Monday, April 15, 2019

He Walked by Night (1948)

He Walked by Night is a bit of an odd one. This 1948 B-movie is usually considered a film noir. That’s probably because the cinematography was by John Alton, the greatest of all noir cinematographers. So it looks very film noir indeed.

Structurally it’s a straightforward police procedural, with a touch of that semi-documentary feel that was briefly fashionable in the late 40s.

There’s nothing startling about any of this, but it’s the killer himself who adds the oddness. He’s not a noir protagonist. He’s a bit of a mystery. He’s a guy who has never come to the attention of the police before and then one day he guns down a police officer. He’d attracted the officer’s attention by seeming to take too much interest in a TV and radio store. Before he dies the cop remarks that the guy seemed like such a harmless clean-cut pleasant-looking young guy. We never really learn anything about him.

The police officer dies. And suddenly this mystery killer is at the centre of a massive manhunt. The killing of a civilian is a routine matter but cops don’t like it when fellow cops get killed.

Almost nothing is known about the mystery suspect, except that he’s an electronics whizz.

Roy Martin (the killer) really does come across most of the time as a quiet and unassuming, and perhaps slightly shy, young man. There is however a definite obsessive side to him. And he’s a loner. Not just a regular kind of loner but an extreme loner.

And he seems to be up to something. He has some kind of agenda. Although the first killing took place as the result of an abortive burglary he is clearly not just a common burglar.

This movie gave Richard Basehart his first meaty rôle and he makes the most of it. It’s a tough rôle because Roy Martin is the kind of guy who keeps everything inside. He doesn’t reveal his plans, or his motivations, or his feelings, to anybody.

The other standout performance is Jack Webb as the LAPD forensics expert Lee Whitey. Making He Walked by Night got Webb rather obsessed by routine police procedures and their dramatic potential and it wasn’t long after this movie was shot that he pitched the idea of a radio series called Dragnet to NBC. Dragnet of course then went on to become one of the biggest hit series in TV history. You can already see traces of Joe Friday in Webb’s performance in He Walked by Night. It’s worth noting that the opening titles of the movie inform us that this is a true story but the names have been changed to protect the innocent, which of course became the famous tagline for Dragnet.

While Alfred L. Werker (a competent journeyman director) gets the screen credit there was a belief in some quarters that Anthony Mann may have had a hand in directing He Walked by Night.

The real star is of course cinematographer John Alton. Alton wrote a book on photography called Painting with Light and that’s exactly what he does. He was the Rembrandt of film photography.

The superb extended climactic scenes of the movie gives Alton the chance to pull off a truly stunning tour-de-force of noir visual magic.

Also interesting is the detailed description of a very early police attempt at building an Identikit photo of a suspect.

We never really learn anything about the killer. That’s why this is not a film noir. It’s too abstract. In fact it’s like a big game hunt, with the police playing the parts of the hunters hunting down a rogue lion that’s turned man-eater. They don’t know anything about the guy, they just know he killed a cop so they’re going to kill him because that’s the way it works. It could also be seen as a kind of war movie - you don’t need to know about the personal motivations or feelings of the enemy soldier, you just know that either you kill him or he kills you. Except that in this case it’s one man facing hundreds of cops.

What’s clever is that although we do feel sorry for Roy in the same way we’d feel sorry for a hunted animal the movie doesn’t try to paint him as an innocent or misunderstood victim. He is a cold-blooded killer. There are no heroes and no victims. The cops win because there are lots of them up against one man. So the result of the fight is pre-ordained. No-one beats odds like that.

I don’t think there’s any other crime movie of the period that takes such an extremely  abstract view of crime. In fact I’m not sure if there’s any crime movie ever that is quite so abstract. Which does make this movie very interesting and unusual.

An oddity, but highly recommended both for that reason and for its visual brilliance.

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