Monday, September 26, 2011

DVD Review: He Walked by Night (1948)

He Walked by Night (1948)

(Released: 2003 by MGM Home Entertainment)

Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

This is a true story. It is known to the Police Department of one of our largest cities as the most difficult homicide case in its existence, principally because of the diabolical cleverness, intelligence, and cunning of a completely unknown killer! The record is set down here factually, as it happened! Only the NAMES are changed to protect the innocent!”

Um, sounds a lot like DRAGNET, doesn’t it?

Not exactly, but evidence clearly suggests it could be “DRAGNET’S father” or, at the very least, some sort of great uncle!

Let’s continue with the unusually exhaustive narration, over various sights and sounds of the city, courtesy of the film’s uncredited narrator Reed Hadley:

This is Los Angeles. Our Lady. The Queen of the Angels, as the Spaniards named her. The fastest growing city in the nation. It’s been called a bunch of suburbs in search of a city. And it’s been called the glamour capital of the world.

A Mecca for tourists. A stopover for transients. A target for gangsters. A haven for those fleeing from winter. A home for the hardworking. It is a city holding the hopes and dreams of over two million people (!!!). It sprawls out over 452 square miles of valleys, and upland… of foothills and beaches.

Did he say just TWO million???? Moving on…

Because of that vast area, and because of a population made up of people from every state in the union, Los Angeles is the largest police beat in the country… and one of the toughest.

“We’re going to take you into the City Hall, where Police Headquarters are located…

Here, in Communications [Division], are the ears and voice of the Police. The lights on the computer board flash 24 hours a day. Citizens reporting a prowler. A lost child. A man molesting a woman. An auto accident. A wild party. Spend an hour or two here, and you’ll think the whole city has gone berserk.

Minute by minute, the orders go out to the radio cars in the far-flung divisions. Watts and Wilshire, in West Los Angeles. Hollywood and Hollenbeck Heights, in North Hollywood. The work of Police, like that of woman [OUCH! Joe’s Comment!] is never done!

This is the case history of a killer, taken from the files of the Detective Division. The facts are told here as they happened. The story starts here, in Hollywood Division Headquarters, at 1:00 of a June morning last year.

Officer Robert Rowlins had finished his tour of duty, and signed out. It had been a tough day. He’d be glad to get home. His wife would be waiting up for him, as she always did.”

WHEW! You said a MOUTHFULL, Mister Hadley!

That narration alone takes up the FIRST 3:18 of the film!

Somewhere, amid all of this ongoing narration, which pretty much runs for the 1:19:03 length of the film, is the story of the aforementioned diabolically clever, intelligent, and cunning killer… and, to the utter shock of fans of a particular mid-sixties Sci-Fi television series, that killer turns out to be Richard Basehart!

Yes, Richard Basehart… Best known to my generation (and thanks to syndication, another one or two that followed) as Admiral Harriman Nelson of the Submarine Seaview, on the television series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1964-1968).

Unthinkable, but true! Basehart’s character “Roy Martin” kills the aforementioned “Officer Robert Rowlins” in cold blood – shooting him, when the officer asks Martin to produce some ID, and then ramming his auto into the officer’s patrol car for deadly good measure.

This kicks into motion a series of events pitting members of the LAPD against Basehart’s wily killer. Indeed, with this film, we might very well be witnessing the birth (…or, if not the “actual birth”, certainly a very early example) of what is now called the “Police Procedural”.

One thing’s for certain, an actor named JACK WEBB, (far right) in the role of a police technician, was taking notes. Notes that apparently transformed the format of “He Walked by Night” into a radio and TV series he would call DRAGNET!

You need only review everything above to see how deftly Webb used this film as the basis for his empire. It’s all there. Opening narration about the City of Los Angeles. True story. Names changed to protect the innocent. Determined, no-nonsense cops relentlessly pursue their quarry, highlighting the latest advances in police technology. Sounds like most – if not ALL – episodes of DRAGNET, wouldn’t you say?

Other Items of Note:

Richard Basehart’s character is described by the Police as being 5’10” to 5’ 11”.

Um… I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and standing beside Basehart’s VOYAGE co-star David Hedison. Based on this, and the way they stood in relation to one another on VOYAGE, I can safely say Richard Basehart did not even approach 5’10” to 5’ 11”!

Then again, given how clever he was in the film, it just might have been one heck of a disguise!

He Walked by Night” offers a particular treat for fans or Irwin Allen’s brand of Sci-Fi, at 21:50 of the film, when Richard Basehart appears on camera with Whit Bissell. Admiral Nelson of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA meets General Kirk of THE TIME TUNNEL!

There’s a pretty intense scene when a wounded Basehart removes a police bullet and sews himself up!

The climactic confrontation takes place in the storm drains beneath the City of Los Angeles, the same site for the conclusion of the later Sci-Fi classic “Them!” (1954).

In some nice attention to detail, gunshots that occur within the drains are uncomfortably LOUD, given the confined space’s effect on the amplification and echoing of sound.

And the ending of “He Walked by Night” is as brief and stark as any I’ve ever seen. More so than even the iconic “Little Caesar” (1930), whose title character at least got to utter “Mother of mercy…” before his maker came calling!

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.


An Absolute Lack of Extra Features: I didn’t think it were possible for a standard DVD release from a major studio (as opposed to a “Public Domain quickie”) to fall short of the release of “The Thing from Another World” (See THIS REVIEW) in the area of Extra Features – and not be a product of “The Warner Archive Collection”. But, incredible as it may seem, this one DOES!

My standard for a movie DVD’s Extra Features is the inclusion of a theatrical trailer for the film, a commentary track, and “making-of” or background featurette. I don’t believe a standard DVD movie release in my collection has EVER “whiffed” on ALL THREE… until now!

This release of “He Walked by Night” does not even include a TRAILER! Even Warner Archives springs for THAT! This is a MAJOR CON, and this film deserves better! It might as well have been an old VHS tape, for all it offers!

Consider ALL the things that COULD be discussed in commentaries and additional features. The careers of Richard Basehart and Jack Webb, the genesis of DRAGNET, the LAPD then and now, the moody black and white filmmaking style, done at a time when it could have been in color. This is a true loss for fans of many stripes!

As I’ve said for “The Thing from Another World”, 2003 was NOT all that early in the history of the DVD package. By that time, more should have been offered.


The Film: A stark, tight (if overly-narrated) crime drama which, if indeed it is based on a true LAPD case, is all the more compelling.

The Cast:

• Richard Basehart as “Roy Martin / Roy Morgan”.

• Scott Brady as “Police Sgt. Marty Brennan”.

• Roy Roberts as “Police Captain Breen”.

• James Caldwell as “Police Sgt. Chuck Jones” (…Not THAT “Chuck Jones”).

• Jack Webb as “Lee Whitey”.

• Whit Bissell as “Paul Reeves”

Influences on Future Productions: One word: DRAGNET!


He Walked by Night” is a tense, riveting, and surprisingly good film. Its release time-point perfectly straddles the Depression-Era films that I’ve come to enjoy so much, and the coming era of television productions.

Two of its stars (Basehart and Webb) would become prominent figures of that new medium, each starring in seminal examples of their respective genres – Sci-Fi and Police drama.

And its influence on DRAGNET, one of the best known television Police dramas of all time, must be seen to be fully appreciated.

The lack of Extra Features for this set is, frankly, APPALING! Indeed, can it even BE called a “set”, if nothing is offered beyond the movie itself?

That notwithstanding, “He Walked by Night” is recommended for fans of crime drama, Richard Basehart and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, Jack Webb and DRAGNET, and enthusiasts of the post-war forties, specifically the City of Los Angeles of that period.

Finally, with regard to the copious narration, unceasing almost to the point of laughter, ongoing throughout the film… After years of self-described looong DVD Reviews, imagine finding a film on DVD that “gives back” some of that long-windedness – in spades!

I may have just tasted some of my own medicine!


Anonymous said...

TCM once showed this movie back-to-back with Naked City. I was surprised by the abruptness of the ending. I wasn't expecting a "mother of mercy" speech; I was expecting a discarded newspaper in the street with a headline about the killer getting killed in a shoot-out with LAPD, and the narrator intoning, "There are two million stories in the City of Angels. This has been one of them."

Anonymous said...

Whit Bissell played an admiral in an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, "The Peacemaker," in 1965.

Anonymous said...

Whit Bissell and Richard Basehart were both in Irwin Allen's made-for-TV movie "City Beneath the Sea" (1971), although, IIRC, they did not appear in any scenes together.

Joe Torcivia said...

Abrupt ending, to be sure!

Not unlike Universal sci-fi/horror films that similarly end (JUST STOP, actually) with the killing of the “monster”. Jack Arnold’s “Tarantula” (1955) is a prime example of this. The giant spider is destroyed by napalm rockets – at a point that seems to be JUST OUTSIDE THE TOWN! The resulting fire rages (and would seem to be a just as great a danger as the spider)… and it just ENDS! (Gotta love that!)

Perhaps, Richard Basehart’s character was considered “the monster” of the film, and MGM wrapped this one as Universal would have! …But, now that you mention it, I can’t shake the thought of Basehart delivering a “Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of…” speech!

And, yes… Of course, there were common appearances of Basehart and Bissell in other Irwin Allen productions! I’ve always figured that “The Peacemaker” secured the role of General Kirk for Bissell. Special Points for bringing it up! Always glad to have an Irwin Allen Fan on board!

Indeed, if you are the same “Anon” who commented on the “John Wayne Triple Feature” and “Roman Numerals” posts, I’ll say thanks and that I’ve enjoyed your comments. Next time, don’t be so “Anon”.

That’s one good thing about Blogger “Comment Moderation – On”. You become aware of someone commenting on your older posts – and can respond.


Anonymous said...

According to both Wikipedia and imdb, this movie was indeed the ancestor of "Dragnet" (but we were all already pretty sure of that, anyway). Jack Webb befriended the technical advisor, Sgt. Marty Wynn, and was invited to look through LAPD files, which, of course, he used for his radio and TV series. "He Walked By Night" was based on the true story of Erwin Walker, who went on a crime spree in 1946. Walker was a former employee of the Glendale Police Department (although he may have been a civilian employee, not a cop). Comparisons to the recent Christopher Dorner rampage are irresistible. The movie never reveals the killer's motivation; maybe the cause was never found out IRL, ether.