Directed by Alfred L. Werker and Anthony Mann, He Walked by Night is an early example of the police procedural. This film noir features the impeccable cinematography of John Alton, whose balancing of dark and light provides the semi-documentary style with a certain beauty. Despite the straightforward punch of He Walked by Night, the night has never looked lovelier.
Released by the “Poverty Row” Eagle-Lion Films, this 1948 picture falls right in line with the Hollywood discovery of forensics and other advanced crime analysis techniques. While it might seem quaint by today’s flashy CSI standards, there’s a lot to like about the investigative process and the way the audience is let in to the inner workings of the police force.
The film follows the Los Angeles Police Department as they track the criminal and cop killer Roy (Richard Basehart). He has killed a cop and is selling stolen electronic equipment to Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell), which leads detectives Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) and Chuck Jones (James Cardwell) to set a trap. Unfortunately, Roy is tricky and gets away from the sting.
With the help of forensics specialist Lee (Jack Webb), the LAPD matches the ejector marks on the bullet casings with the ones from the scene of Roy’s first crime. This helps the cops come up with a composite, which in turn leads them to Roy’s real identity. The police play a cat-and-mouse game with Roy until they’re able to find his address.
There isn’t a lot of emotional resonance to He Walked by Night and that makes the picture feel even colder to the touch. It is loosely based on the case of former police dispatcher Erwin Walker. He went on a crime spree in the mid-1940s and got into several shootouts with police. He died in 1982 despite being initially sentenced to death in the gas chamber.
He Walked by Night changes a good number of the details, but the tale it weaves is still fascinating. It builds to a thrilling climax that involves a chase through the sewers and more of Alton’s remarkable cinematography. The lighting and shadows suggests a prison and perhaps something even more finite waiting in the wings for the criminal at large.
In that regard, there is a distinct fatalism with respect to how these events play out. Cops are shot and there’s a madman on the loose, yet there’s no agitated anguish painting the streets red with chaos. It’s just another day and Roy is just another criminal to be brought to justice.
Baseheart does a wonderful job bringing Roy to life. He’s a dark-as-night sociopath, complete with unfeeling smirk and animalistic tendencies. Baseheart never goes overboard, even when the camera calls on him to deliver the goods in a bullet extraction scene. Alton’s lightning is an ideal partner during the scene, generating some serious chills without showing the gory details.
The supporting players are on-point. They handle their roles with such control that He Walked by Night could almost pass for a documentary. Webb, in particular, was so influenced by the film that he wound up producing the television series Dragnet as a “realistic police procedural.”
He Walked by Night has the fingerprints of Anthony Mann all over it, even if it appears he splits the assignment with Werker. Most film scholars agree that Mann is the man here, especially with the cinematography of Alton and the screenplay by John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur guiding the way. It was Higgins who wrote the screenplays for Mann’s T-Men and Raw Deal, among other pictures.
Werker was no slouch, though. He helmed Richard Baseheart and Louis Hayward in the 1947 picture Repeat Performance, a noir that features a time travel twist and takes an intriguing look at fate.
In the case of He Walked by Night, such trivialities are left for the pictures. This is as real as it gets, apart from the way the light carries through the shadows with almost magical precision. From the minor details to the exhilarating final sequence, this is one from the top shelf of films noir. It sets the tone for a raft of police procedurals and gets away with it, blazing a trail into the cold, dark Los Angeles night.