On his way home from duty, Police Officer Rawlins sees a suspicious man walking away from a radio and television shop. Rawlins confronts the man who takes out a gun and shoots him three times. Rawlins returns fire and rams his car into the shooters car before succumbing to his injuries. The man is Roy Morgan (Richard Basehart), and he gets away leaving a stolen car behind. Examination of the car turns up guns and stolen electronic equipment but not much else. The police round up the usual suspects, however nothing pans out. The case is assigned to Sergeant Marty Brennan (Scott Brandy) and Sergeant Chuck Jones (James Cardwell).
Roy is brilliant and a whiz with electronics. He steals electronic equipment, improves on it, and rents it out to Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell). Reeves owns Reeves Electronic Laboratories. Roy’s most recent Theft is something special. When the owner of the stolen property identifies it as his, he calls the police. The police, aware of the suspect’s intelligence and specialty, believe he is the one they are looking for. They arrange a trap for the cop killer. They instruct Reeves to call Roy and tell him to come in to pick up a check. The police are waiting for him but Roy smells a rat. There is a shootout. Roy hits Jones and paralyzes him. Roy gets away but is wounded. Back at his house Roy digs the bullet out of his side and patches himself up.
Being smart, Roy changes things up. He begins holding up liquor stores. Wearing different disguises he goes from burglary to arm robbery. His method of escape is the sewer system. During one robbery he fires his gun. The spent cartridge is brought to Lee Whitey (Jack Webb). Lee matches it with the casings from the gun that killed Officer Rawlins and wounded Sergeant Jones. The police are now aware that Roy is responsible for the robberies. They still need to find him.
Using a composite drawing from all the witnesses they come close to finding Roy, but he escapes into the sewer system. All they can do is go down after him.
“He Walked By Night” was released in 1948 and was directed by Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann. The movie is a film noir thriller told in a documentary style and is of the sub-genre of police procedural. What makes the film really good is the wonderful cinematography by John Alton. Known as the master of the film noir Alton is responsible for some of the best noir movies ever may.
The movie is loosely based on Erwin “Machine-Gun” Walker. He was a former police officer and a veteran from WWII. Walker was responsible for a one man crime wave of burglaries, robberies and shootings in the Los Angeles area in 1945 and 1946.
The sober documentary style of the film heralded in Jack Webb’s “Dragnet” series. Webb began the series on radio in 1949. He even used the disclaimer at the beginning of the movie “The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Jack’s role in “He Walked by Night” is his first credited appearance. He has more personality in this small role than he ever did in all the years he did “Dragnet”.
This is reportedly the first movie to use the Los Angeles sewer and drainage system as a backdrop. There are also some interesting police procedural techniques in the film as well. This is also the first movie I saw that had Richard Basehart as a villain. His performance as the sociopathic loner was fantastic.
Between the good guys and the bad guys there are a lot of bit players, character actors and before they were stars in this film. Well over fifty. If you’ve seen a lot of movies or TV shows from the forties and fifties you might find yourself recognizing many of them.
If you’re interesting in finding out about crime dramas and are not familiar with film noir. This is a good one to start with.