He Walked by Night (1948)

He Walked by Night is a 1948 police procedural film noir, directed by Alfred L. Werker and an uncredited Anthony Mann. The film, shot in semidocumentary tone, was loosely based on newspaper accounts of the real-life actions of Erwin “Machine-Gun” Walker, a former Glendale California police department employee and World War II veteran who unleashed a crime spree of burglaries, robberies, and shootouts in the Los Angeles area during 1945 and 1946.

During production, one of the actors, Jack Webb, struck up a friendship with the police technical advisor, Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn, and was inspired by a conversation with Wynn to create the radio and later television program Dragnet.

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The Noir Blueprint For “Dragnet”!

2 September 2001 | by jimddddd (Hollywood, CA) – See all my reviews

Based on a true 1946 Hollywood Police Department case, “He Walked By Night” is an early attempt at a “police procedural” film. It has a semi-documentary look combined with many of the conventions of film noir (thanks partly to cinematographer John Alton). Many of the outside scenes were filmed in or around actual locations. Richard Basehart plays a loner who is well-versed in electronic technology, guns, and police procedures. He’s able to stay one step ahead of the cops because his paranoia and attention to detail keep him in a constant state of alert. It’s also helpful that he listens in with his police-band radio. For a time he confounds the Hollywood cops because he changes his modus operandi. He begins as a break-in artist who steals electronic equipment, but when he kills a suspicious young policeman and loses some of his tools, he turns to armed robbery of liquor stores.

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Nobody can find him because he travels through Los Angeles in its underground storm drains, where he has hidden stashes of guns and other survival equipment. We also follow the cops as they make use of whatever little information they’re able to gather on Basehart’s character, and slowly they do close in after several missed opportunities and track the killer into the storm drains, where the play of light and shadow really takes over. One of the cops in “He Walked By Night” is played by Jack Webb, and there’s no question he got the inspiration for ‘Dragnet” from this film. For starters, “He Walked By Night” begins with a sky pan of Los Angeles and scenes of everyday Hollywood while the narrator gives a kind of “this is the city” speech. The police scenes are often very quotidian (sometimes to the point of being overly detailed), with cops tossing in small talk like “how’s the missus? glad to hear it” before they ask other questions. Much of the pacing, attitude and overall feel of “Dragnet,” which began as a radio show a year after this film and then moved to TV in 1952, is already here.

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The final scene in Los Angeles’ storm drains (“seven hundred miles of hidden highways,” according to the narrator) provides probably this film’s most memorable images. Its set-up and execution are remarkably similar to Orson Wells being chased through the sewers of Vienna in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” which was filmed a year later and likely inspired by “He Walked By Night.” And who knows, it might also have given a few ideas to the makers of “Them” a couple of years later when they revisited the L.A. storm drains with their giant ants. Ultimately, Basehart’s character remains an enigma. We never learn that much about him. “He Walked By Night” isn’t a great film, but it’s an enjoyable look at postwar police work and primitive forensics.

Here’s a version of the real story

Author: Pete from Sacramento, California
12 October 2004
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I’ve seen this film two or three times, and I keep wondering Why did “Roy” do any of the things he did? What was his motivation? Strangely, we aren’t even offered a guess by anyone in the film.

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Intrigued by the statement that the film is “based on a true story,” I did some research. Apparently the real-life Roy was named Erwin Walker — aka “Machine Gun” Walker. Honest.

Walker was indeed a World War II vet, a former Glendale PD radio dispatcher, and a brilliant student at Cal Tech. The true story is even better than the film: Walker wasn’t killed by police, and managed to evade the death penalty with a plea of insanity. Better yet, he was subsequently released, and has lived, somewhere, among us.

You can read a first-person account of Walker here (as long as the link remains good): http://www.epinions.com/content_3817054340 .

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Nightime in L.A.

8/10
Author: jotix100 from New York
8 January 2010
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

As the story begins, a policeman on his way home sees a man lurking in the darkness, he becomes suspicious. To his amazement, the man surprises him pulling a gun and shoots him. The incident marks the beginning of a dragnet in which all police resources will concentrate in apprehending the criminal that killed one of their peers.

Roy Martin, as he calls himself, is a young man with an unusual ability for everything electric. He likes to put things together, then tries to interest Paul Reeves, a businessman with an important clientele to lease the things Martin brings him. All goes well until the time he makes a tactical mistake. He leaves an equipment for television that turns out to have been stolen from the same man that Reeves has called to peddle the item.

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What the LAPD doesn’t know is that Roy Martin has a way for evading the enemy. He has discovered the system under the Los Angeles streets for the heavy flash floods it experiences to make his getaway. He is a slippery man with superior intelligence to outsmart the police. Ultimately, the police gets a break that will put an end to Roy’s crime spree.

Albert Werker directed the impressive “He Walked by Night”, a 1948 film noir that went to be imitated by a lot of people in Hollywood. It also became the model of the television show “Dragnet” that came later, in which Jack Webb, who is prominently featured, explored some of the principles originated in the breakthrough film. Anthony Mann was also on board to help with the direction, and it shows, although he is not given credit for the work he did. Crane Wilbur and John Higgins wrote the screenplay in a semi-documentary style. It is a tribute to all the creators the film has survived long after it was first released. The best thing in the film is John Alton’s black and white cinematography that captures the Los Angeles of that era in all its splendor.

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Richard Basehart made a cool Roy Martin. This was Mr. Basehart’s third picture and he showed a great potential as the criminal that was able to outsmart the police. The supporting players, Scott Brady, Whit Bissell, James Cardwell, and Roy Roberts, among them, do a good job under Mr. Werker’s direction.

Technical Adviser Marty Wynn and Miscellaneous Observations

10/10
Author: pgstipe from Ann Arbor, Michigan
3 June 2009
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Fascinating and insightful to read the comments posted by Sgt. Wynn’s son Charles (see comment #42 by annwynn). Police technical advisers are commonplace nowadays, but Sgt. Wynn’s participation was a novel idea in 1948. This straight shooting approach does nothing to diminish the compelling drama told in this story (accurate depiction of the case it’s based on or not).

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This film is among the best of the documentary style dramas of it’s time with A-list voice over specialist Reed Hadley providing the narration. The brief travelogue guide and the tour of Los Angeles Police Headquarters in the opening segment little prepare you for the shocking murder of Officer Robert Rawlins.

As a retired police officer, I can assure you that no dispatched call creates quite the adrenalin surge than that of an officer involved shooting. Like a “Broken Arrow” transmission in the military, all cops break off their current assignment to respond, just like in the film. The film doesn’t glorify the drudgery of detective work, on the contrary, it shows that only tireless followup will often lead one to their suspect.

This film is among those that piqued my interest in becoming an officer. I too commuted to work and back in uniform (to avoid dressing twice everyday) but Officer Rawlins’ ambush was always in the back of my mind and I employed tactics accordingly (always address suspects or suspicious persons from outside your vehicle for instance).

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It is a bygone era when it was cooler to be a cop than a criminal. Modern films glorify acts of mindless violence and copycat crimes are commonplace. He Walked By Night not only shows the gritty side of policing, it rightly shows that the job can not be done without the help of citizen involvement. If only all sketch artists were as handy with their pencils as Jack Webb/Lee is with his slides. There is little doubt that the use of deadly force in the capture of Roy Morgan is justified and there is no glamour or glory in his death.

Two bits of humor in the closing sequence are the apparent length of the battle lantern’s cords as they stretch the length of the sewer system and speed in which the detectives/officers don their gas masks before the final confrontation.

He Walked By Night to me remains the definitive model upon which all other such police dramas are inspired. Alfred Werker’s pacing and John Alton’s cinematography are flawless. I think this film is a fitting tribute to Sgt. Marty Wynn and all the cops of his era. I recommend it to everyone.

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Tense, Realistic & Visually Strong

7/10
Author: seymourblack-1 from United Kingdom
4 December 2012
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

“He Walked By Night” is a low budget crime drama which tells the true story of an exceptionally resourceful cop killer and the way in which he was pursued by the LAPD. The methods used by the police and the killer couldn’t be more different, as the LAPD place a high value on adhering to standard procedures whereas their quarry uses his considerable ingenuity and expert knowledge of electronics to outwit his pursuers. This all makes for a fascinating cat and mouse game which is compelling to watch and becomes increasingly intense as it moves towards its exciting and visually impressive climax.

In the early hours of a summer morning, Roy Martin (Richard Basehart) is trying to break into an electronics store when he sees a police patrol car approaching and casually walks away. The police car follows him and when he’s asked to produce some identification, Martin pulls out a gun and shoots the police officer at point blank range. Detective Sergeants Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) and Chuck Jones (James Cardwell) are assigned to the case by Police Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) but their initial efforts to identify the killer draw a blank because there are no leads to follow.

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Martin regularly sells electronic equipment to a dealer called Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell) who becomes suspicious after one of his customers recognises a television projector (which Martin had supplied) as one that had been stolen from him. After Reeves reports the matter to the police, Brennan and Jones wait in the dealer’s office with the intention of arresting Martin but his eventual arrival culminates in a shootout which ends with both Martin and Detective Jones having been shot. Jones is seriously injured and Martin goes home and successfully operates on himself to remove the bullet.

The LAPD are determined to hunt down Martin but he continues to keep one step ahead of them by regularly changing his appearance and listening in to their radio communications until Detective Jones has a hunch which enables the police to positively confirm the identity of the killer. This piece of knowledge together with information that they subsequently find about Martin’s previous employment, soon enables them to continue their manhunt with greater speed and success than had previously been possible.

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Roy Martin’s story is told in typical docu-noir style complete with the obligatory solemn narration (by Reed Hadley) and some acting which, by today’s standards, is rather stiff and formal. Richard Basehart, however, is exceptionally good in his role as the psychopathic loner and World War 11 veteran who’s cold, calculating and extremely ruthless. He’s a particularly interesting character as he’s both intelligent and highly skilled in some areas but also paranoid and a man of few words.

It’s widely acknowledged that Jack Webb (who appears in this movie as a laboratory technician) was inspired by the experience to create his own very popular radio and TV show “Dragnet” which also emphasised the value of methodical police work.

“He Walked By Night” looks very realistic and is often suspenseful but its most impressive feature is John Alton’s incredible cinematography which enhances the look of the whole movie considerably and contributes to the claustrophobic feel of certain passages. His use of low key lighting, deep focus photography and interesting camera angles is inspired, effective and dramatic and at times, bathes the screen in compositions which create a rather disconcerting atmosphere.

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A Year Before a Better Remembered Use of Urban Sewers in a Thriller

10/10
Author: theowinthrop from United States
15 January 2009
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Only a year separates Richard Basehart’s fleeing through the sewers of Los Angeles with Orson’s Welles’ similar flight through those of Vienna. Yet although the flight of Basehart’s Roy Martin has precedence over Welles’ Harry Lime, and both are terrific thrillers, more people are acquainted with THE THIRD MAN than with HE WALKED BY NIGHT. It’s probably due to the “exotic” nature of post-war Vienna, with such touches as the zither music, and the scenes in the ruins (and the classic moment in the Prater’s ferris wheel). Also the last flight of Harry Lime has overtones regarding why Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) kills his old friend – is it to save him from the humiliation of a trial? That does not happen in the Basehart film.

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It’s unfair, for HE WALKED BY NIGHT is a tidy and tense little thriller and police procedural. Told like a documentary, it follows Basehart’s criminal career wherein he seems always one step ahead of the police. The film begins when he commits a murder in a robbery (he shoots a policeman) and flees leaving a remarkable set of skeleton keys and picks behind him. The Los Angeles police led by Roy Roberts start looking into whatever clues they have and realize they don’t have really much. But Roberts has assistance from the crime lab (Jack Webb, in a prescient – pre-DRAGNET role), and detective Scott Brady as well as others looking into every aspect of the case. But despite some minor advances (they can see how clever the criminal is in the lack of fingerprints and traces) they are not getting anywhere.

They get an opening when an electronics firm headed by Whit Bissell discovers that the devices that have been leased out for one Roy Martin are actually stolen items. Bissell is forced to work with the police, and a stake-out ends with Basehart shooting another cop (crippling him) and being shot himself). But Basehart (in a somewhat over-the-top sequence) removes the bullet at his home.

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That’s his secret. Basehart plays the perfect loner. Except for his pet dog nobody gets close to this killer. In fact it is the only flaw in the story that nothing about the reason for Basehart’s anti-social point of view is ever given. On the other hand, there is no psychiatric gobbledy-gook that we have to swallow to “understand” the poor man. For he is totally amoral, and vicious, and one can properly dislike him throughout the movie.

But he is smart. He is an electronics whiz, and he has two radios on the police frequency to keep track of what they are up to. He also is clever enough to alter the method of his robberies (this before the use of profiling by police) to confuse the cops. Finally he discovers a perfect way to avoid notice by the police: he uses the sewers of Los Angeles as a private highway around that wide city.

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The film shows how Roberts, Brady, Webb, and the other police gradually manage to get a picture of Basehart from the witnesses (one that Bissell recognizes) and then to zero in on his probable background. It is a film showing police procedural for what it really is – the pounding of city streets asking questions and questions and questions. Sometimes a break comes through, but frequently there is more that confuses the issue (when Brady – in disguise as a milkman – goes to spy on Basehart towards the end of the film, he meets a neighbor who says something evil is going on in the neighborhood, but turns out to be insane about a landlady). It is a film noir that works quite well, and should be better known. But it was not written by a great English author like Graham Green, nor was it directed by Sir Carol Reed. The more colorful film using that great climax in the sewers was still to come. Unfairly that was not the end to this irony. The best known film about the city of Los Angeles with a great fight sequence in the sewers is THEM, the science fiction film of seven years later. HE WALKED BY NIGHT deserves better renown, but it is hard to believe it ever will get it.

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