Based on true events, this film noir classic is a "thrilling, absorbing story, superbly told, well-acted [and] brilliantly photographed" (The Hollywood Reporter). Starring Richard Basehart, Scott Brady and Jack Webb, this ... more »"tense, exciting" (Variety) thriller was the inspiration not only for the TV series "Dragnet" but for many other subsequent "ripped from the headlines" crime dramas. Taken from actual case files, He Walked by Night is the suspenseful, action-packed tale of a manhunt for the most cunning criminal in the history of the LAPD. With a combination of ingenuity, state-of-the-art technology, sweat and sheer determination, the police painstakingly track down a brilliant, elusive thief and cop killer who seems to have the ability to vanish into thin air. But can they catch him before he murders again?« less
"... with only the names changed to protect the innocent'...does this sound familiar? Some have likened He Walked by Night (1948) to the 50's television series Dragnet, and there are some similarities (one of the biggest being both feature Jack Webb), but this film differs from that popular series in that the focus is one the story, with emphasis placed both on the detective work and the elusive criminal, generally featuring the criminal more prominently, while Dragnet tended to deal more with the character of Joe Friday, with his no nonsense demeanor, and his partner, cracking whatever case may lay before them for that week, in my opinion. I've read that a police department advisor to this film actually suggested to Webb (who had a detective radio show at the time) that he do a radio series based on actual police files, and from this came the idea for Dragnet, which eventually evolved into the television series.
Directed by Alfred L. Werker (apparently Anthony Mann, a name known to noir fans, directed a good part of this film, uncredited), the film stars Richard Basehart, who played Ishmael to Gregory Peck's Captain Ahab in the 1956 version of Moby Dick, but is probably most well known for his vast television credentials spanning the late 50's up until the early 80's prior to his death in 1984 of a stroke (a few of the, in fact). Also appearing is Scott Brady (The Law vs. Billy the Kid), Roy Roberts (Chinatown), Whit Bissell (Target Earth), James Cardwell (The Return of the Whistler), and, as I mentioned before, Jack Webb (Dragnet).
The film starts off with the slaying of a police officer as he stopped on his way home late one night to investigate a suspicious looking character (Basehart) trying to gain entry into an electronics store. After a confrontation, the police begin an extensive manhunt for the would be thief, now killer (the police get really rattled when one of their own gets killed, I figure as if you're nutty or desperate enough to kill a cop, you'd probably do just about anything). Anyway, the descriptions of the killer are vague at best, and the police (after drudging up every ne'er-do-well they can lay hands on) find the killer is no ordinary criminal, but a very intelligent, wily fellow who is a master at covering his tracks, among other things. The initial investigation turns up bupkiss, forcing the authorities to work over again and again whatever small clues they have, and to also develop different methods for locating this calculating character. After exhaustively following up new leads uncovered by some rather ingenious investigation, the killer's trail begins to grow warm again, and soon they're hot on his heels, but he won't be taken easily, as he's still has a few tricks up his sleeve. It's a deadly game of cat and mouse (although sometimes, I wondered who was the cat, and who was the mouse?).
One aspect I found interesting about this movie was that it tended to shy away from focusing too much on the characters, but more on the story itself. After the initial crime, a lot of time is spent on detailing the efforts of the long, and sometimes tedious, investigation by the police, with plenty of ominous voice over providing expository information for the viewer. We see that police work is comprised of not of lucky guesswork, but thorough, investigative, sometimes inventive (look for the scene where the witnesses are called upon to provide a composite of the individual believed to have committed a number of crimes) techniques used in the identification and locating processes. We also get a look into the inner workings of a meticulous, intelligent criminal, his means and methods for always managing to stay one step ahead of the authorities (I especially enjoyed the scene where he had to operate on himself, removing a slug from his side after a close call with the police...one thing about the criminal world, adequate healthcare can be difficult to obtain, especially when dealing with gunshot wounds, as nosey hospitals are prone to ask way too many questions). I will say this...that Richard Basehart was certainly more spry at the age of 34 (that's how old he was when he appeared here) than I am, running his behind off and flinging himself down sewer drains (he used the large and expansive Los Angeles sewer system as a means to travel). I thought all the actors did a fine job, making their appearances blend in nicely as not to overshadow the main element, that being the actual story, as I think was the intent. Basehart provides a wonderful performance as the emotionless, shadowy, hard to finger criminal baffling the police at nearly ever turn. Jack Webb does appear briefly, as a forensic scientist, offering information he obtained from weapons and equipment confiscated from the criminal car, as he had to leave it behind during an escape. The film is listed in the `noir' genre, and there are some techniques indicative of that genre utilized throughout, but it seems more than what it is, as the movie plays more like a brooding documentary, relating actual events, rather than developing a fictitious story with hard-boiled characters, although I will say the ending is certainly in line with what one would expect within the genre-a stark, cold, unrepentant, finale, highlighting superior cinematic techniques, excellent lighting, and recognizable L.A. locations used throughout the film.
The full screen (original aspect ratio) picture provided by MGM on this DVD looks amazing, and the audio is very sharp (the echoing footsteps in sewer scenes sound wonderful and create a real level of suspense suitable for the climatic ending). There are chapter stops and English subtitles, but no special features available, which didn't bother me, given the excellent quality of the transfer and of the film itself. Worth looking into if you like solid, entertaining crime dramas.
A wonderful suspense classic!
Lee Hartsfeld | Central Ohio, United States | 01/07/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The inspiration for "Dragnet" and a milestone in semi-documentary realism in film, "He Walked By Night" is an unforgettable study in pop-psychopathology and the rigors of homicide work. Primarily directed by Alfred L. Werker, who also gave us such superior fare as "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (1939), "Repeat Performance" (1947), and "Shock" (1946), this highly engrossing movie features expertly laconic and understated performances, remarkably arty cinematography, and a level of tension and suspense that builds masterfully to an exciting and visually superb climax. Here is the contrived but sincere realism of "Dragnet," and, most of all, the same promotion of respect for police officers and police work. The entire cast, including Richard Basehart in the lead and none other than Jack Webb in a supporting role, is outstanding, and there is directoral assistance from the great Anthony Mann. This reviewer's favorite movie."
MGM digs up gold!
Gate67 | coram, NY USA | 12/16/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I think mostly everything that needs to be said about this particular film noir classic has been said before, in other previous reviews. I am adding to the review selection only to tell film buffs that the MGM released DVD of Dec.2nd 2003, is absolutely superior to any previous DVD release for this film. Apparently MGM had the original negative, or at least a top notch print the whole time. For a 55 year old film, this DVD release is excellent, and at a great price. Throw the Alpha, or the Film Noir Of Anthony Mann version to the side. This is the real deal! Great film noir, and a great quality dvd to boot. No extras, but a nice black and white print at a bargain price."
True Story of Hunters & Hunted, 1940s Los Angeles.
mirasreviews | McLean, VA USA | 07/24/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The introduction to "He Walked By Night" opens with the statement "This is a true story" and ends with "Only the names have been changed....to protect the innocent." If that sounds familiar, it was repeated weekly in the television series "Dragnet", for which "He Walked By Night" was the inspiration. Jack Webb, who produced and starred in two "Dragnet" series in the 1950s and 1960s, plays a forensics expert in this film. The real story behind the movie took place in 1946, when Erwin Walker -World War II veteran, former police department employee, thief and murderer- eluded the Los Angeles police for months.
When a police officer (John McGuire) patrolling the Hollywood beat questions a man he witnessed trying to break into a radio shop, the man shoots him in cold blood. After a citywide dragnet fails to capture the officer's assailant, police Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) assigns the case to Sergeants Marty Brennan and Chuck Jones. They are able to identify the culprit as Roy Martin (Richard Basehart) through an electronics store where he consigns stolen goods, but Martin eludes the police trap. Law enforcement is at a loss to locate a criminal who is clever, resourceful, reclusive, and entirely unknown to the criminal underworld. Until Sergeant Brennan (Scott Brady) has a revelation.
The manhunt and police procedural are narrated by the stentorian voice of Reed Hadley, who narrated perhaps 15 films in his career, including the noir docudramas "T-Men" and "Call Northside 777". Unlike his pursuers, the audience observes the activities and character of Roy Martin as he is hunted. Martin's only redeeming characteristics are his intelligence and his cute dog, but he nevertheless becomes a sort of anti-hero. We know more about him than we do about the wooden police officers. They are the hunters, but the audience is more captivated by the hunted. Morgan is a real loner, undeniably tough, self-sufficient and intelligent. No matter how bad he is, he is a disillusioned veteran who abandoned legitimate opportunities to be a career criminal, constantly moving, constantly changing his m.o., both hunter and hunted in a noir world. And the world is closing in on him.
Alfred Walker got the official director's credit on "He Walked By Night", but it is generally accepted that Anthony Mann directed most of the film. Famed cinematographer John Alton is responsible for lighting and filming the extensive night sequences. I often find Alton's lighting to be too showy, but not in this case. The chase sequence through storm sewers is incredible and a must-see if you're interested in classic film noir lighting. John Alton's lighting and Richard Basehart's laconic villain/anti-hero make "He Walked By Night" memorable among many fine docudramas of its era. There are no bonus features on the MGM 2003 DVD. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish."
Basehart Is Brilliant
Kathleen M. Holland | Tacoma, Wa USA | 09/11/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The genius of Richard Basehart, one of our greatest and most underrecognized actors, is showcased in this documentary-style release from the noir tradition. His characterization of the cop killer and thief is unsettling in its intensity and power. The direction and editing are razor-sharp; the use of light and shadow is hypnotic in its effectiveness. In the hands of less gifted people, this film could have come off as a basic 'Fifties low-budget cops and robbers story, but it never lets us down. The suspense is relentless. You feel the starkness, and the dark and damp of the locations chill you. The best thing in the film is Basehart's performance. Watch him in character doing surgery on himself to remove a bullet from a cop's gun. He actually breaks a sweat! You can't take your eyes off him for one frame. There lies true genius as applied to actors. We need more of his films to become available on DVD. Overall, "He Walked By Night" is a winner. It's an excellent choice for any classic crime movie fan who's looking for a truly riveting experience."