He Walked by Night is the film that spawned the Dragnet franchise, which debuted on radio the following year. The film has the whole “the names have been changed to protect the innocent” line and it even features Jack Webb, who went on to play Joe Friday in the ’60s TV series. The film is a straightforward, quasi-documentary police procedural about the manhunt for a cop killer. It’s presented in a very dry style by director Alfred L. Werker, but the on location shooting in L.A. adds much to the story – particularly in the intense sewer chase at the end. As far as procedurals go, I prefer Dassin’s The Naked City, but He Walked By Night has its own merits.
The story is based on a real case file of the L.A.P.D. about a former police technician turned burglar. Richard Basehart (Repeat Performance) stars as Roy Martin, the highly crafty burglar who is interrupted by an off-duty officer one night while attempting to pick the lock on a radio store. He shoots the cop and manages to flee back to his apartment. He has a wicked friendly dog that he treats kindly, so he can’t be all bad. He knows his shit too. The cops are left baffled and without any clues. Sgt. Chuck Jones (James Cardwell) and Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) are put on the case, but it’s forensics specialist Lee Whitey (Jack Webb) who consistently finds new breakthroughs in the case.
The film frequently highlights crime fighting technology of its time. Whitey utilizes ballistics matching and even some rudimentary DNA tests to pinpoint the true identity of the killer. The cops also round up some eye witnesses and have them perform a primitive facial composite using slides. That part is pretty interesting. Martin is extremely intelligent though, so he keeps slipping through every attempt by the “dragnet” to bring him down. Like most criminals, he’s a bold son of a bitch too that gets off on taunting the police. He doesn’t simply hole up after killing that cop. He switches up his m.o., starts holding up liquor stores in different disguises and stuff like that.
The narrative moves along in a very drab manner, which is made worse by the frequent narration. I’ve never been one for narration in noir. It’s a very visual genre, so narration always seems extraneous to me. The chases through L.A. streets and the sewer system are stunning though and certainly pick up any slack the threadbare story leaves behind. According to IMBD, this is the first film to use the L.A. sewer system and canals as a backdrop, and hot damn do they make the most of its suffocating darkness and labyrinthine passages.
The entire climactic pursuit is visually astounding. A handful of cops chase Martin through the tunnels. He’s brandishing a shotgun, and very time he fires a round, you can see the recoil buck Richard Basehart back a foot or so. Even the old mono soundtrack is booming in the tunnels as gunfire erupts.
He Walked By Night is a historically significant film due to its relationship with Dragnet and the use of the L.A. sewers. It’s a visual feast for fans of bleak, moody noir as well. The narrative may unravel in a fairly dry manner, but it’s definitely worth watching for neat old crime solving technology and the climactic chase.