Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Stubs - He Walked by Night

HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948) Starring: Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Jack Webb, and Whit Bissell. Directed by Alfred L. Werker and Anthony Mann. Produced by Bryan Foy and Robert Kane. Screenplay: John C. Higgins, Crane Wilbur. Story by Crane Wilbur.  Music by Leonid Raab. Run Time: 79. Black and White. USA. Film Noir, Drama, Crime

Last stop on this year’s Summer of Darkness tour is He Walked By Night, a small film noir film starring Richard Basehart. Unlike many film noir, there really is no femme fatale or even a woman featured in the cast. This is a male dominated film from start to finish.

Based on the true and violent story of Erwin Walker, a disturbed World War II veteran and former employee of the Glendale Police department, the film may seem like a movie long version of the old radio and TV series, Dragnet. There is even narration that is reminiscent to that of the series. The semi-documentary approach to the filmmaking lends to its sense of realism.

The movie is a character study of Roy Martin/Roy Morgan, though it never tells us what motivates him to become a criminal, even when he is offered a legitimate job with the possibility of profit-sharing in the future. But Roy is still interesting to watch as he methodically figures out what to do next, even as the police close in on him.

Like many films in this genre, this one involves murder and in fact starts with one. Early one morning, Officer Robert Rawlins (John McGuire), a Los Angeles beat cop, on his way home from work, stops a man he suspects of breaking into a radio store. For his trouble, Rawlins is shot and mortally wounded. But before he lapses into a coma, Rawlins manages to crash his police car in the burglar’s getaway car. When police arrive on the scene of the shooting, they find the trunk of the car filled with an arsenal of navy surplus equipment and Lee Whitey (Jack Webb) finds nitroglycerin in the glove box. And despite the officer’s description of his killer, the police have few other clues to go on.

After their investigation at the scene, two detectives, Sergeants Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) and Chuck Jones (James Cardwell) are assigned by Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) to catch the shooter.

The police throw out a dragnet and pull in any man who might fit the description. But even though they find some parole violators, including Pete Hammond (Frank Cady) they are no closer to finding who shot Rawlins, who finally succumbs to his wounds and dies.

The suspect, whom we later learn is named Roy (Richard Basehart), flees and hides in his Hollywood bungalow and listens to the police calls on a specially built radio. He shaves off his moustache which had been one of the features the police were looking for. His only companion is his little dog.

Brennan and Jones go to the Crime Investigation Lab, where Whitey demonstrates the nitroglycerin or “safecracker soup.” Other than that the evidence is quite limited. There are no fingerprints on the car, except for the man it was stolen from, or the tools. Lee tells Breen, who joins the detectives that he thinks the suspect is scientific and knows electricity. That gets Breen to call the Captain in charge of burglaries about cases where a pick lock was used. In what might be a comical shot by today’s standards, they show Sgt. Brennan looking into the Modus Operandi files, which is an old punch card computer system. But that only narrows it down to a couple of hundred possible suspects.

Speaking of suspects, next we see him ours is changing license plates on a stolen car. Using the alias Roy Martin, he has been consigning revamped and improved stolen electronic equipment through Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell) at Reeves Electronic Laboratories. Reeves wants Roy to work for him, but Roy declines. He has other plans. Reeves does talk to him about a particular piece of equipment Roy is working on, a TV projector that can show a 12 foot image (not bad for the time). Reeves already has a customer lined up for it.

But after Roy delivers it, the customer, Mr. Dunning (Thomas Browne Henry) recognizes the projector as one he himself had built, but which had been stolen and calls the police. Breen assigns Brennan and Jones to follow up. They think there might be a connection between Roy Martin and the Rawlins' case. Brennan and Jones have Reeves tell Roy that he sold the projector and for him to come pick up his money at 8:30 that night.

But Roy comes for his money before seven and even though there are police already set up, he manages to get past them. Reeves is acting nervous, which Roy picks up on. When Brennan closes in, Roy hides and gets the jump on Brennan, knocking him out. He then gets into a shootout with Jones when he comes to his partner’s aide.

Jones manages to shoot Martin, who flees and back in his bungalow, removes the bullet from his side.

With Jones in the hospital paralyzed from his wounds, Reeves is brought in by the police, but he cannot identify Roy from the photos they have. He doesn’t know much about Martin, only that he picked up some of his knowledge about electronics while he was in the service. They let him go, but put a tail on Reeves and someone to watch his house.

Meanwhile, Roy changes from burglaries to robbery and wearing a variety of disguises (eye patches, glasses and bandaids) strikes the liquor stores known as “bottle stores” in what is described as an one man blitz. Martin, has also found a quick and easy mode of getting away, using the vast network of storm drains that run under L.A. We’re told there are 700 miles of them and that some are wide enough to drive two cars down at the same time. The narration also tells us that the storm drains are a place to hide and to stash weapons.

Back in the Crime Lab, Whitey shows Breen that the bullets that killed Rawlins, paralyzed Jones and were fired at a recent liquor store robbery are all from the same gun. This leads Breen to round up all the robbery victims to put together a composite of the robber. Using an overlay of various slides showing hairstyles, eyes, chins, noses, etc. the police are able to put together a likeness of Martin, which Reeves is brought in to identify. The likeness is then printed and sent out to prisons and government agencies around the country, but no one recognizes the face.

One night, even though there is a heavy police presence, Roy is waiting for Reeves to come home. After beating him up, Roy takes whatever money Reeves has, but tells him to get more for the equipment of his. Reeves tells the police he wants to run, but Breen tells him that they’re using him as bait. He even chastises Brennan for letting Roy get in and out of the house he was supposed to be watching.

Breen wants to take Brennan off the case, and tells him to take two weeks off. The next day, Brennan goes to see Jones in the hospital. But Jones already knows Brennan is off the case. The two partners discuss the case, but Jones makes Brennan see that the suspect knows how the police work and might have worked for a nearby police department, which sends Brennan back on the hunt. After looking through pages and pages of photo IDs, Brennan finally finds someone who recognizes him as a former police radio dispatcher who worked there before the war. Based on a letter turning down a job offer after the war, Brennan finds the signature of Roy Morgan matches the signature of Roy Martin on the back of one of the checks from Reeves.

There is a Hollywood address on the letter, which prompts Brennan to talk to the postal carriers for that area. One of the postmen (Wally Vernon) recognizes Roy and Brennan sets a trap. Disguised as a delivery man for Arden Milk, Brennan rendezvous with the postman, who tells him Roy’s in unit number seven. Outside the apartment, Brennan purposefully drops a milk bottle breaking it. The commotion brings Roy to the door so that Brennan can get a good look at him.

Having made the identification, Brennan and Breen set up a plan to capture Roy. Once Roy returns home, the plan goes into operation. However, Roy is expecting them. His dog seems to sense when police are nearby giving him warning. We watch as the police slowly tighten the circle around Roy’s apartment. Inside, Roy grabs a gun, a flashlight and a jacket and waits. His dog’s bark alerts him that there are police outside and when he looks out through the blinds in his door, he sees one of them changing his location. He escapes through a trapdoor in his closet out onto the roof. He eludes police, once again ducking down inside the storm drain.

But the police dragnet finally catches up to Roy, keeping him from making a quick escape as they move to block the drains. Breen then leads men down into the drain. The police are slowly cutting off Roy’s escape routes as they come after him from both directions. But Roy isn’t through. He has one stash of weapons that he gets to ahead of his pursuers. He can see the policemen advancing by the beams from their flashlights.

Roy tries one final manhole, but the cover has a patrol car parked on top of it. Using tear gas, the police flush Roy out into the open where he is finally shot dead. And the movie ends there.

This is the movie that made Richard Basehart a star. Variety, at the time, noted with his performance that “Basehart establishes himself as one of Hollywood's most talented finds in recent years.” Never a major star, Basehart was nevertheless a good actor. Perhaps best known as the Admiral in television’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Basehart usually gave a solid performance in any role he took. A good example of this is Tension(1950), previously reviewed on this blog. He also appeared in Fellini’s La Strada (1954).

When I was watching this film again, I kept thinking I had seen the actor who played Det. Brennan before. He reminded me of the actor in Born to Kill (1947). Only after watching it did I find out that Scott Brady was the younger brother of Lawrence Tierney, who starred in Born to Kill and many other films. Brady is like a lightweight version of his older brother, but his quiet determination is perfect for the role he’s playing in this movie.

As noted before, Jack Webb would go on from this movie and create Dragnet, first on radio and then on television. It would run on radio from 1949 through 1957, but also on TV from 1951 to 1959 and again from 1967 to 1970. He Walked By Night is a blueprint for the series, which follows a police procedural from crime to arrest. The trial and its outcome was already a foregone conclusion and tacked on at the end of the show.

But the real star of He Walked By Night, is the cinematographer John Alton. The use of shadow and light is breathtaking (see examples below). My personal favorite scenes are those in the LA Sewers, where you see the flashlights in the long dark tunnels. This is what black and white cinematography is all about: crisp whites, deep focus and sharp blacks. Film noir is a genre that is all about living in the shadows and this film handles them as well as any film I’ve seen. Alton is famous for his work on film noirs, such as T-Men (1947), The Amazing Dr. X (1948), Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949), Mystery Street (1950) and The Big Combo (1955). He also shot Father of the Bride (1950), its sequel Father’s Little Dividend (1951) and Elmer Gantry (1960).

An example of the light and dark in the Sewer Drains

The cookaloris certainly got a workout

Roy (Richard Basehart)  looking out from the shadows

It is a compelling story that is well told. While Alfred L. Werker, who was active from 1917 to 1957, is credited as the director, Anthony Mann, who does not receive screen credit, apparently took over the production. Unlike Werker, Mann is well known as the director of such films as T-Men (1947). Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949), Side Street (1950), Winchester ’73 (1950), The Naked Spur (1953) and El Cid (1961).

He Walked By Night is a film that has a lot to recommend it: a seminal storyline, good acting, good directing and a look that will stay with you long after you’ve watched it. The film is worth viewing and should be included on any serious survey of the film noir genre.

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