HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Friday, April 1, 2016

HE WALKED BY NIGHT -- Movie Review by Porfle

A true detective story with Jack Webb as an L.A.P.D. cop, in which an opening text informs us that "the names have been changed to protect the innocent"...sounds like "Dragnet", right? 

But this is the 1948 police thriller HE WALKED BY NIGHT, the dark, no-nonsense blueprint for that later radio and TV series. 

The lanky, laconic Webb, in fact, has a relatively minor role as a ballistics expert, although he clearly had his eyes and ears open during filming while formulating the premise for what would become his starring vehicle.

The film even opens with the usual shots of Los Angeles while a world-weary narrator (Reed Hadley intones " Los Angeles") takes us from a travelogue view of the city to its actual crime-ridden underbelly, as depicted by the police department's bustling emergency call and dispatch center.

Then we see the act that starts everything in motion, when an intense young Richard Basehart (who reminds me of Ewan MacGregor circa THE PHANTOM MENACE) is caught trying to break into a radio shop by an off-duty cop, whom he fatally shoots before making his escape in one of the film's more thrilling scenes. 

The victim's fellow officers, of course, make it their business to track down the killer, especially a tough young detective played by Scott Brady.  But Basehart's character, Roy Martin, turns out to be more clever and elusive than they could imagine. 

An electronics expert, Martin's been selling stolen prototypes to an executive (an impossibly young Whit Bissell, here resembling future "Dragnet" regular Olan Soule') in a company that deals in such devices, but when the police make the connection and move in, Martin shoots yet another cop in an eerily dark hallway and escapes.

What follows is classic police procedural stuff, letting us in on the everyday nuts and bolts of police work as well as the more exciting moments, during which cases are often pieced together in small, agonizing increments rather than broad bursts of action. 

(An early scene of witnesses trying to jointly assemble a likeness of the killer using a primitive wall-projected version of the "identikit" is slow, but absorbing.)

Still, HE WALKED BY NIGHT has its share of suspenseful action scenes, especially when cop and criminal stalk each other through the film's many ultra-noirish settings, of a kind that are drenched in darkness and streaked with the shadows of venetian blinds.

As if that weren't enough, the film also takes us into the very heart of the city's sewer system, where Basehart retreats like an animal as a last resort and makes his way surreptiously beneath the city streets.  In the gripping climax, the police discover this avenue of escape and close in on the killer for what turns out to be a fierce shootout.

Before this, however, the film's writers (including Crane Wilber of THE BAT and HOUSE OF WAX) make it clear that the cops aren't just robotic law enforcement drones, but people--something Webb would constantly drive home in his later series.

The first policeman killed is a family man on his way home after work, while Brady and his partner (James Cardwell) have their own personalities and quirks (Brady is forever fumbling for a match to light his cigarettes and must bum a light from everyone else). 

Roy Roberts' Captain Breen is the gruff but understanding boss who recalls the frustration and fatigue a young cop feels during a difficult case.

Even Basehart's homicidal fugitive, in addition to being incredibly smart and resourceful, has a warm relationship with his dog, is a veteran, and was once employed by the police department.

This makes his character more interestingly well-rounded while at the same time emphasizing how off the rails his life has become.  Basehart (later to star in the sci-fi TV classic "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea") is superb in this portrayal, his subtlety and restraint making the desperate Martin's cold, calculated cruelty and ruthlessness even more chilling.

The rest of the mostly uncredited cast includes several familiar faces such as Jane Adams (here playing a nurse again as in HOUSE OF DRACULA, but this time without the hunchback), Ann Doran (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) as a police dispatcher, "Petticoat Junction" regular Sam Cady, John Dehner, and Kenneth Tobey.  

Six years later, Jack Webb would direct, co-write, and star in the first "Dragnet" feature film, which would be just as dark, tough, hardbitten, character-driven, and realistic as this one.  But HE WALKED BY NIGHT was the prototype, and it stands on its own as a terrific and memorable police story.

(Special thanks to William de Lay)


No comments: