“Spend an hour or two here and you will think the whole city has gone berserk.” So speaks the narrator of He Walked By Night, the second of four lesser-known noirs that will enrich and darken your movie-going life. The narrator’s quote refers to the City of the Angels, and stentorian tones guide the viewer through the inner workings of a typical Los Angeles police department in 1948. Yes, it is dated now, this newsreel-style voice keeping us up to date on the progress of a criminal investigation–but believe me you will hardly notice it once you are caught up in this riveting procedural about the hunt for a strange, unfeeling cop killer who knows how to elude the arm of the law. More after the jump:
Loosely-based on the actual exploits of a murderer named Erwin Walker, the film spends as much time showing us the unsettlingly unreadable personality of the criminal as it does on the absorbing and fast-paced pursuit of the culprit by the police. In the age of Law & Order, modern audiences are well-accustomed to the work of ballistics men and sketch artists, but to see these aspects of the investigation played out with such an authentic feel in a film from post-war America holds a fascination all its own. (Particularly engrossing is a scene in which a group of robbery victims are assembled in a dark room to help create a composite of the killer by choosing facial details that are projected–one slide at a time–onto a screen.) Night also takes the time to include in cameos members of the burgeoning Latino and Asian communities of the day. And the ballistics guy is played by a young Jack Webb, whose own fascination with the Erwin Walker “dragnet” inspired him to create the radio (and later television) series of the same name.
The killer is played with grave intensity by Richard Basehart, an eclectic actor who must certainly be the only future star of a tacky television show (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) who also worked with Fellini (he plays an important role in La Strada). From his first appearance as Roy Martin, in which after committing a small time robbery of a radio supply house he calmly shoots a passing policeman dead, Basehart is a huge part of why this film works. He crafts an eerie persona that gives the entire proceedings an air of unease. In his small dealings with other people (he steals radio and TV equipment and pawns it off as his own), and in his very movements about the city (or in a neat little scene in which he removes a bullet from his arm all by his lonesome), we cannot help but wonder what created this detached, odd man. And we never really find out, aside from one reference to his Army discharge papers, made just before he shoots the cop. We do know that, appropriately enough for his subterranean personality, he has staked out a permanent escape route in the Los Angeles storm drain system, even having a weapon stashed at one stop along the labyrinth. There are two very memorable, evocative shots of Roy wriggling into the storm drains from the street, and the climactic, flashlight-illuminated chase in these giant cylinders is worth the price of a rental alone.
The film plays out in a spare style, not quite documentary but not forcing the action into melodrama, either. It’s a perfect synthesis of Hollywood with a touch of rawness, as in a wordless scene in which a wife waiting outside a hospital room gets the news of her policeman husband’s death, or the quiet, hushed scenes of Martin going about his business, chilling in and of themselves. A fine example of the film’s understated power comes when Roy’s hideout is finally discovered and the cop who is undercover as a milkman finally sets eyes on the killer he has been tracking for weeks. The moment is played in a simple medium wide shot so that we take in what is happening but are not pointed in any specific direction emotionally-the effect is unsettling. The cast is made up of a ton of familiar character-actor faces of the day, notably the great Whit Bissell (star of many a sci-fi B-movie) as Roy’s main employer, a literally soft-spoken man who is reluctantly drawn into a plot to catch the sociopath. Aside from a couple of talky scenes, writer Crane Wilbur keeps everything going at a fever pitch, and the taut direction, though credited to Alfred L. Werker, has often been acknowledged as being supplied by Anthony Mann, veteran of several noirs and even more legendary Westerns (Winchester ’73). One of the real stars of He Walked By Night, though, is legendary cinematographer John Alton, whose shadowy, you-are-there compositions make very large contribution to the menacing atmosphere that pervades the film. And, there are several interesting vintage Los Angeles locations, including what looks like a largely unchanged Hollywood Post Office.
The term “gripping” is one that is overused when it comes to crime thrillers. So, finding one to which it applies in no uncertain terms is cause for, well, further investigation. Rent and enjoy.
James Napoli is an author, filmmaker and teacher whose third book Violation! The Ultimate Ticket Book is now available.