Sunday, November 8, 2009

He Walked by Night

Directed by
Alfred Werker, Anthony Mann (uncredited)
Written by Crane Wilber (story), Crane Wilbur and John C. Higgins (screenplay), and Harry Essex (additional dialog)
Starring Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Whit Bissell, James Cardwell, Jack Webb
IMDB Entry

The question every science fiction writer gets from time to time is "Where do you get your ideas?" It's sometimes nice to see something that makes it clear where a creator got his ideas, and that is one of the great things about He Walked by Night.

Jack Webb shows off his lab equipmentThe film was part of the group of postwar semidocumentary police procedurals* -- a short-lived trend in films that tried to portray a realistic view of police work. It's the story of a sociopath (Richard Basehart) who kills a Los Angeles cop and the attempt to track him down.  The killer is clever and careful, leaving no evidence.  Sgt. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) was a friend of the murdered policeman, and vows to find his killer.  The investigation is run by Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) with help with forensics expert Lee (Jack Webb).  After many dead ends, plus some scenes showing the basic police work, the police slowly find small clues that lead to them finding the killer.

The acting is underplayed, letting the story carry the movie.  Indeed, the characters (other than Brennan mentioning he knew the murdered cop) are give no backstory; it's all unimportant to the main work of finding the killer.  Basehart, though, great as the killer -- cool, collected, and ready for anything.  Whit Bissell is also good as Paul Reeves, the one person who has met the suspect.

The direction keeps the plot moving.  Alfred Werker was credited, but some -- and maybe most -- of the film was directed by Antho0ny Mann, who had earlier directed T-Men, another film in the semidocumentary genre.

But what is especially interesting is the beginning of the film.  It sets the scene in Los Angeles by showing sights of the city, and indicates that the story is true -- and the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

If that phrase doesn't ring a bell, you're probably too young to remember Dragnet.

Dragnet was in the same vein, taking actual cases from the Los Angeles police department, changing the names, and showing the ins and out of police work.  And, of course, the producer and star of Dragnet was Jack Webb -- who had a role in this film.

It's clear that this is what Webb used as his template.  Supposedly, someone on the set suggested he do a radio show (and later a TV show) based on LAPD cases.  Dragnet began in the same way as the movie, saying the story is true, the names have been changed, and then talking about life in Los Angeles.**  In addition, the word "Dragnet" appears several times in the film, describing the LA police rounding up the usual suspects after the cop is killed.  I suspect Webb (whose performance is more Gil Grissom than Joe Friday) used the film as a template.

The cast, of course, is filled with names who were busy actors once TV came along.  Not only Webb, but Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) starred in TV series, while Roy Roberts, Scott Brady, and Whit Bissell were very busy TV guest stars.

The film has lapsed into the public domain, so it's easy to find.  It's worth a look, not just because it's a pretty good thriller, but because of it's long-term influence on the genre.  It's in the public domain, so you can find it at


*The film is often classed as film noir, but, other than lighting, it has no real noir elements.  Noir tends to focus on a man trapped into murder (usually due to a two-timing woman).  We identify with the person who is either framed or tricked into it.  He Walks by Night does not identify with the killer, and there are no female characters.  Anthony Mann's earlier T-Men -- also a semidocumentary -- is a better model.

**A basic Dragnet opening would go something like this:  "This is the city.  Los Angeles, California.  I work here.  I carry a badge."  Of, though, Friday would go on about some of the great things about LA, segueing into that introduction.

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