Everything is Gray: Five Moral Lessons from Naked City

Classic TV Detectives Blogathon bannerIn an Italian restaurant near the New York City Criminal Court Building, Detective Adam Flint is brooding about the nature of guilt.

“I deal with guilt every day, and it’s been years I thought about what it really is,” he muses to his actress fiancée Libby.

At this moment, Detective Flint has good reason to wonder. He’s in the restaurant during the lunch recess of a murder trial—the re-trial, actually, of a thief and murderer named Joseph Creeley. Detective Flint apprehended Creeley years earlier, in a violent confrontation that followed Creeley’s robbery of a jewelry store. In the course of the robbery, Creeley killed the old man who owned the store and permanently crippled his widow.

Flint is a prosecution witness in this trial, as he was in the previous one that sent Creeley to death row. But this time, Flint is hoping that the defense will prevail.

You see, shortly before Creeley’s scheduled execution, doctors found a tumor growing in the criminal’s brain. When they removed it, they also removed the past 10 years from Creeley’s memory, as well as the violent impulses that took over his life in the months leading up to the robbery.

Creeley’s defense attorney is arguing that the tumor caused that violent behavior—that the tumor, in fact, was the real murderer.

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This kind of complicated moral dilemma is a defining feature of Naked City, which began life as a half-hour series based closely on the 1948 Mark Hellinger film of the same name. John McIntire recreated Barry Fitzgerald’s role as the wise and experience Lieutenant Muldoon and dimply James Franciscus played rookie detective Jimmy Halloran.

Like the motion picture Naked City, the series filmed in New York City, largely on the city’s streets.

Critics embraced it from the beginning.

UPI’s William Ewald praised the show’s layered treatment of crime and justice: “It recognizes that not all juvenile delinquents are punks, that violence is a symptom of something out of joint, that life isn’t merely a matter of the good guys versus the bad guys. And although its plots are usually thin, sorrow and pity wash over its flesh. It faces up to the human condition, unlike slicker action shows…”

The show died after one season. Producer Herbert Leonard and frequent writer Stirling Silliphant went on to create another acclaimed series, Route 66, then got the green light to revive Naked City in an hour-long format.

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Debuting in 1960, this version starred Paul Burke as sensitive young Detective Adam Flint opposite Horace McMahon’s crusty Lieutenant Mike Parker. (Harry Bellaver played another 65th precinct officer, Detective Frank Arcaro, throughout both versions of the series.)

This version aired for three seasons, and its 1963 cancellation surprised its cast and outraged critics.

In a way, though, it seems fitting that Naked City died when it did, before the assassination of John F. Kennedy ended the brief era of idealism it represents, and before the rapid cultural shifts of the late 1960s polarized our national discourse in ways that still reverberate today.

Naked City’s vision of the human experience is as complex as the city in which its stories unfold, as varied as those 8 million people who populate it.

Since this is the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon, I prepared by focusing on the detectives themselves. This isn’t easy because Naked City does not dwell on its officers’ backstories and personal motivations. In Season One, we get occasional glimpses of Detective Halloran’s wife; she mostly waits at home and worries about him. Subsequent seasons give a more substantial role to Detective Flint’s fiancée Libby, who’s living a proto-That Girl life as an aspiring actress. Nancy Malone imbues Libby with warmth and intelligence, and she and Paul Burke make Libby and Adam a believable couple. Libby still mostly exists to be a sounding board and solace for Adam, though.

Adam and Libby in their typical attitudes--he worrying about work, she worrying about him.

Adam and Libby in their typical attitudes–he worrying about work, she worrying about him.

As I watched episodes whose events touched the show’s detectives in a more personal way than usual, I learned little about their lives but a lot about the moral vision that guides them—and, by extension, the show itself:

1. “Everything is gray.”
Those are the words that Joseph Creeley mutters as he awakens after surgery and finds a 10-year void in his memory. Struggling with the nature of guilt, Adam repeats these words during his lunch with Libby. His ability to see so many sides to an issue frustrates him, although Libby assures him it’s one of his finest qualities.

This is one of Naked City’s finest qualities, too. Its stories evoke a measure of our sympathy for nearly every character, even those we first encounter during brutal acts of violence.

Consider this 10-minute opening sequence from 1961’s “Requiem for a Sunday Afternoon.” We feel the wronged husband’s pain but can’t see the young man dragged into this situation (Burt Reynolds!) as a villain. We can even find some understanding for the wife, trapped in a marriage she never wanted.

2. When you want to know who you are, look inward.

In “Bullets Cost Too Much,” Adam endures the shifting winds of public opinion. Paying a visit to a bar that hasn’t been closing on time, he witnesses an armed robbery. A mouthy drunk gets in the thieves’ way and gets shot, while Adam sits and watches, unable to intervene without endangering other bar patrons. The thieves get away, although Adam shoots one during the escape.

The jeering crowds that gather around Adam even toss out the ultimate Cold War-era insult, comparing him to Communist security forces.

The jeering crowds that gather around Adam even toss out the ultimate Cold War-era insult, likening him to Communist security forces.

In a parallel story, the doctor brother of one of the thieves struggles with his conscience as he treats the wounded man and avoids alerting the authorities.

In the end, Adam helps capture the thieves and earns headlines as glowing as previous ones were critical.

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Libby frames both to remind Adam to rely on his own sense of integrity, rather than external assessments.

(In the show’s typically complex way, we are left to doubt whether Adam’s original judgment in the bar was correct. The doctor’s girlfriend, a sympathetic and unbiased character, tells Libby that she studied bar diagrams closely and believes that Adam could have used the element of surprise to save the drunk’s life.)

3. “Life is precious, every hour of it.”

Those are Adam’s words in the Joseph Creeley trial, as he explains why he authorized Creeley’s risky brain surgery. (Unable to decide for himself about the surgery, Creeley had given Adam his power of attorney.)

Adam’s reverence for life faces its toughest test in “Prime of Life” when Lieutenant Parker orders him to witness an execution.

As moments pass slowly in the death chamber, Adam has flashbacks to the condemned man’s crime, as well as to his own agonized soul-searching in the weeks leading up to the execution.

As moments pass slowly in the death chamber, Adam has flashbacks to the condemned man’s crime, as well as to his own agonized soul-searching in the weeks leading up to the execution.

After the execution, as Adam drives away from the prison, we are left to reflect on the words Lieutenant Parker used when tasking Adam with this duty: “That gun you carry gives you the power of life and death…maybe it’s a good thing to think about life and death.”

4. “We are all responsible for each other.”

Describing a 1958 episode about juvenile delinquency, TV critic Fred Remington described the main character’s problem as “a terrible, aching loneliness.”

Naked City rarely attaches labels or diagnoses to its criminals, but a lack of human connection seems to drive many of them.

In the first-season episode “ And a Merry Christmas to the Force on Patrol,” an officer subbing for Detective Halloran on Christmas Eve gets shot during a liquor store stake-out. One thief, Marco, is captured, but he refuses to help police identify or locate his brother. Halloran is shaken and angry, but Lieutenant Muldoon takes a softer approach. When Marco learns that his brother was shot while fleeing, Marco breaks down and tells Muldoon where to find him.

Later, Muldoon has to return to Marco’s cell to inform him that his brother died before police got to him.

Marco, shattered that his brother died alone, reaches out to the only person can—Muldoon.

Marco, shattered that his brother died alone, reaches out to the only person can—Muldoon.

(By the way, Frank Sutton plays Marco. If, like me, you know him mainly as Sergeant Carter in Gomer Pyle, his dramatic acting in this and other Naked City episodes will amaze you.)

“We are all responsible for each other,” is what Adam tells Libby after the Joseph Creeley case goes to the jury. She doubts whether she could handle the responsibility of deciding a man’s fate, but Adam argues that judging and being judged is part of our human compact.

5. There are no easy answers—and sometimes no answers at all.

Naked City doesn’t paint criminals as monsters, but it does not downplay crime’s horror. When violence erupts on this show, it is usually sudden and brutal.

The 1962 episode “A Case Study of Two Savages” has a particularly high body count. Arkansas’ Ansel Boake (Rip Torn) arrives in New York with his teenage bride and begins shooting everyone who gets in his way. This includes Detective Frank Arcaro, who merely stops to tell the youth that his license plate is loose.

This gun store owner, relishing Ansel's country bumpkin humor, has only a few seconds left to live.

This gun store owner, relishing Ansel’s country bumpkin humor, has only a few seconds left to live.

A convalescing Arcaro tells Adam to find out why the young man shot him. When police finally catch up with Ansel and kill him during a bank robbery, his wife (Tuesday Weld) can’t offer much of an answer.

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“Just for the hell of it, I guess,” she says.

Likewise, Jimmy Halloran comes up short during the first-season episode “Burst of Passion,” which concerns the kind of mass shooting we see all too often today. Jimmy’s friendly, church-going neighbor snaps, embarking on a shooting rampage. Witnesses debate the killer’s mental state, while Jimmy tracks the man down to the deserted off-season environs of Coney Island. (I love the scenery in this one.)

Halloran ends up shooting his neighbor; before dying, the man rambles semi-coherently about mankind’s failures and the need to begin again.

We’re left with narrator’s observation that sometimes there are no answers, at least not comforting ones.

We get no answers in the Joseph Creeley case, either.

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After the jury gets the case, Adam and Libby leave it and the New York Criminal Court Building behind. Due to his faith in the jury system, Adam conveys a renewed sense of peace.

My first reaction on watching this episode was annoyance that we didn’t learn the jury’s decision. Then I realized that this story’s thorny moral dilemma doesn’t lend itself to a simple answer—it is something viewers need to think through for themselves.

In the world of Naked City, asking questions is more important than finding answers.

Read more entries from the Classic TV Detectives Blogathon.

Family Affair Friday: Season 3, Episode 23, “The Young Man from Bolivia,” 3/10/1969

Written by: Austin and Irma Kalish. Directed by: Charles Barton.

French has just retrieved the Davis family mail and found a letter for Jody.

It's from Bolivia, so Jody assumes it's from Uncle Bill.

It’s from Bolivia, so Jody assumes it’s from Uncle Bill.

French thinks not, since it’s addressed to “Senor J. Davis.” Jody is excited to realize that it’s from his penpal Paco, the son of Bill’s Bolivian associate.

Jody tells French that the letter says Paco is having a nice time and the weather is good.

French wonders how the boys can communicate since Jody "has trouble enough reading English."

French wonders how the boys can communicate since Jody “has trouble enough reading English.”

Ouch!

It turns out that they express themselves through pictures.

It turns out that they express themselves through pictures.

Jody hurries off to his room and starts to answer Paco’s letter right away.

While he's drawing, Buffy comes in to borrow a red crayon. It seems Mrs. Beasley is going on a date and needs some lipstick.

While he’s drawing, Buffy comes in to borrow a red crayon. It seems Mrs. Beasley is going on a date and needs some lipstick.

Oooh, that’s a bad idea Buffy–Mr. Clean hasn’t invented the Magic Eraser yet! (I’m also rather surprised that Mrs. Beasley dates. Ourtime.com hasn’t been invented yet either.)

Jody can't spare the red crayon--it's a crucial part of his "reply" to Paco.

Jody can’t spare the red crayon–it’s a crucial part of his “reply” to Paco.

Like Paco’s picture, Jody’s is also meant to convey that he’s having a nice time and the weather is good.

In our next scene, an excited Paco has received Jody's letter and is showing it to his father and Bill.

In our next scene, an excited Paco has received Jody’s letter and is showing it to his father and Bill.

“That’s Jody all right,” Bill says, adding wistfully, “at least as far as I can remember.”

His Bolivian project has apparently been a long one, but he is preparing to go home the next day. Paco and his father are staying another day and then flying to Paris.

When Senor Mendez laments the fact that the two pen pals won’t get a chance to meet, Bill has a brainstorm: He can take Paco home with him, and Senor Mendez can pick him up in New York on the way to Paris.

(Can you imagine what a nightmare it would be to make these complicated travel arrangements? Luckily, that’s never a problem in the Davis universe.)

Paco is thrilled by the opportunity to meet Jody and quickly agrees.

Paco is thrilled by the opportunity to meet Jody and quickly agrees.

Bill only tells the family that he’s bringing home a surprise, so they are indeed to surprised to find what Jody calls “a living surprise” at their door.

Bill explains introduces Paco to the kids and tells them that their guest doesn't speak any English.

Bill explains introduces Paco to the kids and tells them that their guest doesn’t speak any English.

Fortunately, Bill is fairly fluent in Spanish, as we remember from the “Lost in Spain” episodes.

The writers don’t seem to remember those episodes, though.

The writers don't seem to remember those episodes, though. The twins, who spent weeks studying the language in Spain, can't speak a single world of it.

The twins, who spent weeks studying the language in Spain, can’t speak a single world of it.

And Cissy credits her scant knowledge of Spanish to her school classes, without mentioning her experiences abroad.

Cissy credits her scant knowledge of Spanish to her school classes, without mentioning her experiences abroad.

And French can now speak at least a little Spanish, though the whole "Lost in Spain" plot hinged on his inability to do so.

And French can now speak at least a little Spanish, though the whole “Lost in Spain” plot hinged on his inability to do so.

Ay, caramba!

Things get off to a good start between Paco and Jody.

By bedtime, though, an awkward silence has settled in.

By bedtime, though, an awkward silence has settled in.

Bill looks in on the boys and asks Jody if they are having trouble communicating.

"No," Jody says. "We just don't know how to talk."

“No,” Jody says. “We just don’t know how to talk.”

At Bill’s suggestion, Jody tries to tell Paco about his turtle.

“Como?” Paco asks.

"No, his name is Dinky," a frustrated Jody replies.

“No, his name is Dinky,” a frustrated Jody replies.

They do manage to share a nice moment right before going to bed.

Paco says "Good night," and Jody says, "Buenos Noches."

Paco says “Good night,” and Jody says, “Buenas Noches.”

The next morning, Jody wants to make up for lost time and do some bonding with Uncle Bill.

They start to catch up, although Jody warns him that he probably doesn't want to hear about Jody's spelling grades.

They start to catch up, although Jody warns Bill that he probably doesn’t want to hear about Jody’s spelling grades.

When Paco comes in and starts talking with Bill in Spanish, Jody’s mood turns glum.

He feels left out as Bill laughs at Paco's amusing remarks.

He feels left out as Bill laughs at Paco’s amusing observations.

For example, Paco notes that Mr. French doesn’t shave. He also says that the bridges Bill builds, though not as tall as New York skyscrapers, would seem tall to a fish.

Jody gets tired of having the jokes translated for him and leaves the room.

Later, Cissy takes the three kids to the park.

Later, Cissy takes the three kids to the park.

Jody is still acting petulant and complains that Paco won’t know how to play their games.

“All kids play the same games,” Cissy asserts confidently–and, as we shall see, wrongly.

Paco's an interesting novelty to the twins' friends, who soon gather around.

Paco’s an interesting novelty to the twins’ friends, who soon gather around.

One girl is excited to learn that he’s from South America–“farther away than New Jersey, even.” Meanwhile, Jody and his friend Peter have this conversation.

Jody: He doesn’t speak English.
Peter: That’s neat!
Jody: What’s so neat about it?

I think Jody might have a future in Republican politics.

I think Jody might have a future in Republican politics.

The kids get even more interested when Paco displays a toy he brought from home.

Peter wants to play with it, though Jody tries to drag him away.

Peter wants to play with it, though Jody tries to drag him away.

Cissy says the toy was an invention of the Incas.

Cissy says the toy was an invention of the Incas, which Bess Lindstrom here interprets as "inkers."

Bess Lindstrom, here, interprets that as “inkers.” She was much smarter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Jody, refusing to even try it, says, “Who wants to play with an old toy from the inkers?”

With nothing else to do, he tries to interest Buffy and her friends in a game of baseball.

With nothing else to do, he tries to interest Buffy and her friends in a game of baseball.

When they say they have to take care of their dolls, Jody suggests using the dolls as bases.

Oh, no, he didn't!

Oh, no, he didn’t!

Sensing that her brother is stressed, Buffy pulls him aside and reminds him that Paco’s father is coming to get him that very evening.

"Good!" Jody exclaims.

“Good!” Jody exclaims.

Back at home, he is only too happy to help Paco pack.

Don't get too excited, Jody. Paco's dad has just called Bill to explain that he will be delayed.

Don’t get too excited, Jody. Paco’s dad has just called Bill to explain that he will be delayed.

Senor Mendez tells Bill to send Paco back to Bolivia, but Bill won’t hear of it–four children is no more trouble than three, so he will be happy to have Paco stay on.

Paco isn't happy about this news. Talking to his father, his face goes from this...

Paco isn’t happy about this news. Talking to his father, his face goes from this…

...to this.

…to this.

And, of course, Jody isn’t happy either when he hears Paco is staying.

"How long?" he asks his uncle.

“For how many days?” he asks his uncle.

That’s a good question and, strangely, one that Bill didn’t ask Paco’s father when they were talking on the phone. Nevertheless, Bill says it might be a week.

Later, while the twins are getting a snack, Buffy pledges her loyalty to Jody.

Later, while the twins are getting a snack, Buffy pledges her loyalty to a downhearted Jody.

They have to stick together, Jody agrees, adding “Brother and sister can’t come apart.”

But when Buffy takes cookies in to Paco and finds him crying, she can't help trying to cheer him up.

But when Buffy takes cookies to Paco and finds him crying, she can’t help trying to cheer him up.

She introduces him to baseball–or at least playing catch.

She introduces him to the game of baseball--or at least playing catch.

Paco catches on quickly and begins to enjoy himself.

But when Jody sees this happy scene, he feels betrayed.

Et tu, Buffy?

Et tu, Buffy?

She explains that she had to be nice to Paco because he was crying. Jody is unsympathetic.

Jody: Mr. French says boys don’t cry.
Buffy: Maybe they do in Bolivia.
Jody: I wouldn’t.

(It’s too bad Free to Be You and Me won’t come out for another three years. Both Jody and French need to hear this Rosey Grier song.)

Later, Jody is on the terrace feeding Dinky (or Senor Dinky, as Paco calls him–I love that!)

Uncle Bill stops by with Paco and offers to take both boys out for ice cream.

Uncle Bill stops by with Paco and offers to take both boys out for ice cream.

This is how upset Jody is: He turns down ice cream…because he needs to practice his spelling.

As Bill and Paco walk away and Paco calls, "Adios," Jody mutters, "Adios, yourself."

As Bill and Paco walk away and Paco calls, “Adios,” Jody mutters, “Adios, yourself.”

Strong words for Jody.

Then, he nuzzles Dinky. Eww!

Then, he nuzzles Dinky. Eww!

The next morning, Bill is exulting about the way the kids are getting along.

There's an international language of children, French agrees. They understand each other instinctively.

There’s an international language of children, French agrees. They understand each other instinctively.

At that moment, though, Paco and Jody are actually coming to blows.

Hearing the noise, Bill rushes in to break up the fight.

Hearing the noise, Bill rushes in to break up the fight.

He speaks privately with Jody, who vents about how Paco has been getting all the attention. Having another boy around means no one cares about him, he pouts.

Bill chides him for feeling sorry for himself and asks him what he would do if he was in Bolivia with Paco's family.

Bill chides him for feeling sorry for himself and asks him what he would do if he was in Bolivia with Paco’s family.

Based on his recent experiences, Jody says that he’d tell Paco’s family to pay lots of attention to Paco.

Using what I hope is reverse psychology, Bill offers to send Paco home right away.

Using what I hope is reverse psychology, Bill offers to send Paco home right away.

If it was reverse psychology, it works beautifully. “I don’t want him to feel not wanted. It’s a terrible feeling,” Jody says in a nice, subtle callback to the Davis kids’ traumatic experiences.

Bill orders Jody to say he’s sorry about their fight. Jody says he really is sorry about it…Paco was winning.

Cue bemused laughter.

Cue bemused laughter.

By the time Paco’s father does come to collect his son, the boys are getting along fine.

Jody calls Paco his amigo, and Paco calls Jody his friend. They even exchange gifts.

Jody calls Paco his amigo, and Paco calls Jody his friend. They even exchange gifts.

Jody doesn’t want Paco to leave. Senor Mendez encourages the Davises to visit them in Bolivia someday. (When Buffy asks Bill if they really can go to Bolivia, he gives one of those “Oh, maybe,” responses that are parent speak for “Don’t hold your breath.”)

Even after Paco leaves, his influence lingers–Jody ends the episode by calling his uncle “Tio Bill.”

Commentary

They really should have aired this episode before the “Lost in Spain” three-parter to avoid inconsistencies about the family’s Spanish fluency.

Jody’s behavior is terrible in this episode, but it’s kind of fun to watch since it is so different from his usual unselfish demeanor. He always has taken a special pride in his father-son connection with Bill, so it makes sense that having another boy around would make him feel threatened.

Guest Cast

Senor Mendez: Carlos Romero. Paco: Miguel Monsalve. Kathy: Lisa True Gerritsen. Peter: Randy Whipple.
All the kids are Family Affair veterans. Romero’s many TV appearance included recurring roles on Zorro, Adam-12, and Falcon Crest.