Earlier in the month, I spent too many nights staying up late watching episodes from the first season of Mad Men, trying to catch up before the second season premiered. As kind of a counterbalance, I watched a bunch of episodes of the old crime show, Naked City, often alternating---one episode of Mad Men then an episode of Naked City then another episode of Mad Men. I didn't get a lot of sleep that week. I thought that since Mad Men is set in the early 1960s it would be interesting to compare its depiction of New York City nearly 50 years ago with how New York City was depicted at that time.
The main difference is that the New Yorkers of Mad Men are a strangely narcotized bunch. Their basic affect is ennui. Mad Men is set in a nation waiting for Prozac. The Manhattan of Naked City is full of hyper-active neurotics. Even the cops and criminals are tortured and tormented by angst and nameless dreads. Everybody's nerves are raw. Nobody can relax for a moment. It's a place where if you accidentally bump into someone on the street that person will either take a vicious swing at you or break down and start weeping or start monologing and blast you with a pseudo-poetic speech about the decline of civilization in words and cadences cribbed from Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets. Mad Men's Manhattan is a town of sleepwalkers. Naked City's Manhattan is full of brittle insomniacs jazzed up on caffeine, nicotine, lack of sleep, and their barely contained inner demons. What's naked in the Naked City is emotion.
Or to put it another way, it's a world in which William Shatner can play a paranoid artist who may have murdered his wife with all the patented hamminess he would bring in just a few years to his portrayal of Captian Kirk and not appear to be overacting in comparison with the other actors around him.
The look of the two versions of New York is very different too, naturally. Mad Men is all warmly lit interiors---offices, cocktail lounges, bedrooms---Naked City is, well, naked. It's all bare walls, bare streets, bare buildings, bare sidewalks. There are no trees! There are eight million stories in the naked city but none of them takes place in the shade. The lack of trees is startling. Scenes will be set on streets I've walked recently and I won't recognize them until a major landmark finds its way into a shot because no trees means, besides the absence of the trees' lines and shapes themselves, an absence of shadow, and without shadow there is no play of light, there's just a bland wash of brightness.
Even Greenwich Village and Riverside Drive come across as deserts of asphalt and brick.
Who was responsible for the greening (or re-greening) of New York?
Of course another reason for the lack of shadow on the streets is that there were many fewer skyscrapers outside of Midtown back then.
The people on the naked streets of the naked city are a homely bunch and rather badly dressed, as well. I think of people back then as having been more stylish, more elegant, more sophisticated at least in their grooming and in what they chose to wear to work and out on the town. Mad Men does a beautiful job of re-creating what I imagine my parents and their friends looked like when they were young. But the people in the Naked City do not dress like members of the Rat Pack or like Laura Petrie. The men wear cheap, ill-fitting suits and the women's dresses are drab sacks of thin-looking wool.
Nobody, not even the young actress girlfriend of the main detective, is dressed to impress. Instead, they all look dressed to flee, as if they're all recent refugees who expect they'll have to pack up and move again very soon.
And like I said, the people themselves are not a particularly good-looking crowd. Even the actress girlfriend is only pretty by comparison to other women around her. The stars, most of the guest stars, bit players, and extras are such a homely bunch that when the then only thirty year old Shatner shows up he is startlingly beautiful and the impossibly gorgeous anyway Diahann Carroll throws the look of every scene she's in out of whack, she just doesn't fit, to the point of looking as though she's a special effect, a poorly integrated bit of CGI.
The ugly costuming and unpretty casting are deliberate thematic choices, of course, to help emphasize Naked City's idea of New York City as Anytown, America writ large. The neuroses of the characters is a result of a combination of poetic license, the pop psychology of the times, and the reigning acting style of the day. So it's easy to get used to all of it, despite how it all differs from reality, memory, and Mad Men.
What shocked me and keeps shocking me every episode are the cars.
Apparently, by 1961, the days of shining Space Age sculptures of chrome and brightly painted steel were over. People were driving ugly tin boxes you couldn't look at without seeing the twisted heaps of metal and broken glass they'd turn into in the slightest fender bender.
Did people really ride around in those things?
Did my parents really let me get in one?
And without a seat belt?
I guess my memory is colored by the fact that the beautiful restorations of cars from that era are the cars worth restoring, the ones that were well-built and handsomely designed, and those were less than the majority of the cars on the road, apparently. All the rest were cheap tin boxes that were probably hardly worth the cost of scrapping when they broke down.
It's easy to forget that people routinely used to replace their cars every three to five years and it wasn't because they were rich or that they were suckers conned into it by Detroit and delusions about status and wealth.
Those tin boxes look as if they would have rusted out if you left them in the driveway overnight in the rain. They look as though they'd dent from the impact of being looked at too hard. Shine a flashlight on the finish too long, and that's it, the paint job's ruined.
Life in the naked city is better in a thousand ways than it was then, and worse in another thousand, but there's no arguing with the fact that nobody back could expect to own their car for ten years and, with just routine maintenance, have it looking and running almost as good as the day they bought it.
One thing hasn't changed though.
If you owned a car in the city then, you had just as much trouble parking it on your street as if you own one now.
There's a whole episode built around the idea that people would kill each other over a parking space.