He Walked By Night is a good example of what started the ‘classic’ noir crime thrillers with an added hint of the pulp fiction crime that was to come later in the fifties. The film is very much a product of its time, made when the equivalent of a modern SWAT team was a group of Frank Sinatra lookalikes in suits.
The storyline is simple enough but it starts with a gripping introduction. In Los Angeles, a remorseless thief shoots a policeman at point blank range in the middle of the night. The city is soon crawling with officers in eager search of a clue, but this killer is cunning and professional, leaving behind no fingerprints, weapons or any trace of his whereabouts; he is rarely seen about the city. The easy appeal of the pursuit, along with the film’s base as a true story gives the film an extra inch of intrigue, but the ‘movie’ aspect falls a little short. The semi-documentary style works against it somewhat as one can feel as if they are being spoon-fed the plot, particularly at the beginning, which removes some of the pizazz and intrigue. The banality of the officers’ bulldog attitudes combined with the booming (and very dated) narration, ‘the police’s work, like a woman’s, is never done’ reduces potential engagement with the audience.
However once we get past this, one element stands out in sheer excellence. Cameraman John Alton had done previous work in vibrant Technicolor with titles like An American In Paris and the fifties version of Father of the Bride, yet he handles noir lighting so deftly the most mundane of scenes, like a post office or bungalow, actively draws you in and makes you examine them more closely. Single-spot lighting follows lonesome, mysterious figures lurking in shadows and corners, with notable reference to the scene where killer Roy Morgan breaks into a house and issues quietly chilling demands at the unsuspecting victim. The same goes for the final scene set in Los Angeles’ enormous storm drain tunnels. The eerie echoes of running footsteps and flailing flashlights turns a simple structure into tomb-like underworld, hosting a desperate cat and mouse chase between plod and fugitive.
The missing link lies in the breadth of the characters; we never find out what are the motives behind the sociopathic killer (Richard Basehart), e.g. why does he need to steal large swathes of cash at periodic intervals? Why does he go from having no criminal record to murdering a policeman in cold blood? Similarly the police are all identical in their no-nonsense bravado, which reduces the individual motives of the men, for example Sargent Marty Brennan’s personal viewing of the case makes for complications. However enjoyable viewing does not require lofty plotlines, so for all intents and purpose, it makes for an entertaining watch despite its flaws, some of which more a fault of the times than the film’s.