Postwar NYC on Film:  Comedy and (Mostly) Crime

Until I revisited The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) a few years ago, I did not realize that my memory regarding the locale for this movie was faulty.  I recalled Danny Kaye bopping along the streets of New York City in sunny, broad daylight amongst a bustling throng of equally jaunty New Yorkers.  It was uplifting, suggestive of prosperity and optimism.  The U.S., after all, was one of the few belligerents to come out of World War II with its terrain and cities intact.  It had been the “arsenal of democracy” and reaped the benefits of victory.  However, my recollection that Mitty was filmed on the actual streets of New York was in error.  Except for some long shots of Times Square and various avenues, it was obviously not.  For instance, when Kaye exits a taxi and leaves his multi-film costar Virginia Mayo behind, the action takes place against a studio backdrop.  (I wonder if my recollection of a decades’ old Peter O’Toole TV interview is also in error?  I’d like to think he did tell the host that when he came to New York after the war he was astounded that he could buy a hotdog on every street corner.  No such delicacies could be had by Londoners.)   

There was indeed postwar on-location filming in New York City by major Hollywood studios:  crime movies.  Unlike Mitty, whose main through story is actually of a criminal mien involving Dutch crown jewels hidden from the Nazis and now in the U.S., these films were most definitely not cheery.  Nor were they in color.  However, much of the filming was done on location. 

Made during the war but released shortly thereafter, The House on 92nd Street detailed the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to break a German spy ring.  According to The Hollywood Professionals, actual footage of espionage agents was supplied by the FBI:  “material which had been secretly filmed by their own agents, and that had been top secret information during the War.”  FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was enlisted to provide verisimilitude.

House was not only noir, but perhaps the first “police procedural,” a crime movie filmed in semi-documentary fashion and based on real cases “torn from the headlines!”  Often there was a narrator, like an actor with an authoritative voice such as Reed Hadley.  Audiences became privy to FBI labs and all the methods our crime fighters employed to bring to justice veterans unable to adjust to peacetime and used to killing in the biggest criminal activity of all, war.  (As late as 1968 reviewers commented not only on Bullitt‘s now iconic car chase sequence, but the fascinating look behind the scenes of crime-solving, as in Steve McQueen’s detective hanging out in the San Francisco city morgue to confer with a doctor, and the use of telecopiers to solicit passport applications from Chicago almost in the blink of an eye.)   

Looking back, one sees that daytime filming was necessary to show monumental government buildings wherein law enforcement worked tirelessly to stymie gangsters and racketeers, Nazis, and as time went by, Commie spies. (Terry Moore’s hash-slinger in 1955’s Shack Out on 101 exemplified this mindset in a barely disguised piece of propaganda or, if you will, hokum:  “Just you wait until I pass that examination.  Instead of coming to see me in this broken-down beanery, you’ll, you’ll walk into a great big beautiful government building, and I’ll be sitting behind a big desk doing….”) 

According to The Film Noir Encyclopedia, many of the actors in The House on 92nd Street were nonprofessionals.  Some were true blue FBI personnel.  The director was Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway.  Audiences would see his handiwork again.

The same year as Walter Mitty but very much on the opposite side of the coin was Kiss of Death, the famous noir starring Victor Mature and in his film debut, Richard Widmark as the psychopathic Tommy Udo, who pushes the wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down the stairs.  As he had done with The House on 92nd Street, director Henry Hathaway did much on-location shooting.  Oddly, according to The Film Noir Encyclopedia, cinematographer Norbert Brodine made “a row house in Queens look like a soundstage set.”  Other locations included the Sing Sing Correctional Facility (formerly Ossining Correctional Facility) and the Tombs (Manhattan Detention Complex). 

In The Hollywood Professionals:  Producer Louis De Rochemont used the director’s on-location work experience to convince 20th Century-Fox’s studio head Darryl Zanuck that “semi-documentary crime films would be perfect for postwar audiences because of the factual or apparently factual basis of the material created with the assistance of official bodies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Hathaway acknowledged crowd control as a drawback.  Spectators had the habit of mingling with actors.  Incidental secondary noises like dogs barking or shouting children had to be ignored.  A big problem was transportation via six large equipment trucks shuttling between 76 sets.    

The Naked City

Most famous for on-location shooting in NYC in this period was The Naked City (1948).  This truly exemplified the police procedural.  Said The Film Noir Encyclopedia:  “The real star of the film becomes the city, which can take on a variety of personalities.  It is truly a mysterious entity imbued with all sorts of stories and affectations.  The Naked City is unlike most of [director Jules] Dassin’s other films, as it is a vision of the world that forsakes subtlety and deals almost exclusively with black and white absolute truths.”

To sum up, to my chagrin the close-ups and medium shots in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were not, as I’d misremembered, filmed in the skyscrapers and deli’s and on the streets of New York City.  The comic potential inherent in on-location urban shooting was there but a longer gestation period was needed before it flowered.  The good news was that the exploration of postwar on-location filming in NYC identified some very influential crime films:  The House on 92nd Street, Kiss of Death, and The Naked City.

By Kim

References

Canham, Kingsley.  The Hollywood Professionals:  Volume 1:  Michael Curtiz, Raoul Walsh, Henry Hathaway.  1973.  Includes quotes on Kiss of Death from publicity handout.

Ursini, James, and Ward, Elizabeth.  The Film Noir Encyclopedia.  rev. ed.  1992.

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