He Walked by Night was a "B" movie released by Eagle Lion Films in late 1948 and early 1949. The credited director is Alfred L. Werker, but no one disputes that the actual director is the masterful Anthony Mann (who apparently took over production soon after it was begun). The movie was part of a series of increasingly accomplished noirs by Mann, including Railraoded! (1947), Desperate (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949). It's my favorite of the series; it manages to perfect the "docudrama" style begun in T-Men and Raw Deal, and it contains some of the most striking cinematography of the decade, creating a gripping combination of procedural and suspense. There are public domain videos available, but MGM/UA released on a good, quality DVD in 2003, which is still in print.
What It's About
A patrol cop is on his way home when he stops a suspicious man (Richard Basehart) on the street. The man shoots the cop, and thus begins a citywide manhunt for the mysterious killer, named Roy. Two police detectives, Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) and Chuck Jones (James Cardwell), are assigned to the case. The film flips back and forth between the criminal's brilliant efforts to stay ahead of the law, by changing his operating procedure and staying underground. The cops are mostly stuck, but occasionally stumble upon a clue or two, such as a shell casing, and the fact that the killer tried to sell a piece of stolen electronics. Eventually, the cops locate the killer, leading to an extended chase through the storm drains of Los Angeles. A narrator (Reed Hadley) provides details over the action as if it were a news report.
Behind the Scenes
Anthony Mann (1906-1967) was truly a man who worked his way up. He started as a stage actor, worked his way up to stage design and stage director before Hollywood hired him. He worked as a talent scout and directed screen tests before moving up to assistant director. His first films as director were the most wretched of low-budget thrillers, and over the years, Mann learned to use his visual style to mesh his characters with their environment in interesting ways. He graduated from "B" noirs into "A" Westerns -- many starring Jimmy Stewart -- which were big hits in their day. These successes led to bigger budgets, and he ended his career with a series of huge, expensive epics, including El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
Alfred L. Werker, on the other hand, was an ordinary, workaday Joe who directed a whole slew of movies without ever leaving much of a mark. Perhaps his most famous or noteworthy film is the second of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films. The other great artist on He Walked by Night besides Anthony Mann is the great cinematographer John Alton (1901-1996). Working with low budgets, Alton perfected a way of using strong, harsh lighting to get a maximum of contrast; he embraced pitch-black shadows with bright images slashing through them. Alton and Mann worked on six films together, and when Mann graduated to the "A" list, so did Alton. He moved to color cinematography and won an Oscar for An American in Paris (1951). He suddenly retired in the mid-1960s, leaving the movie world much poorer for his choice.
As for the actors, Richard Basehart somehow went on to work with Fellini on La Strada (1954) and Il Bidone (1955). But Jack Webb -- who plays a crime lab technician -- came out the best. While working on He Walked by Night, he met the real-life LAPD detective sergeant who was serving as the technical advisor and came up with the idea for his TV series "Dragnet," which ran successfully throughout the 1950s and has been rebooted several times since. Incidentally, Webb had already worked with his "Dragnet" co-star Harry Morgan on a coupe of other films noir, Dark City (1950) and Appointment with Danger (1951).
Credited screenwriter Crane Wilbur also had an interesting career. Born into a Broadway family, he began his career acting on the stage, and quickly moved into silent movies. He also directed several movies but left his strongest mark as a writer on this, House of Wax (1953), Crime Wave (1954) and The Phenix City Story (1955). The other credited screenwriter, John C. Higgins, worked regularly with Mann on his series of films noir, but -- sadly -- they were the high point of his career. His next notable movie was Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).
The Lure of the Underworld
Usually, a noir hero makes a bad choice that sends him running irrevocably down the wrong road, and it usually has something to do with either money or women. He Walked by Night is different, in that it follows very clearly delineated good guys (the cops) and a bad guy (the killer). The killer, Roy, makes his decision quickly and cleanly when he decides to shoot the beat cop. But his reason for the shooting is very simply that he was caught trying to break into a store at night. Indeed, Roy seems to have very little interest in either money or women; his main motivation seems to be the life of crime itself, and the mere challenge of it.
The Femme Fatale
Many films noir have a "femme fatale" character -- also named by the French -- who is responsible for the hero's downfall. There are no femmes fatales in He Walked by Night. There are no credited females in the cast, and the actresses that do appear in the film never have more than one scene. (Variety commented: "There are no romantic angles in this all-male operation to slow matters down.") This raises the question: can it be a film noir without a femme fatale?
I have already talked a bit about John Alton, who was undoubtedly the greatest film noir cinematographer. There are many great scenes in this film (such as one in which the killer digs a bullet out of his flesh), but the highlight is definitely the climactic chase through the storm drains. The edges of the screen are dark, the water shimmers at the bottom, and odd shafts of light slash through here and there, reflecting off the walls. The sound is creepy, echoing, coming from all directions. This scene came a full year before Carol Reed did something similar in the much more famous The Third Man (1949).
"No one in the underworld recognized that mysterious face. He was as unknown as if he had lived in the sixteenth Century." - Narrator
"The work of police, like that of women, is never over." - Narrator
"Sergeant Brennan wore out his shoes and his patience going from police station to police station, checking photos until his eyes were blurry, for policework is not all glamour and excitement and glory. There are days and days of routine, of tedious probing, of tireless searching - fruitless days - days when nothing goes right, when it seems as if no one could think his way through the maze of baffling trails the criminal leaves." - Narrator
What Was Said
"Grade-A drama of killer hunted by police... effective performances by all." - Leonard Maltin
"A terrific little movie... A mini-masterpiece of film noir mood and style." - Jeanine Basinger
"A high-tension crime meller, supercharged with violence but sprung with finesse. Top credits for this film's wallop is shared equally by the several scripters, director Alfred Werker and a small, but superb cast headed by Richard Basehart." - Variety
"A fascinating picture, DP Alton did some of his finest work here -- the close-up of Basehart, each bead of sweat registering as it trickles down his face, during the surgery scene; the final chase through the sewer, which is quite similar to the finale of The Third Man, made the following year." - Martin Scorsese