Do you think older crime thrillers weren’t violent enough? This shocker from 1948 shook up America with its true story of a vicious killer who has a murderous solution to every problem, and uses special talents to evade police detection. Richard Basehart made his acting breakthrough as Roy Martin, a barely disguised version of the real life ‘Machine Gun Walker.
He Walked by Night
1948 / B&W /1:37 flat full frame / 79 min. / Street Date November 7, 2017 / 39.99
Starring: Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Whit Bissell, James Cardwell, Jack Webb, Dorothy Adams, Ann Doran, Byron Foulger, Reed Hadley (narrator), Thomas Browne Henry, Tommy Kelly, John McGuire, Kenneth Tobey.
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 Bryan Foy, Robert T. Kane
Directed by Alfred L. Werker
Talk about a movie with a dynamite look — He Walked by Night takes to the streets of with a Weegee- eye knack for capturing the nighttime spirit in The City of The Angels. Eagle-Lion’s feature is an unheralded film noir classic of the style’s second wave, a grim police-file exposé that became one of the more noted sleeper releases 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 neatly into Mann’s filmography after his low budget T-Men and Raw Deal, and before his leap to MGM. There’s nothing as stylish as this in the films of credited director Alfred Werker.
Now established as the inspiration for Dragnet, He Walked 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 — yet actually plays down the real-life police case on which it was based.
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 — with no prints on record and no criminal file, he’s seemingly 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) has multiple escape plans to avoid capture.
The obvious main asset of He Walked by Night is the contribution of ace camera stylist John Alton. The master noir cinematography knocks us out time and again with images loaded with fine shadings and detail — that maintain a docu realism even as the long shadows and pools of black produce expressionist effects. Of all the gritty police procedurals that dominated Noir Phase 2, 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 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 vigilant police force. They have good tools and organization on their side but seem to stay in charge mostly through fast footwork and intimidation. 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 a police lab technician who matches up markings on various ejected shell casings. He seems the only character with a genuine sense of humor.
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. No “G-Men” heroics or personal vendettas are carried out, only the unswerving might of the law 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 fascinating, 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. 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 as 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 escape routes are meticulously prepared. He even keeps 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. We marvel at his determination; he looks ready to faint dead away. After the operation we’re ready to believe that Martin can do anything. Roy also performs lightning-fast escapes into L.A.’s system of storm drains, slipping into the underground tunnels through narrow gutter openings like a cockroach finding a crack in a wall. When 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 storm drains, where the endless, echo-y tunnels suggest the twisted blackness of Roy Martin’s psyche.
The superior lighting usually knocks out first-time viewers. The enormously talented John Alton put his lighting theories to practical use, making complicated setups look simple. He was also at home in dramatic Technicolor (An American in Paris, Slightly Scarlet), but excelled at 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 through the window. He surrounds Richard Basehart with cold, deterministic pools of light and darkness. That subterranean conclusion (helped by excellent sound effects) is a hellish limbo-world.
The film did big things for its key talent. Richard Basehart bounced to major studio work not long afterward. Bit player Jack Webb also moved on to bigger fish — starring in his own radio show, Dragnet. He Walked by Night is clearly the template for Dragnet, and the similarities aren’t difficult to see, especially the opening narration and the emphasis on dogged investigation work.
Carol Reed must have been impressed by the finish in the storm drains, as he elaborated on it for the Viennese sewer conclusion of his The Third Man. Reed even repeats the 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, notably Force of Evil. Whit Bissell is excellent in a larger partr. 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.
Los Angeles lovers will like the many authentic locations. Roy Martin’s hideout is given a specific address 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 in the ’30s to create affordable housing. When property values begin to soar in the ’60s they disappeared along with the temporary metal Quonset hut buildings thrown up during WW2. I came along too late to see it, but the first home of the UCLA film department was said to have been a G.I. Quonset hut.
Later noirs and today’s crime pictures frequently float Melville-like fantasy hogwash about cops and criminals being blood brothers in a weird yin-yang crime cosmos. I’m thinking of the 1995 Heat, 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 bleak ending is rigorously faithful to the noir universe of pitiless fate: Roy fought the law and the law won. No moralistic coda or verbal reaffirmation of societal values is offered, just a stark close-up of staring, dead eyes followed by a swift fade out. Good, good show.
ClassicFlix’s Blu-ray of He Walked by Night is a welcome HD encoding of this fine, fine picture, that before 2003 circulated in wretched dupes, even on TV. Anybody into moody graphics and dramatic ‘painting with light’ effects will be transported by this excellent encoding. MGM controls the original elements and put out a good but extras-challenged DVD in 2003. This officially licensed Blu-ray comes from the good vault source material. MGM reportedly also controls Fritz Lang’s classic Woman in the Window; hopefully that will see the light of day night soon as well.
ClassicFlix has assembled some good extras in an attractive package. Alan K. Rode and Julie Kirgo’s audio commentary is a great listen — they untangle the mystery of the film — who exactly directed what — and dive into the story of how this movie’s bit actor Jack Webb jumped directly to the beginnings of a legendary TV and film career, starting with Dragnet. The L.A. Confidential connection really sticks out — the LAPD contact who aligns with Kevin Spacey’s ‘Hollywood Cop’ in the Ellroy story actually plays a part in the movie. This feeling of L.A.P.D. authenticity becomes more chilling when one realizes that the film was in production during the horrifying Black Dahlia investigation. Alan and Kirgo reach deep into the strange, gruesome and even more shocking story of ‘Machine Gun Walker,’ the virtual super-criminal who inspired the fictional Roy Martin.
An eleven-minute featurette backs up the cinema analysis and true-crime parallels with images and graphics — we see that Richard Basehart tries to add a sex angle to Roy Martin’s psychosis, as he methodically strokes a TV projector he has stolen. The on-screen spokespeople include critic Todd McCarthy and a cinematographer.
An insert booklet offers an additional perspective from Anthony Mann’s biographer Max Alvare, who confirms that no production records have yet surfaced to prove which parts of the film were directed by Anthony Mann. Some accounts say that Mann took over when Alfred Werker left to direct Lost Boundaries; others say that Mann was brought on to punch up scenes with re-shoots. Testimony by the script supervisor and assistant director indicate that Mann filmed at least part of the concluding chase in the storm drains (not ‘sewers,’ although they can smell pretty sweet depending on how much rain has fallen lately). Frankly, the whole movie is so dynamic and stylish, I readily believe that Alfred Werker simply turned over the camera direction of the show to John Alton anyway. This gives the whole picture the same Anthony Mann ‘look’ as seen in T-Men and Raw Deal.
Alan K. Rode answers the question of how the Mann-Alton team was split asunder: producer Dore Schary bought them along with a whole film project from Eagle-Lion, moving them to MGM and eventually splitting them up.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
He Walked by Night Blu-ray
Supplements: Audio Commentary with Alan K. Rode and Julie Kirgo; featurette Below the Surface with Richard Crudo, Todd McCarthy, Julie Kirgo, Courtney Joyner and Alan K. Rode; Image gallery; 24 page illustrated booklet with an essay by Anthony Mann biographer Max Alvarez.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 4, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson