March 14, 2017
He Walked By Night (1948) strips the police procedural to the bone. There are no backstories or love interests, just the case at hand, rigorously filmed by director of photography John Alton and directors Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann (FilmStruck is streaming five Anthony Mann/John Alton Noir collaborations: T-Men , Raw Deal , He Walked By Night, Border Incident  and Devil’s Doorway ). Inspired by the 1946 crime spree of former Army Lieutenant Erwin Walker, the movie is obsessed with process, of both the cops and the killer. The police methodically trudge through witness interviews and crowdsource a sketch of the suspect, while the equally conscientious criminal attempts to wipe his identity from public record. Made in the semi-documentary style popularized by The Naked City (1948), though on a lower budget, it can be no-frills to the point of abstraction, as both sides of the law disappear into the shadows of Los Angeles’ sewer system. In late 1945, after his discharge from the army, Erwin Walker began stealing electronic equipment. He pulled off over a dozen such jobs, but he didn’t get into the news until he shot two LAPD detectives when they tried to arrest him for selling stolen goods. He then became one of the most wanted men in Los Angeles, and during the manhunt killed a Highway Patrol officer. From the court transcripts it was revealed the reasons for Walker’s burglaries: “Defendant told his friend of an idea he had of inventing an electronic radar gun, which by shooting a beam would disintegrate metal into powder, and by which they could seize control of the government and enforce legislation which would increase the cost of war to a point where it could not profitably be waged, effecting this primarily by raising to a high level the salaries paid to soldiers.” He was convicted of murder in 1947 and let out on parole in 1974.
The script by John C. Higgins, with original story by Crane Wilbur, uses the broad outlines of Walker’s case history, though changes around some details. The Erwin Walker character is named Roy (Richard Basehart), who is introduced trying to jimmy open the lock of a jewelry store, before a black and white cop car cruises by and Roy becomes a cop killer as well as a thief. The investigation of the crime is led by Police Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) and his team of surly hulking detectives. The movie goes to great lengths to emphasize the hard work put in by the police force, which is depicted as a finely tuned watch cycling through witnesses with precision, as the voice-of-god narration nails home over and over. But as Raymond Chandler notes in one of his published letters, the police’s activities in the movie seem to skim the boundaries of legality, as they seemingly arrest everybody in the city with a passing resemblance to Roy’s description, regardless of evidence. Chandler wrote, “to me the really shocking thing about the picture was the assumption that the gestapo methods of the police are natural and proper. By what authority do they mark off an area and bring everyone inside it for questioning? This is nothing but arrest without warrant…”
This aggressive dragnet dredged up plenty of shady characters, but no one connected to Roy’s crimes. So next they create a composite sketch of Roy from all the burglary and hold-up witnesses who glimpsed his face, using slides of different facial features to jog their memories. This is orchestrated by the forensics guy Lee, played with “just the facts” bluntness by Jack Webb, who would later produce and star in Dragnet (which lifts “only the names are changed – to protect the innocent” from the opening crawl). Webb’s work on He Walked By Night led directly to the TV show, as Webb got to talking with technical advisor Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn. Those conversations turned into Dragnet, which took He Walked By Night‘s minimalist approach to television.
The cops’ big break comes on a random interview with a milkman, who had seen a man of Roy’s appearance on one of his routes. So it is a combination of new technology (the sketch slides) and old fashioned shoe leather that finally encircle Roy. Richard Basehart has very little dialogue in the film – he’s mostly reacting to noises and other stimuli that might give away his identity. It is a performance of watchful intensity, seen in gruesome detail when he has to remove a bullet from his gut. John Alton trains his camera on Basehart’s face, beads of sweat coalescing on his brow, his lips set in a line of grim determination. What makes this one of the great bullet removal scenes is the fact that it plays against silence. There is no score blaring in the background manipulating the tone, the filmmakers force it all into Basehart’s face, and it is terrifying, no more so than the little flicker of a grin that flashes across his faces after he finishes.
There has always been a question as to the film’s authorship. The directing credit is given to Alfred Werker (Repeat Performance ), though there have been numerous reports that Werner was removed (or had to step down) early in production, and that Mann directed the majority of the feature. Mann collaborated with John Alton throughout this period (twice before in 1948), and the brutal physicality of the bullet removal scene, unflinching as it stares into Roy’s face, is a hallmark of Mann’s unflinching kind of cinema. But it could also be at the suggestion of John Alton, one of those cinematographers whose signature is obvious a few frames into a movie, and He Walked By Night is filled with serrated shadows thrown by blinds in cheap offices. Max Alvarez, in The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, goes farthest in trying to assign credit for the feature. He interviewed dialogue director Stewart Stern, who said, “I don’t remember the reason Tony took over. I think Werker got sick. I think I got a call telling me that I would have to replace Werker the next day. Then Tony appeared and I’ve never been more relieved in my life! I don’t think Werker worked a day on that, but I’m not sure.” So while the timeline is unclear, and Werker may have had some influence for an early part of the shoot, it seems clear that Mann directed the majority of the film, and it is generally considered part of his filmography, part of his incredible 1948 that also includes Raw Deal and T-Men, two other crime docudramas that push the illusion of reality.
For most of its running time He Walked By Night is relentlessly focused on process, on the next clue or the next interview. The remarkable closing sequence in the sewers, which precedes a similar scene in The Third Man by a year, finds Roy using the underground tunnels as his getaway, though the cops have been sealing off the exits. Alton streams in shafts of light offscreen that reflect off the pooled water but keep Roy in shadows. Roy keeps searching for a manhole cover to emerge out of but they are stopped up by the cops. This elusive cipher, who always had an alternate escape route, is now trapped and mortal. His death is framed not as a triumph but as the natural result of an effective police force. It is a clinical and menacing end to this brutally efficient noir.