I never seen this - I've never even heard of it...
After reading your fine review however, I think I'll be keeping an eye out for it. The title sounds quite exploitative and initially I thought it was one of those poverty-row, Ed Wood-type 'morality' shockers like The Pace That Kills et al. Which isn't a bad thing, mind! After reading your review though I'm now convinced it's quite the hidden gem.

John Baxter said...

Awk cheers James, no judgement at all. I caught it by accident as part of the Noir Festival at the Egyptian Theatre. Bancroft was due to introduce but she unfortunately passed away before it could happen so it was left to a film lecturer from UCLA to fill in. The print was in a dreadful condition, it snapped two or three times. Took about three hours to watch an 84 minute movie but it stuck with me. Hope you like it.

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