Thursday, October 2, 2008


Everybody ought to know by now that director Alfred Werker's semi-documentary police procedural "He Walked By Night" (***1/2 out of ****) with Richard Basehart and Scott Brady, inspired Jack Webb's classic radio and television crime series "Dragnet." The evocative, film noir photography of the late great John Alton, who also lensed a couple of John Sturges films "Mystery Street" and "The People Against O'Hara" as well as Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry," gives this lean, mean 1949 thriller an edge that neither its budget nor its action could have achieved in tandem. Alton's photography makes "He Walked By Night" the memorable experience that it remains. Good acting by all involved bolsters the film's credibility, especially a low-key Basehart registering brilliantly as a contemplative homicidal killer with a pet dog. The dog humanizes Basehart's elusive killer. The most overlooked performance is Whit Bissell as the timid electronics factory owner. Other commentators have provided relevant historical background for this atmospheric melodrama and they are worth reading if the historical background appeals to you. The noted film scholar Jeanne Basinger in her exemplary book about director Anthony Mann writers settles the issue of the directorial authorship of "He Walked By Night." She points out that Werker received final credit for "He Walked By Night," but Mann helmed all the scenes with Richard Basehart. Clearly, "He Walked By Night" qualifies more as a Mann film than a Werker effort. Critics have never ballyhooed this low-budget, superbly made, minor urban crime thriller, and this lack of critical recognition is really unfortunate. "He Walked By Night" provides top-drawer suspense entertainment in virtually every department. The only objectionable scene here involves a couple of detectives grilling a Chinese suspect. Not only does the man not know English, but also the detectives look like idiots for questioning someone that clearly doesn't understand English.

"He Walked by Night" unfolds with several long shots of a Los Angeles city map. "Racket Squad" actor Reed Hadley delivers the prototypical description of L.A. that would open each "Dragnet" episode over similar shots. Afterward, Mann takes us first to the Hollywood Police Division where we learn that "He Walked By Night" is "the case history of a killer." The scene shifts to a dark, quiet. tree-lined street late one evening in Hollywood. An immaculately dressed Roy Martin (Richard Basehart of "Moby Dick") is prowling dark streets and casing an electronics shop. Equipped with lock-picking tools, he is about to commit burglary when an off-duty cop heading home, Office Robert Rawlins (John McGuire of "Flamingo Road"), spots him. Rawlins pulls over and questions him. When he asks to see some identification, Rawlins isn't prepared for the reception that he receives. Martin produces a gun from his suit and blasts away. Swiftly, the killer scrambles to his car, while Rawlins struggles to fire shots at him. In a desperate bid to stop Martin, Rawlins guns his sedan. Swerves it across the street and smashes into Martin's stolen car before he can get it cranked. Witnesses provide the authorities with a description, but Martin shaves off the pencil-thin mustache and begins on his next criminal endeavor. Later, we learn that Rawlins has died from his gunshot wounds.

When he isn't committing crimes, Martin modifies his stolen equipment and then rents it out to Reeves Electronics Laboratory run by Paul Reeves (a bespectacled Whit Bissell) who urges Roy to join his firm. Roy brings in his television projection set and leaves before the original owner arrives. The owner identifies the equipment and calls the police. At this point, Captain Breen (Roy Roberts of "My Darling Clementine") assigns Sgt. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady of "Dollars") and Sgt. Chuck Jones (James Cardwell of "The Sullivans") to the case and they question Reeves. Martin calls up and Reeves tells him that he has sold his television projector. Jones gets Reeves to tell Martin that he has his dough ready and to come in that night and pick it up. Later, Martin surprises everybody that night and shoots Jones, paralyzing him and knocking Brennan unconscious. In the process, however, Martin is wounded by Jones. In a scene that predates "First Blood," Martin digs out the slug himself with sterilized doctor's tools. Meanwhile, the crime technician, Lee (Jack Webb of "Dragnet") gradually pieces together information about Martin until Brennan suggests that he use something that allows witnesses of Martin's robberies to create a picture of him. It seems that Martin has been on a robbery spree and uses the storm drainage system underneath Los Angeles to escape from the authorities.

Anyway, Captain Breen relieves Brennan from the case since the latter has made no headway in capturing Martin and Breen is feeling the heat from his own superiors. Later, during one of his visits with the recuperating Jones, Brennan learns that the Breen is trying to rattle him enough to come up with a fresh approach to the case. Brennan starts looking where he didn't before—in the surrounding police departments. Eventually, he uncovers Martin's secret and his real name Roy Morgan. Breen masquerades as a milk man and finds where Morgan lives. The long arm of the law assembles with cops, guns, and tear gas to flush Morgan out. Predictably, Morgan flees to the storm drainage system with the LAPD in hot pursuit. They don't aim to let him escape their clutches again! This tightly-knit thriller is pretty good, even by 1948 standards. The police are depicted like idiots during the first hour because they constantly underestimated the resourceful adversary who even keeps a shotgun stored in the underground drain system. John Alton creates a marvelous sense of atmosphere with images that highlight the area above the heads of the participants. The photography in the storm drainage system is terrific stuff! Scott Brady is good as the cop determined to bust Morgan, and his Sgt. Brennan's one characteristic that is emphasized is his shortage of matches for his cigarette habit.

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