Part film noir, part ripped from the headlines semi-documentary, He Walked by Night influenced countless movies and television shows and was directly responsible for the long-running television series Dragnet. It fictionalizes the true story of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker who committed a series of burglaries in Los Angeles during the early 1940s which resulted in at least a couple of shootouts with the police, killing one. Made just two years after Walker’s arrest, the events of the film (even fictionalized) would have been fresh on the minds of the audience.Buy He Walked by Night Blu-ray
For all of that, I have to admit that it’s not that great of a film. There is some fantastic cinematography by the famed John Alton and a memorable finale in the city’s underground drainage tunnels that’s more than a little reminiscent of The Third Man (which was made a full year later), but that semi-documentary style feels very dated and old hat. That isn’t the fault of the film as it was still a relatively new cinematic concept, though it was a popular one at the time. Films like Brute Force and The Naked City used that same documentary style to tell their stories. Law & Order has used a similar style and ripped many a story from the headlines for decades.
The film begins with some stock footage of Los Angeles while a typical-sounding narrator (Reed Hadley) gives us the lowdown on how hard the police force works and how efficient they usually are. But the case he’s going to tell us about was one of the most difficult they ever came across.
In the film, Erwin Walker becomes Roy Martin (Richard Baseheart). We’re introduced to him trying to break into some building. When he spies a car driving nearby, he walks away nonchalantly. The driver, Rawlins (John McGuire), is an off-duty police officer. Curious as to what this man is doing on this deserted stretch of road where all the businesses are shut down for the night, he turns his car around and starts asking Martin questions. Martin doesn’t like questions and shoots the officer for his trouble, then runs away into the night. Rawlins lives long enough to give a description of his shooter to his fellow policemen.
A massive manhunt ensues. The film follows the police and Martin along their separate paths. The police sections are very procedural-like following the detectives as they systematically try and find Martin. They start with a huge dragnet pulling in shady characters from all over the city. They use cutting-edge technology to investigate the physical evidence. They question everybody. In one of the film’s best scenes, they gather together several witnesses (after shooting the cop, Rawlins goes spree of robbing liquor stores and the like) and show them a series of slides containing various facial parts (they’ll show a bunch of different-looking eyes asking the witnesses which pair look like the killers, then noses, etc). This was cutting-edge technology at the time and it still comes out pretty cool.
For the scenes in which it follows Martin, the film takes a decidedly noir feel. There are shadows everywhere (John Alton really knows how to light a scene) and wonderful beams of light. He’s a loner, with a dog as his only friend. But he’s smart and has a working knowledge of how the police think and work. This allows him to evade them at every turn.
It all ends in a quite wonderful chase through the city sewers. No doubt Carol Reed paid close attention to it while making The Third Man. Alfred L. Werker gets the credit as director but apparently, Anthony Mann shot quite a bit of it as well. Imogen Sara Smith goes over who probably directed what scene in her wonderful audio commentary included on this disk.
With a run time of 79 minutes, it all feels like a really long (and rather good) episode of Dragnet. Jack Webb even has a small role as a scientist. That’s not a bad thing, Dragnet was a good series, but it does feel a little too familiar watching from a 2024 perspective.
Kino Lorber presents He Walked by Night with a brand new HD Master – From a 16-bit 4K Scan of the 35mm Fine Grain. Extras include a new audio commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, and a separate one from author/film historian Alan K. Rode and writer/film historian Julie Kirgo. Plus a whole bunch of trailers from other Kino Lorber releases.