He Walked By Night, 1949. 9/10

Very compelling film noir. Definitely a precursor to the Dragnet TV series; meaning it’s a little too rat-a-tat-tat with the dialogue and narration, but very dark and atmospheric nonetheless. This documentary style comes close to mocking itself; the killer Roy Martin (Richard Basehart) has a wry moment–hearing the endless broadcast of his description–the first thing he does is shave off his tell-tale “pencil moustache”. Then we get the same police dispatcher later adding “cancel the cancellation” to some suspect info. The exactness of the step-by-step detail isn’t all dead-pan stuff though; the rolling out of police cars and motorcycles is impressive and very realistic. And there’s a lot more going on in He Walked By Night below the surface.

Roy’s character is given some nuance. His racket is stealing electronic equipment to fence with a rental company. Ironically, the proprietor (Whit Bissell’s Reeves) figures that Roy is creative and skillful enough to have apparently made or modified the products; Roy doesn’t let on that he’s merely stolen it all. It’s clear that his crimes have no motive; he’s sociopathic, seeming to enjoy taking advantage of people. Like most noir criminals, he’s a loner, cut off from relationships–he doesn’t even get mail. Still, there’s some sympathetic moments; his first victim said he looked like a “nice guy”; later we see him in an agonizing scene, operating on himself after he’s shot.

The main focus though is on the very expressionist sets and backgrounds: there’s more creepy atmosphere than in many horror movies. Venetian blinds segment the night, shadows fracture the streets, flashlights pierce the sewer tunnels, looming like so many monstrous eyes. Although the police–and police procedure–are central to the plot, only Roy and Reeves are distinct characters. That device gives the cityscapes even more emphasis. It’s incredible that both the psychological and the gritty aspects of film noir are put together so well in the same film.

Highly recommended as an entertaining and well-arranged crime drama. 9/10.

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