Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann, 1948
Starring: Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Jack Webb
One night in L.A., a man named Roy Morgan acts suspiciously around a store. He is stopped by a friendly police officer, who he shoots in order to escape. Though he leaves almost no clues behind, the L.A.P.D. is hot on his trail, particularly detectives Brennan and Jones. Roy, meanwhile, is revealed to be a loner, hiding out with no one but his dog for company and selling stolen electronic equipment to make a living. Paul Reeves, his buyer, alerts the police that Roy might be their man, resulting in a stakeout and more violence. A forensics specialist helps track him down based on shell casings, but Roy is determined not to be captured alive, leading the entire police force on a dangerous chase through the city’s sewer system.
Allegedly inspired by the crimes of Erwin Walker, a returned soldier who went on a rampage in 1946 Los Angeles, He Walked By Night effectively mines one of the basic noir character types: the disturbed soldier lost in post-war life. Richard Basehart (La strada, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) is memorable as the ice-cold cop killer Roy, an obviously troubled and yet still fascinating man. Like the main characters of director Anthony Mann’s previous two noir efforts — T-Men and Raw Deal — something about Basehart is so nondescript that he easily blends in to a crowd. Basehart fulfills the role of the average, American guy next door, which is why his crimes, including killing a policeman, wounding another, and committing armed robbery, are so jarring.
Mann took over directing duties from Alfred L. Werker (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), though this looks and feels like a Mann film every step of the way. It doesn’t hurt that his regular collaborator, cinematographer John Alton, returned for yet another bout of spell bounding cinematography that helps transform a run of the mill film noir into something eerie and suggestive, symbolic and nightmarish. The noir aspects are more fascinating than the police procedural elements (though I do love that sub-genre), but it’s easy to see how influential this film has become. Roy’s violence is stark, particularly in comparison to that scenes that cushion it: quiet moments of life in late ‘40s Los Angeles, and some dull, dialogue-heavy moments that focus on the more mind-numbing aspects of police work. Thanks to Basehart’s performance and Alton’s camera work, even the scenes of Roy sitting in his dark apartment, listening to the police scanner, and waiting are rife with nervous tension and help build the film’s steadily increasing sense of danger and physical violence. The film’s conclusion — an anxiety-inducing chase scene set in LA’s storm drain system — is unforgettable and really must be seen.
Another worthwhile mention is the presence of actor Jack Webb. He was so inspired by the film’s documentary look, its subject matter, and his role as Lee, the evidence technician, that he created Dragnet, the famous police procedural TV series with docu-noir stylings. On the set of He Walked By Night, Webb also met the police technical advisor and began a friendship that is largely the basis for Dragnet. I’m a huge fan of Webb, as Dragnet was always on Nick at Night when I inevitably couldn’t fall asleep, and he’s perhaps more memorable here than Scott Brady (Gremlins) or James Cardwell (The Fighting Sullivans, A Walk in the Sun) as Brennan and Jones.
He Walked By Night comes highly recommended. If you’re going to watch any film noir that crosses over into police procedural territory, this should be it. Though Anthony Mann obviously deserves credit for his consistently excellent noir and western direction skills, John Alton’s cinematography is the real star. His frugal use of light is the closest to the German expressionist directors and cinematographers that anyone would really get during this period and watching He Walked By Night is akin to a learning exercise of how to the lens as a paintbrush and make an art out of light and shadow. It would be easy to say that his work rises above the subject matter, but I think he compliments it perfectly. Though the film is available in an embarrassingly fuzzy version through public domain, I recommend watching it on DVD, if only for the full, glorious effect of the cinematography.