Thursday, March 24, 2011
He Walked By Night
He Walked By Night is an early example of the realistic police procedural, a film that attempts to examine, with a documentary's attention to detail, the procedures and routines of a real police investigation. The film, credited to director Alfred Werker but apparently mostly directed by an uncredited Anthony Mann, is filled with striking sequences and darkly beautiful noir imagery. It is a continuation of Mann's series of docudrama noirs like T-Men and Raw Deal, and it was shot by frequent Mann cinematographer John Alton, whose shadowy images are among the most intense exemplars of the noir style. The film is based on the true story of a loner, a former police radio technician and World War II veteran named Roy Martin (Richard Baseheart) who kills a police officer while committing a string of robberies and stick-ups. The killer eludes the police for months, using a police radio scanner and his unpredictable intelligence to evade capture while holding up liquor stores, extorting money out of his former employer, and assembling various pieces of electrical equipment for a mysterious purpose.
The film adopts a faux-documentary style that purports to show the real workings of the police, but its attempts at realistic credibility often fall flat. The film is periodically marred by an overbearing voiceover that narrates the police's activity, describing pieces of equipment or procedures. The film aims for the routine: emphasizing the fact that much policework is boring and repetitive, consisting of searching through files or asking the same questions of countless people. The exaggerated drama of so many noirs and mysteries is drained from the policework shown here, replacing it with a slow-burning suspense as every avenue of inquiry is patiently exhausted in the search for any tiny clue. This aspect of the film's realism is appreciated, even if it means that some scenes — like the slow process by which the police assemble a composite sketch from the testimonies of various witnesses — are stretched out far beyond what their visual or narrative appeal would warrant.
At other times, the flat, unemotional voiceover is simply distracting. In one sequence, as Martin escapes from a liquor store robbery by dodging into a sewer, the voiceover provides an explanation of the sewer tunnels beneath Los Angeles, layering dull exposition over the striking beauty of Alton's gorgeous images. The tunnels, black and slick, glow with the reflected beam of the fleeing criminal's flashlight as he's swallowed up by the darkness. The narration — which basically extols how clever the criminal is in choosing this escape route — is utterly extraneous. At times like that, the images aren't allowed to stand alone or communicate the story; instead, the narration explains what's happening with its portentous style.
The moments when the narration falls silent are far more effective, and thankfully much of the film's climax, as the police slowly close in on Martin, plays out silently. Indeed, in many sequences the film eschews any form of sound, even music, though there are generic string cues scattered along the soundtrack at especially dramatic moments. The film's best moments are calm and quiet. When the police try to trap Martin at a meeting place, the scene plays out silently as the criminal creeps around a shadowy office, circling around the police as they try to catch him. Not only is there no music, but there's hardly a trace of any sound whatsoever. The footsteps of the criminal and police make no noise, and the silence is eerie and almost unnatural. It's as though any trace of sound has been artificially extracted from the environment; only when Martin pounces on one of his pursuers does the sound return, with an abrupt crash that shatters the stillness.
Later, the buildup to the final showdown is set in a similar unnatural quiet, as the police surround the small house where Martin has holed up. The tension builds as the film crosscuts between Martin inside, growing suspicious as his dog yelps and growls at the unseen cops, and the cops as they lurk in the shadows, moving in and spreading out around the area to trap Martin. The silence emphasizes the emptiness of the suburban night, the complete absence of anyone moving around. It's only the police and the criminal, getting into position for the final confrontation. Martin paces around his darkened homes, the blinds on the windows casting slatted shadows on his body as he checks his gun and prepares for an escape. Outside, the empty street seems completely still, but the police lurk in the shadows, slowly approaching the door of Martin's house, seemingly cutting off all exits. The music cue that suddenly erupts when Martin finally sees a policeman running across the road signals the end of this patient build-up, and the beginning of the tense, viscerally exciting climax. As Martin once again escapes into the sewers, the police follow him, and the editing contrasts the sweaty desperation of Martin, running in circles and trying to find any unguarded exit, against the patient, methodical advance of the police, signaled by the line of their flashlights hovering in the darkness of the tunnels, moving inexorably forward towards the increasingly rattled criminal.
The film is at its best at moments like this, scenes of almost abstract tension. The story is rather flat and generic, with no explanation ever advanced for Martin's crimes, and the cops chasing him (led by Scott Brady's Sgt. Brennan and Roy Roberts' Captain Breen) are almost entirely without character. They're important as the men conducting this investigation, but their lives beyond the job, their characters or human dramas, are mostly incidental. Curiously, Martin seems far more human. His dog, who he devotedly cares for and feeds milk to, seems to be his only living connection, the only friend of a friendless, isolated man. There's also a very Mann-like scene where the criminal performs ad-hoc surgery on himself to remove a bullet from his side. As he pierces the wound and uses tweezers to pull the bullet out, the camera holds a prolonged closeup on his sweating face, beads of sweat standing out on his skin, his face screwed up into a grimace of pain, wincing and whimpering, his voice blending with the cries of the dog in the background. This emphasis on physical pain and suffering is very characteristic of Mann's work, and though it isn't the only sign of his presence in this film, it's one of the most striking. He Walked By Night is most effective in small, detail-oriented scenes like this, and in its understated but intense action climaxes.