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HE WALKED BY NIGHT(director: Alfred Werker–uncredited Anthony Mann; screenwriters: John C. Higgins/Crane Wilbur/from an unpublished story by Crane Wilbur; cinematographer: John Alton; editor: Alfred de Gaetano; music: Leonid Raab; cast: Richard Basehart (Ray Morgan/Roy Martin), Scott Brady (Sgt. Marty Brennan), Roy Roberts (Capt. Breen), Whit Bissell (Reeves), Jack Webb (Lee), Reed Hadley (Narrator); Runtime: 79; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Kane; Eagle-Lion; 1948)
“Stylishly presented.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Anthony Mann (“T-Men”) took over direction from veteran studio director Alfred Werker, but did not receive credit. This minor film noir produced for Poverty Row studio Eagle-Lion, is told in a semi-documentary style about detectives tracking down a former cop turned thief and killer, a scientific wizard, Ray Morgan, alias Roy Martin (Richard Basehart). It’s based on the story by Crane Wilbur, who co-authors the taut script with John C. Higgins. Basehart’s role is based on real-life psychopathic criminal Erwin Walker. It was the prototype for the successful “Dragnet” radio and T.V. programs, the one where Webb is famous for uttering “Just the facts, ma’am.”

An absorbing story unfolds, even if it lacks character depth and is not that imaginative. Yet it’s always tense, stylishly presented, filled with the latest in technology (Basehart’s technical display almost matches the entire police department) and influenced a wave of crime thrillers in both film and TV. It included the constant sobering narration of Reed Hadley, which was copied by Dragnet (even to the point of announcing in the same manner as the film that “only the names have been changed”).

Martin kills a policeman who tries to stop him from burglarizing an electronics store. Despite Martin’s ability to tap into police calls, change his appearance, and change his M. O. when committing further crimes, the LA police are determined to capture the killer. A police artist makes a composite drawing from various descriptions provided by witnesses and he is traced to an electronics firm owned by Reeves (Whit Bissell), to whom Martin rents out equipment he has stolen and modified. With Reeves’s help, the police set a trap for Martin at this spot; but the suspicious criminal foils the trap and after a gun battle with the police, he flees in the underground LA sewer system. After escaping, Sgt. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady), disguised as a milk man, locates Martin’s Hollywood bungalow hideout and the police surround him. Martin again escapes to the sewer system, but this time his escape route is blocked and he’s killed.

Basehart’s menacing performance is brilliant, as he portrays a misanthropic loner who is friendly only to a small dog. When the camera focuses on him alone at night working on his equipment or when running through the sewers in escape, he becomes one of those unforgettable alienated noir protagonists. John Alton’s chiaroscuro nocturnal lighting and interesting use of camera angles, adds greatly to the film’s intensity.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”