Tales From the Urban Jungle is a double disc set containing the first two films that director Jules Dassin made with Universal Pictures, Brute Force and The Naked City. Now considered classics of Film Noir, they have been digitally restored by TLEFilms for Arrow Films and released with plenty of special features.
One of the problems with restorations, especially with something like a Film Noir, is the change in feel. A movie’s intimacy can be lost, with a clarity and crispness never intended by the director. Fortunately, this was unlikely to be the case with The Naked City which never really tries to draw its audience in through its narrative. Instead it relies on the beauty of New York, found both in its grandeur and minutiae, to enthrall its audiences. And so thanks to the clean up process – one which took over two years – far from ruining the original vision, it feels as though the original ambition of Dassin and cinematographer William H. Daniels has finally been fully realised. Now we’re able to truly enjoy this love letter to a city that no longer exists.
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An interesting, almost experimental piece on its release, The Naked City is a movie which stood out due to the filming style adopted by director Jules Dassin. Shot on location, it becomes as much an exploration and celebration of the city of New York as it is a story of murder and intrigue. Throughout the film the grand cityscapes are continually contrasted with the people who make up that city. We are treated to the everyday thoughts and activities of New York’s population, those involved with the case itself and those not.
Yet this is a film of its time, and much of the acting is anything but subtle, at times verging on melodrama. This contrasts with the – at times – documentary style of shooting, a raw realism trying to frame obvious theatrics. Yet by the time of the final chase and showdown we’re still fully invested; the crisp, grey light of this digital edit combining with the outdoor location and busy New York public to create a vivid realism leading to a shocking death.
The remaster is just as diligent with the second movie, Brute Force. Though it may be possible to argue that the lightened crispness lessens the overtly, claustrophobic atmosphere that is so important to the film. Still, it’s a clean piece of work and one that will appeal to most viewers.
Unlike The Naked City, Brute Force has far more obvious Noir tones and elements. A brutal, nihilistic social commentary, it’s hard not to see the obvious parallels between the microcosm of Westgate Prison and America in the mid to late 40s. Two philosophies struggle, one of humanism and hope and another of totalitarianism and the strongest surviving. These dueling world views are embodied by Hume Cronyn as the sadistic Capt. Munsey and Art Smith as the resigned and drunken Dr. Walters. And it is clear which of these two ideas holds sway within the prison.
The prisoners, like America, are still trying to process the trauma of World War 2 and yet, despite having defeated the Nazis, they are held in a brutal, fascist dictatorship. This position is most obviously encapsulated by Capt. Munsey. Everything from his mannerisms, to dress, to love of Wagner, screams ‘Third Reich’. To see him in charge of a group of men so soon after that war is a shocking allegory. Because of his harsh treatment, we want the prisoners to succeed despite the fact that they themselves are frighteningly violent. At Westgate snitches don’t get stitches, they get brutally squashed to death by a giant machine of crushing which they are driven into by people wielding blow torches, as they scream and beg for mercy. This happens within the first ten minutes.
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With vicious beatings, men being machine-gunned to death, and one unfortunate being tossed into a crowd who proceeded to rip him apart, it’s hard to imagine how shocking this movie might have been to audiences at the time. Even now it has the power to shock and disturb, the closeness of the overcrowded prison, and growing tension of the planned armed escape bringing us to a knife edge of tension, and despite wanting the prisoners to triumph, there is a sense of doomed foreboding from almost the first scene.
Despite the obviously recognisable Burt Lancaster, here the lead, this film is also something of an ensemble piece, and as such explores masculinity and male relationships. Every member of the gang has their moment, their flashback. As is so often the case in Noir, we find out that each of them was brought low by a woman, yet every one fondly remembers his personal femme fatale.
The special features are aimed at those interested in cinema, its history and its language. Along with archival recordings and stills, both discs have new documentaries that bring an easy to understand but still in-depth look at the movies they are critiquing. Brute Force also includes a specially recorded piece from Josh Olson, who clearly loves the film and here he tells us why.
The commentaries are also excellent. For Brute Force we’re enlightened by historian and critic Josh Nelson. This is not a fluffy, trivia spotted piece, but as long as you’re in the mood for it, his insights are thoroughly engaging. However, saying that a company got a film expert to talk over a black and white movie is a bit like saying they remembered to press record just before they started talking; it’s the least we should expect. More original is David Cairns’ commentary work on The Naked City. Just as insightful, and spiced up with archival audio pertinent to what he’s talking about, the surprise aspect to this commentary is hearing two actors reading lines that were deleted from the original edit. Gimmicky? Perhaps. Exciting? Very.
With Tales From the Urban Jungle we have two classic movies, expertly and lovingly restored, with special features aimed at movie lovers interested in learning more about what they are watching. Whether you’re new to this kind of film, or you’re an avid 40s movie buff, these films belong in your collection. Though the films themselves may not be perfect, the well-balanced special features and excellent restoration mean this set surely rates top marks.
Tales From the Urban Jungle is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.