HE WALKED BY NIGHT directed by Alfred Werker (USA, 1948)
“The streets were dark with something more than night”, wrote Raymond Chandler in the introduction to his short story collection, Trouble Is My Business.
This could be the tag line for practically any of the American Noir movies of the 40s and 50s.
In these films, the criminals and killers lurk in the shadows pursued by upright, squeaky clean agents of the law.
The good versus evil is literally represented in black and white terms with a moralising tone that often makes the films quaint and faintly comical. They are a far cry from the many shades of grey in today’s cynical police procedurals.
In Werker’s movie the heavy-handed documentary style voiceover leaves us in no doubt where our sympathies should lie , The pompous narrator reminds us that “police work is not all glamor, excitement and glory” . We see diligent officers from Los Angeles painstakingly sifting through the evidence and probing all the city’s “slightly shady characters” for any lead that will help crack the case.
They are on the trail of Richard Basehart is Roy Martins, the “diabolically clever” villain who has killed a cop and carried out a series of crimes, the motive of which is never explained. Until he tracked down the randomness of his habits make him “as unknown as if he had lived in the 16th century” .
The movie is by no means a classic but is more than of passing interest for cinephiles. It is cited as a major inspiration for the influential TV crime series Dragnet which starred Jack Webb (aka John Randolph). Webb plays the forensics expert in He Walked By Night .
The final chase scene takes place in 700 miles the city’s storm drains and the similarity to Carol Reed’s The Third Man is remarkable. Werker’s is the earlier movie so Reed must have done a straight copy for the final moments of Harry Lime in the sewers of Prague.
Another notable sequence is a photofit meeting where workers from the shops Martins robbed have to pick out hair – eyes – nose – mouth from projected images. Martins is supposed to be a cunning master of disguise (he wears an eye patch on one stick up – glasses at another!) but ,even so, his victims get a remarkably accurate likeness.
The most modern looking scene is where Martins is shot and at home removes the bullet himself – we see no blood of course but the scene has the same function as in the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men in showing the single-minded ruthlessness of the killer.
The film is now in the public domain and can be streamed at Internet Archive. In the parlance of the LA police department, it’s worth ‘a gander’.