HE WALKED BY NIGHT stalked into darkened theaters in 1948, adding 79 minutes of well-acted, beautifully photographed film noir tension in the form of a police-procedural, competing with several semidocumentary thrillers that year. A success with critics and at the box office—grossing $1,250,000 on a lean $360,000 investment—it was another cap feather for inventive cameraman John Alcott and a notable career bump for newcomers Richard Basehart, Scott Brady and Jack Webb. *
‘Roy Morgan’ (Basehart) is an electronics whiz, a loner with only a dog for a friend. During a nighttime burglary prowl in Los Angeles he also reveals himself to be a cold-blooded murderer. Switching to armed robbery, he racks up more victims, showing himself proficient not just with weapons and evasion, but self-surgery, when he’s wounded during a shootout. The police manhunt scouring the city is led by veteran ‘Capt.Breen’ (Roy Roberts) and tough detective ‘Marty Brennan’ (Brady), with support from forensic specialist ‘Lee Whitey’ (Webb). Rats bite and scurry: they still end up in the sewer.
The script by John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur was loosely based on the real-life 1946 crime spree of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker (1917-2008). Alfred L. Werker directed, with Anthony Mann pitching in, sans credit. The cast of mostly new faces keys naturalism (with a welcome semi-lead for dependable character actor Roberts), and Basehart is strikingly effective, most convincing in putting across Roy’s intelligence, aptitude and ruthlessness.
Of course the technical material is dated in terms of the equipment then available, and the narration (from Reed Hadley) hearkens back to a bygone era that may seem prehistoric to modern crime-drenched (and beset) audiences. Quibbles, as the acting, staging, pacing and above all, the ‘look’ of the film, thanks to the brilliant b&w cinematography from John Alton, insure a gripping experience, topped by the terrific finale in the storm drains beneath Los Angeles. Those conduits later turn up in a showdown with giant ants in 1954s classic Them!, and—as Glenn Erickson observes at CineSavant—may have inspired Carol Reed and Orson Welles in their stunner use of Vienna’s underground labyrinth in The Third Man.
With Whit Bissell, Dorothy Adams, Jack Bailey (anyone remember him as host of Queen For A Day ?), Frank Cady, John Dehner, Byron Foulger, Kenneth Tobey, Ann Doran.
* He Walked By Night was a coup for Richard Basehart, 33 in his third film appearance. Though a generation of kids chiefly recall him from the silly 1964-68 fun of TVs Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, discerning fans applaud the intensity of his film work in Reign Of Terror, Fourteen Hours, Fixed Bayonets!, Titanic, La Strada, Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov and The Satan Bug.
Ruggedly handsome Scott Brady was the 23-year-old brother of actor (and real-life ruffian) Lawrence Tierney (Dillinger, Reservoir Dogs). Debuting in ’48, thanks to He Walked By Night and Canon City, he almost immediately became a star of numerous B-pictures and co-star of upgrades like Johnny Guitar, before moving on to a successful run on TV series like Shotgun Slade and supporting parts in films until his last bit, for Gremlins, in 1984.
At 28, Jack Webb had his first credited part here. He befriended technical advisor Marty Quinn, a Sergeant on the L.A. police force, who’d worked on the actual case. His stories gave Webb the idea for a radio series based on actual police files. Thus, Dragnet was born. Lee Server, in his book “Handsome Johnny”, reveals that gangster Johnny Rosselli helped produce the film (taking no credit, natch, to play it cool), giving it all an added wry note in that a Mob-connected hood was partly responsible for the most pro-cop show in TV history.
Uncredited, Anthony Mann directed some of the picture, and much of it certainly looks more like his deft handiwork than that of the credited Alfred L. Werker. Werker directed 50 movies between 1928 and 1957. Most were undistinguished, the noteworthy items include Repeat Performance in 1947, 1939’s The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, and The House Of Rothschild, which managed a Best Picture nomination back in ’34.
1948—yeesh—-the Hollywood Ten go to jail, Berlin Airlift begins, Israeli independence kickstarts the Mid-East quagmire, Gandhi is assassinated, Babe Ruth dies. Apart from some bright items like Easter Parade, The Paleface and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the politically fraught atmosphere was reflected by the overall gloom–superbly done—on screen: The Naked City, Call Northside 777, Key Largo, The Snake Pit, Raw Deal, Force Of Evil, and Sorry, Wrong Number.