Tuesday, March 17, 2009

He Walked By Night

"He Walked By Night (Alfred L. Werker, 1948) It's funny the things you find. You go down the twisted, dark corridors of the film noir genre and once in a while you find a gem shining in the black, one that has many facets and goes beyond its origins and haunts.

"He Walked By Night" is one of those. Picked up at the Socialist Book Collective (Your Public Library) for free, it looked to be a modest little film. It starred Richard Basehart and Scott Brady, an actor so anonymous they had to bill him with a past movie as a middle name—Scott "Canon City" Brady.* It's a low, low budget film that looks like a million bucks because it was photographed by one of the great cinematographers in Hollywood history, John Alton. Alton painted in black and white and his intricate screens of shadow are works of art, made quickly and with little money. He worked often with director Anthony Mann who is rumored to have directed parts of this film (and sections of it look like Mann's "T-Men," one of the best film-noirs). But credit goes to Alfred L. Werker, a director who toiled in the "B" and "C" strata of movies, working with such talents as Laurel and Hardy, even Disney, and directed the second (and I think best) of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films: "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (1939).

But "He Walked By Night" is a different detective story entirely. Based on a "true" LAPD investigation, ** it's a police procedural that details the work the force went into to capture a cop-killer and criminal who "seemed to be one step ahead of" them, all the way. The case drags on for months, and its only the dogged determination of one dedicated cop that leads to the case being solved. It boasts that beautifulAlton cinematography, L.A. locations, and a sense of realism that even precludes the use of a musical score. The film begins with a city-wide dragnet and ends with an incredibly well-done chase and fire-fight in the cavernous drainage system, the gun-fire echoing endlessly through the concrete corridors.

Performances are stalwart throughout, with Richard Basehart given the chance to shine through as the creepy killer, and slate-voiced B-actor Whit Bissell as the best lead witness who gets more than he bargained for.

Then down the credits is a thin, odd little actor who plays the CSI expert—or as it would become known "One of the Lab-Boys"—with a perverse sense of humor: Jack Webb. If "He Walked By Night" comes off as seeming a little familiar, that's the reason. Although having only a minor memorable role, Webb managed to strike up a relationship with technical adviser Marty Wynn, who suggested a radio series based on the crime-files of the LAPD. Webb ran with the idea and debuted the radio series "Dragnet" four weeks after this film premiered. The blue-print is here: the no-nonsense narration with the city as character and even the well-worn phrase "the names have been changed to protect the innocent." It's not exactly "Dragnet"—Webb drained the emotion out of it and did it on an even more thread-bare scale, but it's the facts, ma'am. This is where "Dragnet" started.

Why not look for yourself? "He Walked By Night" has slipped into the Public Domain, and you can watch it for free here.

* Not so anonymous, really. Brady was one of those crusty dependable actors who could do just about everything and did, playing spokesmen, governments agents, cops, people in authority, but strictly blue-collar. You'd know his face if you saw him. He had a rough-hewn authenticity and credibility that was used to its full advantage as the nuclear plant worker who vindicates Jack Lemmon in "The China Syndrome." He was also the more successful brother of actor Lawrence Tierney. There's a resemblance.

** Well, that's stretching it. A lot. Some of the particulars are used--the electronics genius, the use of the L.A. storm drain system for escapes, the meticulousness, the murders. But the truth is far stranger, and not so neat and tidy.

The story is based on the career of Erwin "Machine Gun" Walker, who returned from WWII slightly unhinged by survivor's guilt and the death of a friend at Leyte Island—a death he felt responsible for. He began a series of robberies to fund--I kid you not--a project to create an electronic "death-ray." This led to the murder of Officer Loren Roosevelt, who was gunned down attempting to question Walker after seeing him casing a store.

Instead of technologically-savvy, dogged police work, Walker's undoing was bragging about his crimes to his catholic girl-friend, who mentioned the story in confession, and the priest informed police—there goes the story of sanctity of the confessional.

Walker pleaded insanity for his crimes—he wasn't tracked down in the drainage system and killed—but was captured in a raid on his home (like the one depicted in the film) and wounded in the arrest. Citing insanity in his family and his war trauma, he made his plea, but was found competent and sentenced to death. 36 hours before his execution, he was found nearly strangled with an electrical cord, a suicide attempt—his father had killed himself six months earlier.

The suicide attempt led to Walker being declared insane and his execution postponed for 12 years, while he was remanded to various mental health facilities. In 1959, he was deemed "cured," but, reasoning that it might provoke another suicide attempt, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Then, he was granted a re-trial, and because it ruled his initial confession at the time of his arrest was coerced, he was set free.

Rather than being cut-down in a melodramatic blaze of gun-fire as in the film, Erwin "Machine Gun" Walker walked.

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