HE WALKED BY NIGHT (Alfred L. Werker, 1948)
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Howard Gilman Theater, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center
144 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday, October 1, 9:00
Festival runs September 27 - October 13
Alfred L. Werker’s 1948 noir police procedural, He Walked by Night, might not be extremely well known, but its influence was pervasive. The plot is relatively straightforward: A small-time thief and electronics expert who goes by the name Roy Martin (Richard Basehart) kills a police officer in cold blood and the LAPD mobilizes into action to first uncover the murderer’s identity and then capture him. Capt. Breen (Roy Roberts) assigns Sgt. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) and Sgt. Chuck Jones (James Cardwell) to the case; they regularly meet with Lee Whitney (Jack Webb), who runs the Crime Investigation Lab, the 1940s equivalent of a modern-day forensic scientist. The detectives catch a break when electronics dealer Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell) contacts them after finding out a man he’s been doing business with has been bringing him stolen equipment. Martin is always one step ahead of the police, avoiding capture with a cool confidence, but as Whitney comes up with an innovative way to figure out what Martin looks like, the heat is turned up.
Written by John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur, He Walked by Night features narration by Reed Hadley that sounds like it came right out of the police dispatcher’s files — and predates Dragnet by one year. In fact, this film, inspired by the true story of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, directly led to Webb making Dragnet, first as a radio show beginning in 1949 and then as a television series two years later, with Webb as executive producer and starring as the straitlaced Sgt. Joe Friday. (You can’t help but laugh when Capt. Breen calls for a “dragnet” to be cast.) Basehart (La Strada, Moby Dick) is cool and collected as the killer, especially in a scene in which he operates on himself after getting shot, channeling Anthony Quinn as Juan Martínez in The Ox-Bow Incident. And the grand finale in the underground LA storm drains influenced the scenes in the Vienna sewers in Carol Reed’s 1949 classic The Third Man. An uncredited Anthony Mann (Border Incident, Cimarron) directed several key scenes, and Hungarian cinematographer John Alton (An American in Paris, Elmer Gantry) bathes the film in cunning shadows. The film is screening October 1 at 9:00 in the Retrospective section of the New York Film Festival, which focuses on the work of cinematographers in such films as The Godfather: Part II, The Grapes of Wrath, and Street Angel.