“He looked like such a nice kid.”
The “true story” disclaimer at the beginning of He Walked by Night, a 1948 crime-noir-docudrama credited to director Alfred L. Werker but with an evident guiding hand from Anthony Mann, situates the film in a very specific Los Angeles, for a very specific incident. A routinely stoic voiceover narration does the same, stressing the size of the city, its vast land mass, its widespread population, and its Tinseltown tradition—it is “a bunch of suburbs in search of a city” and the “glamour capital of the world.” The journalistic concentration then turns to the LAPD, the “largest police beat in the country,” and from there, it’s to the communication division, where we see the intricately efficient coordination of telephone operators, police officers, and everyone in between. Written by John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur, from a story by Wilbur, He Walked by Night narrows further, to one particular crime: On his way home for the evening, a passing officer named Robert Rawlins (John McGuire) thwarts the robbery of a radio shop, but it’s a good deed that gets him killed for his efforts. With abruptly jarring gunfire and a violent final strike, as Rawlins winds his vehicle around and rams the assailant’s car, this assault is just the first instance of the occasionally brutal realism to come. And like that, the well-oiled police machinery springs into action, and the film itself assumes its progressive investigative stride.
Loosely based on the exploits of Erwin “Machine-Gun” Walker, a World War II veteran who shockingly turned to rampant crime, He Walked by Night has a by-now familiar narrative structure, where diverse involved parties eventually contract to a few key players as they steadily converge on the respective fugitive, whose own plight is given parallel, eventually intersecting, attention. In this case, there are sergeants Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) and Chuck Jones (James Cardwell), the two men assigned to the case, their captain, Breen (Roy Roberts), and a forensic expert, Lee (Jack Webb). These are all fairly conventional types, little more than serviceable in their representative capacities, but the Lee character is most interesting for what must have been an insightful depiction of advanced CSI-style analysis, the painstaking work done on the side of science and technology as it works hand-in-hand with more familiar street-level inquiry. (Inspired by the stories of technical advisor Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn, Webb used the template of He Walked by Night to develop the popular 1950s NBC series, Dragnet).
He Walked by Night is also significant for the detail given to other procedural facets of law enforcement: a mass dragnet, a chaotic roundup of potential perpetrators (with apparently little regard for their civil rights), the acquisition of prints and alibies, culprit sketching, and one noteworthy sequence where witnesses gather to form the face of the suspect, feature-by-feature. It’s an intriguing construction of composite identity, and it helps bring the police closer to the killer, Roy Morgan/Martin, played by Richard Basehart in easily the finest performance of the film and one of the best of his career (it was just his third screen appearance in less than two years). While the good guys receive their heroic due in terms of form and content—a solid band of brothers with a mutually invested interest, affably chatting about each other’s family before moving on to business, frequently packed in a single frame of solidarity—Roy is the only character given a distinct personality. His motives remain uncertain (daringly so), but his criminal competency clearly contests the touted skill of the police; as they hoof it all over town asking questions, he manages to not only evade their capture but to increase his illicit productivity. Roy is no common criminal—Marty calls him the “toughest nut I’ve ever had to crack”—and along with his puzzling, though generally unexplored war record, his deranged isolation and pathological proficiency produce a man with dexterity and drive. And its gives Basehart opportunity to enact a range of chilling behavior, behavior especially unsettling and anxious in the multiple scenes with no score or dialogue.
There remains considerable controversy about how, when, and to what extent Mann took over direction from Werker, and as much as possible, this speculation is successfully deliberated by Alan K. Rode and Julie Kirgo, in their commentary for the ClassicFlix Blu-ray of He Walked by Night (the disc also includes a short documentary about the making of the film). The bottom line, in any case, is that the Mann’s influence is prominent. This is evinced in the involvement of screenwriter Higgens, who also wrote Mann’s Railroaded! (1947), Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949), and T-Men (1947), with which He Walked by Night shares many similarities, including its documentary-style presentation, the emphasis on police procedure, and even some reused footage. But most convincing of Mann’s participation is the imagery of the film. With cinematography by John Alton, whose work defined the early part of Mann’s career (T-Men, Raw Deal, Reign of Terror , Border Incident, Devil’s Doorway ), He Walked by Night is likewise a ceaselessly stylish movie. Save for some of the blander departmental interiors, nearly every scene contains some dash of visual garnish: frames within frames, harsh spots of light, canted and wide angles, opaque shadows and the horizontal beams cast by customary Venetian blinds. It all climaxes in a drainage canal pursuit (this before the more famous 1949 Carol Reed-Orson Welles feature, The Third Man). These hollow tunnels convey a paradoxically infinite freedom and a crushingly severe constriction; pin-point beams from flashlights pierce the darkness, while the discharge from a shotgun blast sprinkles in the illuminated water. Like the film’s other stand-out sequences, this conclusion raises He Walked by Night high above the average low-budget thriller, no matter who gets the credit.