He Walked by Night is akin to T-Men or Border Incident in its pervasive use of “Voice of God” narration. Today, all of this feels blase and staid like newsreel footage without much substance. Over time, the voice feels a bit like a pesky mosquito not so much in tone or frequency but simply in his tendencies. He won’t leave us in peace. What he is worth are a few minutes of civic history circa 1948 for those invested in knowing something about the distant past.
The real juicy bits are when noir seeps into the equation. To set the scene, there’s a cop returning home from his beat late at night; he sees a mysterious-looking figure loitering around a shop. He confronts the passerby, and the fugitive opens fire.
Quickly, the wheels of justice are notified on the switchboard, and the police force is mobilized to track down the fugitive who vanishes into the dead of night. Like any of these sorts of police procedurals, most of our “heroes” are innocuous types with a chiseled jaw and voices made for straightforward “just the facts” television — Scott Brady and Jack Webb among them.
In fact, Webb would use the experience of this movie to bring a little program called Dragnet to the radio waves. It would take on a life of its own with two subsequent runs on the newly minted medium of television. He Walked By Night is of the same ilk.
Very few of the characters impose any sort of will or inventiveness on the story. It’s strictly by the book with John Alton putting everyone else to task. Boy oh boy could he shoot a gorgeous movie; it shows in every frame.
There is one challenger to Alton’s preeminence because Richard Basehart’s performance stands out, and it’s the most visible and elegant opportunity at something memorable. Everyone else is an average Joe or a victim. He actually gets to do something and embody an enigmatic character with multiple layers and compulsions. Set off by his matinee idol good looks and tentative demeanor, he erupts with wrath creating an indelible impression.
If there’s any downside, it’s only a minor qualm he probably had little control over. There’s never an appreciation or at least an understanding of the killer. In 1948 the movies weren’t ready for that, but it’s part of what makes the movie feel rather sterile. It’s all about the case, which while somewhat contentious, plays out in conventional parlance. The exhibition in style more than makes it worthwhile, but He Walked by Night feels fairly paltry in narrative terms.
It’s true that the real events have a tinge of cinematic drama and in the post-war years, these kinds of hard-fact docudramas were in vogue. But with this being based on a real killer and genuine terror, the creators cannot sketch too much in any way that makes the audience too uncomfortable.
Again, where it deviates or rather executes to the most sublime is through the photography of Alton. It punctuates and accentuates the story in ways that are irreducible. You simply have to marvel and people have done so for generations. If you want a solid representation of film noir, this is it, hook, line, and sinker.
Take a scene midway through the movie where the cops have gotten in touch with a shop owner (Whit Bissell). He unwittingly did ongoing business with the wanted man — not knowing the evasive Roy was actually a violent kleptomaniac. In fact, Roy returns to the electronic dealer’s office wary of a trap.
It’s here where Alton finally gets another chance to spring into action, exerting himself on the movie and forever changing its course. The shadowed interiors bisecting Basehart’s face as he slinks back into the darkness are positively sumptuous. The sound design proves equally striking; we don’t hear any scoring, not one foot hitting the ground. It gives it this almost illusory quality. These are phantoms at work.
When they put out his description, and he’s forced on the lam, it’s the next progression in the picture’s glorious dragnet of immersive chiaroscuro. Basehart makes a daring escape on the rooftops with a getaway set up for just such an occasion. Then, he escapes into the catacombs of the city evolving into a full-fledged storm drain noir. I’m accustomed to the waterways of Vienna as opposed to the sewers of L.A. They play just as well in what becomes a defining moment of the film.
Pounding feet and flashlight beams spell impending doom as they encroach on the fugitive’s position. It relies even more on the juxtaposition of light like a knife in the dark. I know my own timeline is not chronological, but if I had never seen The Third Man, He Walked by Night’s finale would feel even more novel and like a truly slam-bang finish. It accomplishes so much through visual tension and delivering on the manhunt that has been going on throughout the entire movie. There really is no better way they could have gone about it.
Until the very end, He Walked by Night is a performative war between the by-the-book sense of realism that feels like post-war convention, and then the manic, slightly repressed expression that burst forth only after hours. It’s no contest and this bodes well for this ’40s crime procedural.