In a television landscape where police dramas were all trying to come up with a format that wasn't simply a “Dragnet” knockoff, “Naked City” (1958-1963) struck a blow for a more serious kind of drama.
Created by Stirling Silliphant, who also came up with its “hip” youth-y equivalent in “Route 66,” the series was completely New York-based, which gave it access to a rich pool of theater actors.
So it makes sense that the latest DVD collection of episodes is organized around the idea of “Can you believe how young these future movie stars look in these early performances?” So the star of the opening choice, “Sweet Prince of Delancey Street,” is Robert Morse (in a really strange performance), which would be enough, even before his best friend turns out to be Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman is, in fact, pretty terrific. In a different episode, the 20-something Christopher Walken (billed as “Ronnie Walken”) shows up as Eddie Albert's moody son.
Robert Duvall shows up in two of the shows; Peter Fonda and Martin Sheen costar in another; and others feature Robert Redford, James Caan, Dennis Hopper ... and on and on. In most cases, these relative unknowns are in major supporting roles; in a few, their parts are smaller than that. It's nice to see Gene Hackman in a small part in “Prime of Life”; but the real draw in this capital punishment-themed story is its unusual stylistic choices, with sudden unannounced flashbacks and a deliberately underplayed climax.
Two or three of the 20 shows here are from the first season, when “Naked City” was a half-hour long; the rest are in the hourlong format of the other seasons. The packaging is completely bare-boned — the only documentation is a list of the titles on the back cover — but at 25 bucks, it's hard to complain. Still, for $5 more, you can get the 40-show “Best of” set, which Image released only a few months ago. The bummer for fans is that 10 of the 20 episodes in the new set were already in the “Best of,” so whether there's a point to owning both is a close call.
"Naked City": 20 Star-Filled Episodes (Image Entertainment, DVD, 5 discs, $24.98)
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).