Like a lot of noirs, He Walked By Night begins as a quasi-documentary about the police force. It seems as if every third noir begins this way: bombastic, asinine narration about the brave men of the police department (or the FBI, or the border patrol, or whatever other government entity the production code required the filmmakers to suck up to), cheesy patriotic music, and boring footage of cops shuffling papers. This style—heavy handed and, well, square—represents probably the single greatest obstacle toward the enjoyment of many film noirs. But as you watch this process unfold in film after film, you begin to realize something deliciously wicked going on underneath. After the initial J. Edgar Hoover ass-kissing, many noirs get down to the business of subverting the hell out of everything the reassuring narration has told us. In a weird way, it’s as if the narration only works to establish the placid surface the movie seeks to disrupt.
This was never truer than with He Walked By Night. The movie begins as a police procedural, but we never get to know, much less empathize with, any of the cops. About halfway through the movie, there’s an interesting and unintentionally revealing scene (at least I assume it wasn’t intended) in which the filmmakers make a belated attempt to establish Scott Brady’s cop as a character. After this scene, however, the attempt is pretty much abandoned. In real life, Brady was the younger brother of noir icon Lawrence Tierney, but unlike his brother Brady never had much in the way of onscreen charisma. Here he is supposed to represent normal society, but—despite the opening narration—the film simply seems uninterested in normal society and Brady doesn’t have much to do.
The person we end up pulling for—because we spend time with him and because, in a perverse touch, he is by far the smartest person in the movie—is the cop-killing psycho played in a star-making turn by Richard Basehart. Basehart was a fine, underrated actor, whose specialty was playing unhinged characters (Fourteen Hours, The House on Telegraph Hill). Here he gets to play a full-fledged sociopath, the kind of character who we hadn’t seen much of prior to 1948 but who was beginning to gain a lot of traction in American films. The subversive touch of this film—whether intentional or not—is that this character is the center of the story.
If we never care about the police procedural stuff—all of which is written, shot and acted in monotones—then what we are thrilled by are the richly evocative night scenes of Basehart trying to avoid capture. Because we identify with Basehart and he seems to live at night, the film seems dead in the daytime, only to spring to life when the sun goes down. These scenes are photographed by the great John Alton as if he were documenting the wanderings of a vampire. Indeed, He Walked by Night contains some of Alton’s finest work in film noir. The movie’s final descent into the sewers, in particular, is shot brilliantly and is every inch as good as the far more famous sewer chase in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
These final scenes drive home our identification with Basehart. While his pursuers remain strangely anonymous, we stayed focused on him. He has outwitted them the entire movie, and he very nearly gets away. He is undone not by any mistake on his part, nor by the hardworking police that the narration praises, but by the sheer dumb luck of a car parked on a manhole cover. When the cops gun him down at the end (and surely I’m giving nothing away by telling you that) the movie slams to a close. That’s its final irony: once the psycho is dead there’s no one else in the movie we’d want to spend another minute with.