He Walked by Night (11/24/1948 starring Richard Basehart, Roy Roberts, Jack Webb, Scott Brady directed by Alfred Werker Cinematography by John Alton)
It’s easy to fault this film on many levels. Primarily, it seems that most of the narrative techniques have all been done before. From the pseudo verite style of camera work, to the voice over telling us that “the names have been changed to protect the innocent”. The double storyline of the cops on one side and the killer on the other, and the tired cliché chase through the sewers at the end feel recycled and hackneyed. What’s incredible to realize is that, for the most part, this is the first time these techniques were used, in this quickie Eagle Lyon release.
To be sure, all this was done better, later, with more time and money. The following year, Carol Reed’s Third Man certainly did the sewer chase better, and, to a greater or lesser extant, the radio and then long lived Television show Dragnet is directly influenced by this film. Webb, producer-star of the TV show has a small role in this film, and certainly learned and used all the lessons that could be learned here. Even today’s brilliant Law and Order owes a debt of gratitude to this film.
Yet for such a paradigm and influential film, we have certainly allowed it to fall into wild disrepair. Only available in an inexpensive Alpha Video edition, it’s barely watchable. But for those willing to sit through the film in it’s shabby condition, rewards abound.
Eagle Lyon certainly spun gold from unexpected sources. The cast is both familiar and fascinating. Byron Foulger, who made over four hundred and fifty films and television shows, has a small role, and W. C. Fields’ mistress, Carlotta Monti, also has a small speaking part. The director, Alfred Werker, did a Laurel and Hardy feature as well as a Rathbone Sherlock Holmes. But it is cinematographer John Alton again exhibiting his astonishing talent that makes this film so memorable. Not in the car chases through seedy mid-century L.A., nor the final chase through the sewers, though both sequences are masterfully done. But Alton lights and investigates the landscape of the killer’s face in an absolutely horrifying fashion. Richard Basehart is attractive, but bland and not distinctive in any way, yet with Alton’s work, the luminosity slowly revealing Basehart’s face is haunting, and the shadows playing on his features are terrifying.
It is an effort to get through the battle scared and moth eaten prints available for the film, but it is an effort significantly rewarded.