Set and filmed in Manhattan, the film depicts the police investigation that follows the murder of a young model, Jean Dexter. Jean is found in her apartment, supposedly drowned in the bathtub, but the medical examiner tells at a glance that she was sedated and drowned. Detective Lt. Dan Muldoon (Fitzgerald) is placed in charge of the case and he sets about, with the help of other beat cops and detectives, to find the girl's killer.
In 2007, The Naked City was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
This film provides examples of:
- Alone with the Psycho: Played with. Newbie detective Halloran is stupid enough to go ahead and approach Garzah alone in his apartment. When Muldoon learns of this at the station he sends backup squads behind. Meanwhile, Garzah overpowers Halloran but leaves him alive and flees. The backup later manages to track down Garzah at Williamsburg Bridge.
- Bluff the Impostor: Muldoon asks the grocery boy where he hid the knife which he stabbed Jean Dexter with. The boy replies that he buried it. Of course, there was no knife involved in the murder and the killer should have known that.
- Chase Scene: First Garzah is chased by Halloran fleeing from Nile's apartment but he escapes via train. At the end, Garzah is chased through the streets by a squad of policemen.
- The City: Much of the movie's appeal comes from the depicted street life of post-war New York City.
- Climbing Climax: The final Chase Scene ends with Garzah climbing one of the towers of Williamsburg Bridge.
- Death by Irony: Backalis gets killed the same way as his victim Jean Dexter — getting knocked out and then drowning to his death.
- Disney Villain Death: Garzah falling from the tower to his death.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: Backalis, one of the killers, is conscience-stricken after the murder. He gets good and drunk and says "I'm gonna stay drunk for a long time." He's wrong about that, as his partner, later revealed to be Garzah, promptly murders him.
- False Confession: The mentally unstable grocery boy confesses to have killed Jean Dexter but Muldoon convicts him of lying via Bluff the Impostor.
- Match Cut: From the tub spigot that the killers turn on as they're murdering Jean, to the spigot from a street cleaning truck as it scours the streets in the morning.
- Medium Awareness: The narration by Mark Hellinger starts by saying "This film is called The Naked City", and talking about how it was all shot on location in New York rather than in movie studios.
- The Narrator: Producer Mark Hellinger provides narration at various points during the movie.
- One Head Taller: Halloran is one head taller than his boss Muldoon.
- Outliving One's Offspring: Jean Dexter's mother mourns this fact.Mother: You nurse a child, you raise it, pet it, you love it...and it ends like this.
- Police Procedural: The story is told from the viewpoint of the staff working at the homicide department, and thus providing us with many of the details of daily detective work.
- Posthumous Character: The murder victim Jean Dexter is only seen shortly in the opening sequence but her character is later explored during the police investigation.
- Sunshine Noir: Instead of depicting the "dark side" of the city (rain, night, lonesome streets etc.), the film shows us a vital city in summer, mostly by day.
- Tap on the Head: Early on Garzah does this to Backalis before dumping him into the river. Later he gives Halloran a knock-out punch from behind.
- They Wasted a Perfectly Good Sandwich: Halloran orders a cool root beer but leaves it behind on the counter when rushing to find Garzah.
- Train Escape:
- When being chases from Niles' home Garzah loses Halloran by boarding a subway train that leaves before the pursuer can catch up.
- Subverted during the climax when Garzah tries to get on a bus but it's already full so he has to continue his escape on foot.