Director: Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann
Producer: Bryan Foy and Robert Kane
Screenwriter: John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur
Cinematographer: John C. Alton
Music: Leonid Raab
Studio: Eagle Lion 1948
Main Acting: Richard Basehart and Roy Roberts
I’m not the biggest fan of narrated police procedural semidocumentary pictures that were very popular in the mid to late 40s. Besides the stale aroma of governmental propaganda, I always found those booming voices to be hopelessly quaint and annoying. Both The Naked City and T-Men are generally talked about with reverence, yet neither is remotely great in my eyes. I consider both to be okay movies but have a hard time swallowing the intrusive rigmarole that those explanatory antiquated chronicler’s recount. Even He Walked By Night, which has always been my favorite of this ilk can still grate at times. I swear Ed Wood used the same guy in Glen Or Glenda to harp on about “satin undies”. Still, discounting this one flaw, Alfred Werker/Anthony Mann’s film really works in almost every other way and comes only a few inches from being pitch perfect.
Anthony Mann, while uncredited, is said to have actually directed most of He Walked By Night. Along with the great John Alton handling the cinematography, it’s not hard to see the visual and thematic similarities this picture shares with other Mann/Alton joint ventures like T-Men and Raw Deal (the cinematography of He Walked By Night is Alton’s peak achievement in my opinion). While Alfred Werker was considered a solid craftsmen and dependable journeymen who helmed the entertaining The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (1939), he was not known for creating gritty film noirs throughout his career. I would say it’s safe to wager that Mann was the one who made this 1948 Eagle Lion picture worth watching. When Alton’s shadows take center stage, the result is tough, dark, and full of enough grime to get every noirist’s heart aflutter.
The big knock on this movie is that characterization is thin, and that there is no individual actor who stands out. But I find Richard Basehart to be extremely compelling. He gives a great performance as Roy, bringing out the character’s desperation during some harrowing moments. In the scene after he is shot, he adjusts the mirror and heats up the proper instrumentation to remove a policeman’s bullet—which he wonderfully communicates with grimaces and cold sweats. The few times he shows kindness to his dog, it helps in revealing that this hardened narcissistic criminal still displays some human traits, and therefore is not a completely remorseless killer. In fact, one of the most curious aspects of He Walked By Night is that even though this is ostensibly a police propaganda flick, it actually allows the viewers to feel more sympathy for the misanthropic killer! The policemen are all bland, faceless cardboard stand-ins who show no emotion and are unrecognizable from each another. Roy is the character we identify with and actually sympathize for after his final confrontation in the L.A. sewers. I’m not sure if this was intentional or just a total coincidence, but the interesting subversive possibilities are marvelous. I wonder if any government officials choked on their popcorn realizing this ironic bit of information.
I cannot finish this piece without mentioning the climactic ending in the labyrinth gutters that Roy finds himself in. He realizes the policemen have finally reached their target because of the only living thing he cares about: His dog’s incessant barking alerts him to their inevitable presence. Roy makes a beeline for his strategic hiding place below the city. The tension-filled moments where Roy attempts to escape manhole after manhole only to find them already barricaded by law enforcement are tangible and thrilling. I also love the scene where he runs along a narrow tunnel where the only available illumination is from his flashlight. When he reaches for his cache of weapons, the final shootout does not fail to bring forth an action-packed conclusion. My preference for this particular film over something like T-Men is precisely because the lack of characterization makes this picture feel almost avant-garde in its structure. Like a Michael Mann project, it is more concerned with the mechanizations of the characters than dwelling on their personal motivations. Why is Roy the way he is? Who knows? Who cares? Must we always need to know such things? Let’s just sit back and revel in his cunning as he dodges the cops for about 78 minutes before the inevitable hand of fate strikes down and places him face down in dirty sewer water.
He Walked By Night is also notable for inspiring Jack Webb to create Dragnet. The actor has a small part playing a forensics specialist who connects various shootings to the same man because of matching ejecting bullet cases. Dragnet would go on to being the most famous and influential show of its kind.