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Here's an unusual choice of review discs: ten years ago I enthusiastically reported on an MGM release of the terrific film noir He Walked By Night, noting its excellent transfer to video. The 1948 Eagle-Lion feature had been in the Public Domain for years, as could be seen by the terrible prints available for rental and shown on television. MGM was in charge of the original elements and decided to put out a disc despite the fact that any gray-market DVD label could dupe it and release their own copy. This is one of the problems with movies that have fallen into the Public Domain: the owners of the negative balk at investing in a quality transfer, when they know that the P.D. jackals can copy and sell it at will. A great many worthy films sit languishing in vaults, or worse, because of this. Among their other activities, The Film Noir Foundation has been instrumental in instigating some welcome restoration solutions for cases like this.
This disc release has a purpose, because MGM's disc from 2003 had no extras. Some of the best audio commentaries on noir titles have been recorded by authors Alain Silver and James Ursini. They know the film history, the personnel involved and many of the untold back stories. They also analyze noir visuals in terms of individual shots and lighting styles. Their book The Film Noir Encyclopedia was the first wide ranging study of film noir. It advanced the thesis that noir was not a genre, but a style that permeated crime and detective thrillers, and also 'bled' into other genres.
Silver and Ursini's thorough research often brought out the true stories behind docu-noir shows that claimed to be made from official files and case histories. One of their best is for the Fox film Call Northside 777, the tale of a crusading reporter whose work helped free a wrongly convicted man. The James Stewart movie launders the facts to make the Chicago police department look good. The very different true case history shows how cruel and unreasonable the system could be.
He Walked By Night is a key example of the docu noir category. It tells us that what we're seeing is a real police case, and is accompanied by the expected serious narration and montages of the workings of the real Los Angeles Police Department. Operating like a criminal mastermind, a deranged but highly organized and self-disciplined thief named Roy Martin (Richard Basehart) confounds the police (Roy Roberts, Scott Brady). Martin has no apparent weaknesses: no police record, no erratic behavior patterns and almost no contact with people. His only companion is a beloved dog. Martin commits quick robberies and sells stolen electronic equipment. When one of his victims (Whit Bissell) goes to the cops, Martin exacts an immediate vengeance, shooting his way through a trap set by the police. He's so well prepared that when he's shot, he operates on himself in his own bathroom, extracting a bullet from his side. Only through the most intense police work do the detectives finally trace Martin. What they don't know is that their quarry has a plan for almost any contingency including being surrounded by an army of cops -- and he isn't going to give up without a fight.
For further appraisal of the movie itself, I refer readers to Savant's earlier MGM disc review. This new DVD-R disc is recommended for its exclusive Silver-Ursini commentary. Without wasted time, we get the benefit of their in-depth research. Silver very quickly straightens out the controversy of who really directed the film, Alfred Werker or Anthony Mann. He also explains the "Dragnet" connection, settling the question merely assumed by other writers that the TV show was inspired by He Walked By Night. We even get the lowdown on the movie's L.A.P.D. technical advisor, who more or less corresponds to the Kevin Spacey character in L.A. Confidential, a showbiz detective who showed the actors how to move and talk like cops. This tech advisor even takes a small part in the picture; Jim Ursini points him out for us. This feeling of L.A.P.D. authenticity becomes chilling when one realizes that the film was in production during the horrifying Black Dahlia investigation.
The presence of Jack Webb as a forensics expert links He Walked By Night to today's CSI, leading into a discussion of the film's procedural details. Silver and Ursini make us appreciate the fact that at this time police line-ups, bullet comparison studies and the use of identi-kits to create a composite picture of a suspect had not appeared in movies in any detail. The "docu" part of the show is indeed just that.
We also get excellent appraisals (not just mentions) of the major filmmakers and actors, with an emphasis on director Mann and his penchant for intense violence. Known as the most dramatic lighting cinematographer in film noir, John Alton also receives his due attention. Silver and Ursini have been studying and analyzing his work since the 1970s.
Finally, the commentary really nails the true-life story. "Roy Martin's" true identity is revealed, and the real crook's methods and habits are discussed, as well as what really happened to him after the cops closed in. As in the movie, the real criminal was an electronics whiz. We don't know much about Roy Martin except that he has dedicated his entire existence to succeeding in crime and defeating society; the film's chilling finish leaves us feeling very disturbed. The real thief's apparent motivation makes him sound almost like a villain in a science-fiction fantasy. It was so outlandish that the filmmakers decided just to skip it and leave him an enigma.
Pendragon's DVD-R of He Walked By Night is a sub-par encoding of this popular PD noir. The real reason to get it is of course the excellent commentary. Jim Ursini and Alain Silver walk us through the movie, making good use of their academic training to deliver a beautifully measured accompaniment. This particular picture embraces noir's expressionist look and its naturalistic approach, giving the commentators a clear shot at communicating the significance of the noir style through the spoken word.
The crystal-clear commentary track is recorded as well as any big-studio offering and is easy to access through the menus. A brief set of stills, posters and frame grabs forms the image gallery. The DVD-R quality of He Walked By Night is pretty good except in scenes where most of the screen is dark, at which point the blacks clog badly and the gradient breaks down into blocks. This effect may be lessened on other monitors; I did play the disc on two separate Blu-ray machines.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
He Walked By Night Blu-ray rates:
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