Since we’re talking about movies anyway, I’d like to make another recommendation. And this one won’t cost you anything.
Last Saturday, it was just Lawrence and I for movie night, and we didn’t want to burn “John Carpenter’s The Thing” with just the two of us there. We had trouble settling on something to watch. We tried “The Architects of Fear” episode of “The Outer Limits”, but neither of us could really get into the episode: it seemed too talky and too relationship oriented, and we turned it off after about 10 minutes. (Also, man, they, like, totally ripped that plot off from “Watchmen”, right?)
We tried watching David Cronenberg’s first movie, “Stereo” (which is on the Criterion disc of “Scanners”) and that was one hot pretentious mess. I think we also made it about 10 minutes into that as well.
We ended up watching, for our feature presentation, a movie I’ve been wanting to see, but which may not technically qualify for Halloween viewing. It is kind of creepy, and falls into the category of “film noir”, so if you’re willing to extend Halloween creepy to noir…(says the guy who has gone in costume as Sam Spade, complete with Maltese Falcon).
The movie in question is 1948’s “He Walked By Night” directed by some guy named Alfred L. Werker (who was supposedly either “assisted by” or “fired from the film and had it taken over by” Anthony “fired from ‘Spartacus'” Mann).
Richard Basehart – excuse me – “Richard Basehart!” – is a burglar specializing in thefts of electronics. At the start of the movie, he shoots and ends up killing a police officer, triggering a massive manhunt by the LAPD. The police lure him into a trap at one point, but he shoots his way out (leaving another police officer paralyzed). The LAPD continues to pursue him, but things are complicated by the fact that he has no criminal record, changes his methods to throw off the police, and almost seems to be one step ahead of them…like he was a former police officer or something.
(Possible spoilers ahead.)
This is often cited as a hugely influential noir film. It is a little stagey (but it was also 1948) and there’s a lot of stuff in it that feels today like clichés. (“I’m taking you off the case because you’re too close to it!”) The thing is, those weren’t clichés in 1948: this is one of the origin points for a lot of what you see in later noir films and procedurals well into today.
A very young (and very thin) Jack Webb plays a police lab technician:
(“You will believe a man can use a slide projector!”) There’s an interesting story behind that: while he was working on this movie, Webb became friends with LAPD Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn, who was working as a technical advisor on the film. One thing led to another, and, well…Webb and Wynn’s friendship and discussions ultimately led to the creation of “Dragnet” (which shares a lot of DNA with this movie.)
Even with all the staginess and talking, this is, in my opinion, a remarkably compelling movie. It is short (one hour nineteen minutes) but something is going on in almost every frame to advance the plot. And there’s also a feeling of some real stakes at play here: any of the good guys (or an innocent bystander) could get killed at any minute. As Ivan G Shreve Jr. notes in his writeup at “Thrilling Days of Yesteryear”:
The unwritten law of the men in blue is there is nothing more dangerous than a cop killer; after all, if someone is crazy enough to shoot a cop, he’s liable to inflict even more grievous injury on an innocent member of the public.
There’s also a lot of really good cinematography: the use of underlighting and shadows to convey a sense of danger and dread is top-notch. And the crime is broken somewhat by lab work (Jack Webb’s role isn’t trivial), but more so by dogged, unrelenting police footwork.
The movie is actually based on a real incident, the Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker case, and it is surprising how closely it sticks to the facts. Walker, like Basehart’s protagonist, was an electronics expert who stole to finance his experimentation. He carried around homemade nitroglycerin that he’d carefully desensitized (to make it safer to transport) had a pretty extensive arsenal (mostly stolen from military armories), experimented with making his own fake driver’s licenses and license plates, and he had worked before WWII as a police dispatcher/radio operator.
There are a few small deviations from historical fact, and one omission: Walker shot and wounded the two LAPD detectives first, the police officer he killed was a highway patrolman (not an LAPD officer), and Walker wasn’t gunned down in an LA sewer. Walker was actually captured alive and sentenced to death, though that sentence was never carried out. One thing the movie doesn’t touch on – perhaps it was too early – was that Walker was emotionally disturbed by his wartime experiences: part of the motivation for his crimes was that he wanted to build a radio-based device that would turn metal to powder, use that device to force the governments of the world to raise military pay, and thus make war “too expensive” to be fought.
You can watch “He Walked By Night” on Amazon Video, and there are several DVD editions of it. Interestingly, though, the film is in the public domain in the United States: you can also download it for free from the Internet Archive.
If you like noir films, or Jack Webb, or Richard Basehart, I recommend you do so. I think you will find this movie amply repays your investment of time and bandwidth.