Sunday, December 31, 2006

He Walked By Night (1948)

Darker and chillier than a storm drain at midnight, this expertly-crafted thriller from directors Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann; screenwriters John Higgins and Crane Wilbur; and cinematographic master John Alton represents one of the strongest semi-documentary/police procedural noirs - a sub-sub-genre that roughly spanned from 1945's 'The House on 92nd Street' to 1950's 'Union Station' - with 'Walked' arguably being the most sober and nihilistic.

The film's no-frills parallel narrative is divided between hunters and hunted - the L.A.P.D. and a coolly calculating electronics expert/cop killer, respectively. Sought by authorities for the point blank murder of an off-duty officer who had stopped him for questioning, Roy Martin (Richard Basehart) easily makes noir's most malevolent psycho-loners top ten. Fresh from a successful stint on Broadway, Basehart deftly inhabited his darkly charismatic sociopath in a performance that could've very easily slipped into an unintentionally funny stereotype - but the actor keeps it subtle, keeps it real - and single-handedly elevates the film during his self-administered bullet-extraction scene with acting that's nothing less than brilliant.


Tracking Martin on his decidedly cold trail are L.A.P.D.'s finest (Scott 'Canon City' Brady, Roy 'Force of Evil' Roberts, and a skinny Jack Webb - who clearly used 'Walked' as an influence on his later 'Dragnet') who use proto-'C.S.I.' tactics to help narrow their search and expedite the collision course they and the killer are on. With the guidance of technical adviser and actual L.A. cop Marty Wynn, the filmmakers blend dry, clinical police procedure with near-expressionistic cinematography - Alton's chiaroscuro as impressive as it's ever been. The master's low-key lighting, jagged diagonal lines, and claustrophobic compositions a dazzling eye-candy backdrop for the character's deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Though somewhat weakened by razor-thin characterizations, the film's strengths (including a fascinating, uneasy sympathy drawn for the antagonist) are highly rewarding - and it's edge-of-the-seat chase finale in a nearly pitch-black L.A. sewer system a noir tour de force.

Written by Dave


Anonymous said...

Richard Basehart... a much more interesting actor than I was led to believe was the case from watching "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" in the 1960's... - Wes Clark

Paul R. Potts said...

I recently rented this film through Netflix. The cinematography is really breathtaking, and several scenes including the famous sewer chase are wonderfully edited. My only gripe about the movie is the ending. We spend much of the film learning interesting details about the protagonist's history, but ultimately never find out anything about his motives.

Anonymous said...

So Carol Reed indeed "stole" the finale in the sewers (The Third Man, 1949) from Werker/Mann!

Anonymous said...

This film has fallen into the public domain. A print of it is freely available on the Internet Archive at

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