Friday, October 17, 2014

The Jack Webb Blogathon: He Walked by Night (1948)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Jack Webb Blogathon, currently underway at The Hannibal 8 (your blogmaster is Toby) from October 17-19 and spotlighting the work of all-around movie-radio-TV auteur (writer, director, producer, actor) and TDOY fave Jack Webb.  For a list of participating blogs and the topics under discussion, radio “Dispatch” here.

On a warm June night in The City of Angels, Hollywood Police Division officer Robert Rawlins (John McGuire) is off-duty and headed for home when he spots a suspicious individual (Richard Basehart) lurking about a radio appliance shop.  Rawlins pulls up alongside the man to ask a few questions, and requests that he be shown some I.D.  The lurker explains that he left his wallet at home but would be only too happy to show him his discharge from the Army.  Unfortunately for Rawlins, the discharge comes from a gun.  The mortally wounded Rawlins is able to slow down the felon’s pursuit by crashing into his vehicle…and then he slips into a coma.

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.  So it’s no surprise that the fuzz arrive at the scene of the crime with lightning-quick speed; after being apprised of the situation, Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) assigns detectives Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) and Chuck Jones (James Cardwell) to the case.  Rawlins was a close friend of Sergeant Brennan’s, and finding the man responsible becomes even more urgent when a search of his abandoned vehicle turns up an arsenal of weapons and hardware swiped from an Army-Navy surplus store.

TDOY fave Ann Doran has a cameo as a police dispatcher...
...and Sam Drucker is hauled in for questioning.  Okay, just having a little fun.  The detective on the left grilling Frank Cady is Kenneth Tobey of The Thing from Another World fame.
As was the custom in Casablanca, the usual suspects are rounded up in a dragnet…but apart from a few parole violations, little progress is made in identifying Rawlins’ assassin.  It’s only when the police receive a call from a client of electronics store owner Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell), who charges that a television projector Reeves has tried to sell him was stolen from his house.  Reeves explains to Brennan and Jones that he obtained the device from one Roy Martin, an unassuming gentleman who’s been giving Reeves similar items to sell on consignment.  Reeves is instructed (after receiving a phone call from Martin) to notify the suspect he needs to see him at the shop that evening, where the detectives will lay in wait for him.  Martin arrives early for his appointment and, learning of the presence of the cops, has a shootout with his pursuers that leaves Jones wounded and paralyzed.

His consignment money gone south, Martin supplements his loss of income with a string of liquor store robberies—taking special care to wear a variety of disguises to avoid possible description by eyewitnesses.  Martin’s change of M.O. is soon discovered by police lab technician Lee Whitley (Jack Webb), who notes similarities in the shell casings used in the liquor store robberies and the ones left behind at the shootings of Rawlins and Jones.  Witnesses from the robberies help Breen and his men put together a composite sketch of Martin but his lack of a criminal record continues to confound the investigation—even a late-night visit to Reeves to demand payment for his consignment items concludes with Martin once again eluding capture, ducking into a tunnel in the city’s storm drain system.  Sergeant Brennan gets a pranging from Captain Breen as a result of this sloppy handling of the affair.

Byron Foulger plays a police clerk because...well, this is a movie made in the 1940s and he's Byron Foulger.  His superior (right) is none other than MISTER John Dehner.
Pulled off the case, Brennan has a conversation with Jones in his hospital room…and when Jones reminds him that their unknown suspect not only seems to know what the police are thinking but has a disturbing familiarity with their methods, Brennan devises a theory that Rawlins’ killer might be a cop.  Pounding the pavements to every nearby precinct, Marty finally gets a break when a clerk (Byron Foulger) in the Bureau of Records and Identification recognizes the composite sketch as a former employee, a one-time radio technician.  The man is identified as Roy Morgan…and after showing his sketch to several mailmen, one of them (Wally Vernon) recognizes Morgan as an individual who lives in an apartment court on his route.

Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.
After confirming Morgan’s residence (by posing as a milkman on his route), Brennan alerts Breen that the manhunt is over and the L.A. police soon close in on Morgan.  In a sweat-inducing climax, it looks as if Morgan will once again evade the long arm of the law by retreating to his storm drain environs as he did earlier.  Sadly for our marauder, his means of exit is blocked thanks to a patrol car parked on top of a manhole cover…and he is shot and killed by the police.

He Walked by Night (1948) has its origins in the case files of the L.A. police department; centering on a miscreant named Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, who drifted into a life of crime after a hitch in the Army during World War II.  Like his silver screen counterpart Roy Morgan, Walker had been employed in a police station capability (Glendale) as a radio operator and police dispatcher.  Erwin committed a series of thefts and burglaries between 1945 and 1946, several of which led to shoot-outs and one in the death of a California Highway Patrol officer, before he was captured by L.A. police in December of 1946.  Walker’s life had a happier ending than the antagonist of Night, however; though he was sentenced to be executed for the cop killing a suicide attempt postponed his date in the death house and he spent a great deal of time in several psychiatric hospitals before finally being paroled in 1974.  He died in 1982.

Scripted by John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur from a story by Wilbur, He Walked by Night is a police procedural thriller that deserves to be better known despite its low budget, programmer origins (it was co-produced by Bryan Foy, in charge of Warner’s B-picture unit at one time).  Film noir buffs know Night was mostly directed by the great Anthony Mann despite the official crediting of Alfred L. Werker; for reasons unknown, Mann took over for Werker early on but his directorial stamp is all over the finished product: the unforgettable moments where Morgan must self-extract a bullet rather than risk being attended to at a hospital; the shoot-out in Reeves’ electronics store between Morgan and Brennan; a sequence of Brennan approaching Reeves’ house in which he’s shot in half-profile.  This last contribution parallels a similar shot involving Charles McGraw in Mann’s T-Men (1947), which (in addition to Night) features cinematography by the legendary John Alton (Alton also worked on such Mann noirs as Raw Deal [1948] and Border Incident [1949]).

Of the performers in He Walked by Night, it was Richard Basehart who received most of the critical plaudits; it was his third feature film (following Repeat Performance and Cry Wolf) and the first time he worked with Mann—Basehart would later make an unforgettable Robespierre in Mann’s French Revolution noir, Reign of Terror (1949—a.k.a. The Black Book).  Basehart’s Morgan must surely rank as one of the great screen villains of all time: a clever, methodically ruthless criminal who possesses a sort of animal cunning—it’s interesting to note that when Morgan suspects a trap at the electronics store he doesn’t see the detectives but senses them, as if he’s picked up their scent.  Morgan’s only companion is a scruffy terrier dog, which reinforces the animal metaphor…and of course, the events leading up to his demise—three years before a similar (and far more praised) manhunt in Carol Reed’s The Third Man—suggest that he’s literally a rat trapped in the sewers.  (No, he does not encounter any giant ants while he’s down there—that wouldn’t happen until six years later and the climax of Them!)

Roy Roberts and Scott Brady are first-rate as the detectives doggedly (there’s that animal thing again) pursuing Basehart’s killer; Roberts would later play a similar cop role in 1951’s The Enforcer.  Whit Bissell is also sensational as Reeves, the creampuff electronics store owner who you know probably wet himself when the cops start to lean on him, thinking he’s good for the job.  But this is a blogathon about John Randolph “Jack” Webb, who was just at that time fulfilling his ambitions to be a movie star in his first credited film appearance as a savvy police lab technician.

After doing his bit in the U.S. Air Force during WWII, Webb relocated to San Francisco and landed a job as a late night D.J…but his thespic ambitions soon took hold and he begin to produce and perform in a number of productions for ABC Pacific Radio affiliate KGO.  He headlined his own self-titled comedy program (yes, intentional comedy) as well as serious series like Spotlight Playhouse and One Out of Seven, and is perhaps best known for creating a private eye drama entitled Pat Novak for Hire in which the hard-boiled shamus dialogue (contributed by longtime collaborator Richard Breen) was so over-the-top it bordered on camp.  (Webb revived Novak briefly for ABC nationally for a short time in 1949 before his famous contribution to radio drama premiered on rival NBC…more on that in a sec.)

Jack left KGO in 1947 to relocate to Hollywood; once there, he found work on such popular radio programs as Suspense, Escape and The Whistler while starring on such crime drama series as Johnny Madero, Pier 23 and Jeff Regan, Investigator.  He Walked by Night was his big break in the movies (he also had a bit part in the 1948 Hollow Triumph—a.k.a. The Scar), and during the movie’s filming he became good friends with Det. Sgt. Marty Wynn—one of the L.A.P.D. detectives that captured the real-life Erwin Walker and who was serving as a technical consultant on the film.  Webb was fascinated by Wynn’s tales of police work and expressed an interest in creating a series that would demonstrate to the listening public the true nature of police investigation; there would be no glamour involved, only the limitless patience and endless hours of expending shoe leather in tracking down leads and interviewing eyewitnesses and suspects (as demonstrated in Night).

Wynn was enthused by Webb’s proposal.  He told Jack to “go to school,” and soon Webb accompanied Wynn and Officer Vince Brasher on night patrols, learning police jargon and studying methods of crime investigation by taking classes at the police academy.  Jack’s research laid the groundwork for what eventually became the dean of radio/TV police procedurals: Dragnet.  He Walked by Night is unquestionably an embryonic version of that seminal series, complete with its stentorian narration (from movie/radio veteran Reed Hadley), its semi-documentary feel, concentration on forensic methods, and a prologue that concentrates on the city of Los Angeles as a minor character (Hadley even announces “This is Los Angeles” as he conducts a quick travelogue over various montages of L.A. landmarks).

That last sentence has a familiar ring to it.

Released by Eagle-Lion Films in 1948, He Walked by Night has been released to VHS and DVD in an incalculable number of public domain editions even though its P.D. status is debatable—MGM/UA released a disc in 2003 that’s acknowledged as the best-looking of the DVD releases…but my personal preference is for a two-disc set released by Roan Group Entertainment in 1999 that not only features Night but two additional noirs from Anthony Mann, T-Men and Raw Deal.  (This was one of the first DVD’s I bought when I finally got a DVD player—call me sentimental.  It’s out-of-print, but I believe it’s still available from some online vendors.)  He Walked by Night is essential viewing for the noir devotee, and an important building block in the incredible career of Jack Webb.


M. Bouffant said...

Didn't know (or forgot) that Anthony Mann was the man behind it.

(Which reminds me, The Man from Laramie is still in the DVR.)

policomic said...

Nice write-up on a movie I found more interesting than entertaining. Its influence on Dragnet is obvious, but I didn't know the behind-the-scenes details that explain how Webb--whose role is fairly small--latched onto Wynn, which I guess you could say forms a link the chain connecting Walked and the series.

As I remember it, Basehart's character is a disturbingly cold criminal. In fact, there's an emotional coolness that pervades the film, including Webb's crime-lab character, who seems wryly amused by all of the horrific goings-on. Even though I don't love the film, it struck me, and stuck with me.

Caftan Woman said...

You're telling me there's a DVD that isn't too bad. Geesh, I figured it would be just as flawed as my VHS tape so never bothered to upgrade.

Mrs. Foulger is in this one too. I like it when they pop up in the same show.

Anonymous said...

When I saw it, I was struck by the abruptness of the ending. I wasn't expecting a dramatic death scene with a speech. ("Mother of mercy, is this the end of Morgan?" or "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!") I was expecting a closing narration to wrap it up. ("There are three million stories in the city of angels. This has been one of them.") That's because when I saw it on TCM, it was shown back-to-back with Naked City. The two movies had very similar opening sequences, so, consciously or subconsciously, I expected the endings to be similar, too.

Citizen Screen said...

Amazing how much Webb pushed the envelope in all he did - ahead of his time. Terrific post. Love this movie.