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He Walked by Night
MGM Home Entertainment
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 79 min. / Street Date December 2, 2003 / 14.95
Starring Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Whit Bissell, James Cardwell, Jack Webb
Cinematography John Alton
Art Direction Edward Ilou
Film Editor Alfred De Gaetano
Original Music Leonid Raab
Written by John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur
Produced by Robert T. Kane
Directed by Alfred L. Werker

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

He Walked by Night is an unheralded film noir classic of the style's second wave. It's a grim crime tale inspired by real police work and was one of the more impressive thrillers of 1948. Anthony Mann has often been cited as an uncredited co-director. This makes life easy for critics who like their filmographies neat and tidy -- Night fits right into Mann's work after his low budget Raw Deal and T-Men, and before his leap to MGM. There's nothing like this feature in the mostly anonymous films of Alfred Werker.

Said to be the inspiration for Dragnet, this superior crime film features a fascinating hero-villain, a ruthless loner with a meticulous modus operandi. Richard Basehart is brilliant as an existential public enemy who makes few mistakes as he's stalked by cops itching to take him down. The film is To Live and Die in L.A., circa 1948.


Policeman Robert Rawlins (John McGuire) is shot dead on the streets of Hollywood and Sgts. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) and Chuck Jones (Jimmy Cardwell) are assigned to apprehend his killer. Their prey is a mystery man -- he has no prints on record and no criminal file, and he's too smart and too prepared to get caught. Hiding with his dog in a Hollywood bungalow and listening to police calls on his custom radio, Roy Martin (Richard Basehart) makes careful plans to avoid capture.

The best aspect of He Walked by Night is the contribution of ace camera stylist John Alton. This terrific MGM disc records the nuances of classic noir cinematography with fine shadings and detail. Of all the supposed "gritty police movies" this is one of the classiest-looking.

The movie starts with a bang. A professional thief shows no emotion when blasting a victim point plank with a large pistol. The cops roust every male on the streets in hopes of coming up with a clue. These officers play rough; Scott "Canon City" Brady is a handsome lug with a chip on his shoulder and a bulldog attitude. He Walked by Night probably approximates the way the LAPD saw itself in the late 40s. When a clue leads them to an electronics salesman (Whit Bissell), the cops make vague threats and treat him like a possible accomplice.

"Listen to the calls coming in on the police phone lines and you'll think the city has gone completely insane." Crane Wilbur's story shows a chaotic Los Angeles kept only partially in check by a loyal police force. They have tools and a degree of organization on their side but seem to stay in charge mostly through intimidation and fast footwork. A radio dispatcher manually checks a rolodex-like flipbook for a call sign or an ID number -- I imagine a modern policeman would be amused by the primitive technology shown here. Jack Webb plays the only character with a genuine sense of humor, a police lab technician who matches up markings on various ejected shell casings.

Scott Brady goes on a personal crusade to find the cop-killer, initiating a long passage devoted to the boring, rote element of police work. When he finally picks up the scent of his prey it feels like a genuine breakthrough. The cops close in as a unified force, society against the criminal. There are no G-Men heroics or personal vendettas being carried out, only the law's unswerving might coming down hard and swift. An army of cops surrounds the killer's hideout, giving us a hint of the huge capacity for violence hidden in the system.

The police procedurals are good, but the other half of He Walked by Night is truly noir. Richard Basehart's killer Roy Martin has few dialogue lines. For most of the film we follow him silently, noting his skill and composure under pressure. Supposedly based on a real LAPD case, Martin is a policeman's worst fear because he lacks the erratic lifestyle that makes most criminals easy to chase down. He doesn't associate with known criminals so snitches can't help. He lives on a petty scale in a crummy bungalow that he keeps neat as a pin. Roy is pathologically anti-social; his only relationship is with a little dog, This Gun for Hire- style. He's endlessly resourceful. His preparations include keeping stashes of weapons handy in odd places.

One remarkable scene raises Roy Martin to classic villain stature. Wounded in a shootout, he operates on himself, boiling his instruments and probing for the bullet in a painful procedure. He looks ready to faint dead away and we marvel at his determination. After this completely credible scene we're ready to believe that Martin can do anything.

Roy's most impressive stunts are his lightning-fast escapes into L.A.'s system of storm drains, slipping into the underground pipes through narrow gutter openings. When he's finally cornered, Roy makes a flying leap through a hail of police bullets, and audiences usually applaud. Then He Walked by Night jumps to its underground conclusion in the tomb-like echo-y storm drains, where John Alton's lighting can really go crazy.

Superior lighting is the first thing one notices about He Walked by Night. John Alton was an enormously talented cameraman with lighting theories that made complicated setups look simple. At home in dramatic Technicolor (An American in Paris, Slightly Scarlet), Alton excelled in noir lighting that never looks forced or by the book. Venetian blinds are a noir given, but it's safe to say that nobody used Venetian blinds like Alton. He makes bland exteriors and post office interiors look interesting without gimmicks. An interrogation scene with some young punks has just the right mix of dawn's light peeking in through the window. He surrounds Richard Basehart with cold, deterministic pools of light and darkness. And the subterranean finish (helped by excellent sound effects) is a hellish limbo-world.

The film was a sleeper hit in 1948 and did big things for its key talent. Richard Basehart bounced to major studio work not long after. Bit player Jack Webb also moved on to bigger fish -- starring in his Dragnet radio show. It is often compared to He Walked by Night for basic similarities -- mainly the opening narration and the emphasis on dogged investigation work.

Carol Reed must have been impressed by the storm drain finish of this film as he elaborated on it for the Viennese sewer conclusion of his The Third Man. Reed even repeats the film's gag of a sewer escape thwarted by a vehicle parked on a manhole cover. A similar use of L.A.'s underground drains turns up in Them!, which is often described as a Sci-fi noir.

The film overflows with interesting bit parts. Handsome John McGuire, the luckless cop in the first scene, has mythic roots in Steamboat 'Round the Bend 13 years before, where director John Ford was seemingly trying him out as an all-purpose hero named Duke ... a vacancy eventually filled by John Wayne. Roy Roberts plays the diplomatic Captain of Detectives; he acted in several edgy films noir like Force of Evil. Whit Bissell is excellent in one of the larger roles. In tiny bits we find the youthful likes of John Dehner (Man of the West), Frank Cady (When Worlds Collide) and Kenneth Tobey (The Thing from Another World). Instantly recognizable Dorothy Adams is the archetype for the blabby housewife character that became a fixture on the Dragnet TV shows. In an odd bit of casting, W.C. Fields' widow Carlotta Monti has a tiny bit as one of Roy Martin's momentary hostages in a liquor store holdup.

Los Angeles lovers will like the many authentic location shots in the City of The Angels. Roy Martin's hideout is given a specific location, between Fuller and Poinsettia just south of Santa Monica Boulevard. That's about a mile west of Savant central, adjacent to what used to be the Goldwyn Studios -- a large grocery store is there now. Roy's early escape across a playing field might be the school lot one block to the south. Few bungalow-style apartment courts are still left in the city; they were motel-like wooden structures made cheaply in the '30s to create affordable housing. When property values begin to soar they disappeared in the 60s along with the metal Quonset hut temporary buildings thrown up during WW2. I never saw it, but the first home of the UCLA film department was said to have been a G.I. Quonset hut.

Later noirs and new crime pictures frequently float Melville-like fantasy hogwash about cops and criminals being blood brothers in the a weird yin-yang society of violence. I'm thinking of the 1995 Heat at the moment, but with the advent of John Woo pictures the theme has become as common as lazy thrillers where cops must "enter the minds" of serial killers in order to catch them. He Walked by Night's honest ending is bleak in the extreme, and true to the noir universe of pitiless fate. There's no moralistic coda or verbal reaffirmation of societal values, just a stark close-up of staring, dead eyes - and then the fade out. Good, good show.

MGM's DVD of He Walked by Night is plain-wrap, but who cares? The movie has been shown seemingly forever in crummy public domain versions. This pristine DVD from MGM's perfectly preserved elements (inherited by United Artists by way of Eagle-Lion - note the original logo up front) pops on the screen in all its chiaroscuro glory. No wonder the film made careers, as it's short and modestly budgeted but far more interesting visually than big studio pictures from its year. The audio is equally clear, especially the realistic cacophony in the storm drain finish. I can't help thinking but that MGM's DVD graphic designers were inspired by the movie; their tinted-photo cover art is terrific.

Seeing old film noir thrillers on DVD is always fun, but when they're as good as He Walked by Night and presented this well we get an exceptional treat. Perhaps MGM will eventually thrill us with a disc from their perfect elements of Fritz Lang's Woman in the Window.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, He Walked by Night rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 25, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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