HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948) is an unusual hybrid of police procedural and pure film noir. It’s a sincere paean to the hard-working men of the Los Angeles Police Department with intriguing glimpses of the attention to detail involved in the solving of crimes and the search for perpetrators, complete with stentorian narration by Reed Hadley (later the host of TV’s “Racket Squad”) and location filming in police headquarters. Yet at the same time, it’s also an unusually intimate portrait of a cold-blooded killer, whose shrewdness and sharp-eyed intelligence allow him to stay one step ahead of the police for most of the film’s 79 minutes.
Roy Roberts, Scott Brady in HE WALKED BY NIGHT
The plot is very simply described: Roy Martin (Richard Basehart), a young electronics expert, is interrupted in his attempt to burglarize an electronics store and shoots and mortally wounds the policeman who stops him.
A piece of equipment Roy sells to a company turns out to have been stolen from a client of the company and the police are able to connect Roy to the shooting of the officer.
Roy then commits a number of liquor store robberies in various disguises and the police gradually develop a picture of the robber based on witness descriptions and conclude that the robberies were all committed by the same man. The composite image is identified as Roy and the manhunt is on.
What struck me as I watched it this time was that the character of Roy Martin is the one we spend the most time with and the only one shown in private, unguarded moments. There are long wordless scenes of him alone with his dog in the rooms he rents.
When he’s shot by the police at one point and manages to get away, we watch him perform self-surgery in his room in one long take, intercut with one closeup angle, suffering in silence and without anesthesia as he takes the bullet out himself with the appropriate instruments.
Later, when the police surround the bungalow where he’s hiding, the scene is played out primarily from his point-of-view as he listens and waits apprehensively, turning off his lamp, peering through the blinds, and finally being alerted by the dog’s warning barks. It’s hard to keep from finding ourselves secretly rooting for his escape. These are long, silent sequences with no music on the soundtrack. And at the end, when Roy flees through the sewer drains under Los Angeles, the camera’s with him every step of the way, as he desperately watches the flashes of light getting closer as squads of flashlight-waving police come at him.
We’re never asked to feel sympathy for Roy Martin. He’s a bad guy, a sociopath who kills a decent, hard-working policeman who leaves a grieving wife behind. (The closeup of her when she gets the news of his death and lets out an anguished cry is absolutely heartbreaking.) There’s no excuse for Roy’s behavior, nor is there any attempt to fashion one, as there would be in later films about socially isolated killers (e.g. THE SNIPER, 1952). It’s made clear that his considerable talents could lead to lucrative employment as Reeves (Whit Bissell), his chief client, is seen offering him a job. Reeves, who runs an electronics company, has treated Roy very well, only to be unceremoniously robbed and beaten by Roy later in the film and subjected to further threats.
Roy is never anything but an unrepentant killer and we don’t lament his ultimate fate at all. But still, those closeups of him are strangely compelling. We don’t exactly get into his head—there are no interior monologues, for one thing—but we see him experiencing fear and suffering pain.
There are several remarkable noir setpieces in the film. I’m going to single out two of them. At one point, Reeves, at the direction of the police, has asked Roy to come by his office to collect payment for the piece of equipment that, unbeknownst to Roy, has already been identified as stolen. Roy enters the building at night and sees Reeves alone in his office and hides in the dark hallway, intuiting correctly that the police are in wait outside another doorway to the office. He calls to Reeves and slowly, quietly, ascends a staircase to get a better view, just in time to see the detectives stalking the hallway trying to trap him. After a fight and a shootout in which he gets wounded, Roy gets away.
The scene is built on the way the director makes use of the space of the office: the doorways, the hallways, the stairs and the way the cinematographer uses extreme darkness to create chiaroscuro compositions. Even though the credited director is Alfred L. Werker, it has long been reported that Anthony Mann directed much of the film uncredited. Mann is known for his use of space and landscape in westerns, completely revolutionizing the convention of the shootout in the rocks in WINCHESTER ’73 (1950). The cinematographer, John Alton, had photographed earlier examples of noir, including two by Mann, RAW DEAL and T-MEN, and would go on, after this one, to photograph three more films for Mann, REIGN OF TERROR, BORDER INCIDENT and DEVIL’S DOORWAY, all in black-and-white.
Later in the film, Roy is apprehensive because he’d opened the door earlier in the day after hearing glass break outside and he’d been spotted by the milkman, who was actually Detective Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) operating undercover and had dropped a bottle precisely to get Roy to open the door and reveal himself.
That night, Roy anxiously waits and ponders what to do and then slowly, wordlessly, he carries out his preparations for escape. The camera frequently cuts outside to the police who carefully, stealthily, surround the place and check their weapons and prepare to burst in. At one point Roy turns out the light. And soon the dog starts barking. Peering through the blinds, Roy eventually sees the police amassing outside and makes his pre-planned getaway through a rooftop exit.
This sequence leads directly into the final flight through the sewers and the pursuit by the police, another masterful setpiece of action and noir cinematography—all done on location.
Interestingly, one of the film’s co-stars is Jack Webb, in only his second movie, who plays a crime lab technician with the LAPD.
Webb would strike up a friendship with the film’s technical adviser, Sgt. Marty Wynn of the LAPD, and would go on to create, produce and star in the radio show, “Dragnet,” and the later TV series of that name, a pioneering police crime show, on which Wynn continued to serve as technical adviser. Wynn was the basis for the character of Jack Vincennes in James Ellroy’s novel, “L.A. Confidential.” (Kevin Spacey played him in the 1997 movie.) Here is Webb with Roy Roberts, Scott Brady and James Cardwell:
I’ve never seen the original black-and-white “Dragnet” TV series, which aired from 1951 to 1959, but I have seen the 1954 color movie version, which was made around the time “L.A. Confidential” is set. It has some fascinating location cinematography and some good police procedural moments, but is as stylized in its own peculiar way as the L.A. CONFIDENTIAL movie. I’d like to see a DVD release of the Dragnet movie with commentary by James Ellroy.