Even the title is evocative. He Walked By Night conjures up the most elemental imagery of film noir: deep shadows, figures lurking, perhaps smoking, certainly sinning, occasionally illuminated by the light of street lamps slamming through window blinds. The title turns out to be a bit misleading; while there is certainly someone walking by night and doing dirt in those shadows, the primary focus of this 1948 thriller from director Alfred L. Werker (with an uncredited assist by Anthony Mann) is the cops who are trying to find him, and stop him. It’s a police procedural in film noir clothing – somewhat literally, as its LAPD detectives sport crisp suits and sharp fedoras, cigarettes dangling from their square mugs.
The more figurative noir style is provided by the great cinematographer John Alton (who also lensed last week’s Noirvember-inspired Classic Corner, The Big Combo). Alton takes every available opportunity to augment Werker’s set pieces with light, shadows, and smoke, but his artistry is occasionally, necessarily at odds with the demands of John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur’s screenplay, which positions the picture as something of a West Coast cousin to Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (released nine months earlier).
As with The Naked City, verisimilitude is job one. The picture opens with a lengthy, chest-thumping “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” text scroll, assuring the viewer that “only the names are changed, to protect the innocent.” That language will ring a loud bell for viewers versed in the history of the police procedural; it was a standing feature throughout the long radio, television, and motion picture run of Jack Webb’s Los Angeles cop series Dragnet. This, it turns out, was not a coincidence. Webb, young and wiry, appears in He Walked By Night in the small role of lab technician Lee Whitey. And the story goes that while shooting this “case history of a killer, taken from police files” (per the hard-boiled narrator), Webb became friendly with the LAPD’s technical advisor, Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn, and the idea of Dragnet was born. (There’s even a “dragnet” sequence in the film.)
Webb may well have drawn his voice-over strategy from the film as well, though He Walked’s narration isn’t quite as flat-toned and matter-of-fact as Webb’s; in spots, it echoes the purple prose of a March of Time newsreel. The LAPD, we are told, is “the biggest police force in the country – and one of the finest” (there’s more than a little copaganda happening here), and we’re assured that the titular killer is indeed a bad dude by the fact that his first victim is a member of said police force. “I wish you’d let Chuck and me handle this case,” growls one of the first detectives on the scene, inserting a shot of danger, in the form of possible vengeance.
Alas, no such extracurricular law enforcement shall seep into this portraiture of by-the-book policing, in which our heroes painstakingly interview witnesses, sniff out clues, build suspect sketches, and chase down leads. This approach, pseudo-documentary in places, renders Alton’s flourishes challenging, if not counterintuitive. So he saves the flash, the stylish play between light and dark, for his photography of the killer, played with relish by Richard Basehart. His casting, at least at the time, was against type. Crazed killers were usually depicted as freaks and ghouls – think Richard Widmark’s psychotic turn in Kiss of Death – but Basehart has a blow-dried, all-American quality, commented on by witnesses to his crimes (“He had such a fine face,” shrugs one). He uses his good looks and quick mind to his advantage, catching victims and accomplices off-guard – which makes him a more formidable foe for our cop protagonists. (He’s also not indestructible, catching a bullet in one tense sequence, and performing a scene of sweaty self-surgery after – a film first, perhaps?)
“Police work is not all glamor and excitement and glory,” explains the film’s narrator, but ultimately a question of “persistence.” And like The Naked City (and other late-‘40s imitators like The Tattooed Stranger and The Sleeping City) it’s a tribute to tireless, nose-to-the-grindstone, shoe-leather investigating. And so when they get to their big set pieces, the filmmakers pull them out like taffy, often invoking the “less is more” ethos of great noir: minimal light, minimal movement, often even eschewing dramatic music in favor of tense quiet and businesslike sound effects. That’s even true of the big climax, a chase through the city’s storm drains (“700 miles of hidden highways”), a sequence that evokes The Third Man, though it beat that classic to theaters by roughly a year.
Of course (spoiler alert) the coppers get their man, with remarkable narrative efficiency – they roll his body over, the music swells, and THE END fills the screen; He Walked By Night closes the case in 79 minutes, with no further theatrics or even a congratulatory voice-over. The job is done, and the movie is over. They sure knew how to wrap things up back then.