Categories
Documentaries and Books Drama Mystery/Noir

He Walked By Night

Crime investigation procedurals became popular after World War II and continue to be a staple of television and movies today. A fine example of the form with pronounced noir elements is 1948’s He Walked by Night.

Normally, police detectives have substantial advantages over perpetrators. The typical violent offender is unintelligent, impulsive, minimally-skilled and ignorant of police procedures. But every once in awhile a criminal comes along who is smart, planful, technically proficient and knowledgeable about the investigative methods of law enforcement. One of such extraordinarily dangerous people was Erwin M. Walker, who repeatedly evaded Los Angeles law enforcement while engaging in an extended violent crime spree in 1946. He Walked by Night is a Dragnet-style dramatization of the Walker case, and indeed the origins of that famous radio and TV show are right here to see.

Richard Basehart gives an icily compelling portrayal of Walker, who is here re-named Roy Morgan. Basehart is particularly skilled at embodying Morgan’s disturbing level of emotional restraint, even when he is inflicting violence on others. The only visible break in the killer’s sociopathic detachment comes in a riveting scene in which he does meatball surgery on himself to remove a bullet from his ribcage. On the other side, Roy Roberts, as Police Captain Breen, is credible as usual in one of his many no-nonsense authority figure roles. Some of the portrayals of police procedure (e.g., the assembling of a composite sketch) will be dramatically slow for modern audiences who have seen it all before. But of course that wasn’t true of audiences in 1948, so be forgiving.

The docudrama’s look is one of the many jewels in legendary cinematographer John Alton’s crown. In an interview, he said the crew and director all asked him where the lights were when they started filming the justly famous chase through the sewers. He told them that a single flashlight was enough, which gives you an idea of how very dark he preferred his shots. If you watch very carefully you will see that the king of darkness did have a trick up his sleeve: There are wires visibly trailing the actors in some of the sewer chase shots, indicating that he rigged the flashlights with much more powerful than usual light bulbs.

In addition to Alton’s bravura work behind the camera, this film also benefits from effective use of silence. In several highly arresting sequences (no pun intended), the sound goes dead as the police close in on the killer. The suspense is amped up enormously by these eerie scenes, as hunter and prey creep noiselessly through the dark until a violent confrontation shatters the silence.

The one mystery this film does not solve is who directed what. Alfred Werker got the director’s credit on screen, but it was later revealed that much of the film was actually directed by Anthony Mann (whose work I have touted here and here). Some scenes scream “Mann” in their style but others could have been directed by either him or Werker. Whoever did what, this taut, exciting film hangs together in tone and style with no directorial seams showing.

He Walked by Night is sadly little remembered today, but it did launch some much better known radio and television shows. Jack Webb, who plays a police investigator here, befriended L.A. police technical advisor Marty Wynn on the set and soon launched Dragnet to dramatize the real-life cases of the L.A.P.D. (FYI: This story is well-told in John Buntin’s terrific book L.A. Noir). Richard Basehart never became a big movie star, but was able to parlay his modest cinema success into a long-running career on television, most notably as Admiral Nelson on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

This thrilling, visually stunning docudrama is in the public domain, so you watch it for free right here.

p.s. The fabulous sewer chase sequence in one of the greatest films in British history, 1948’s The Third Man bears more than a little resemblance to the similar sequence in He Walked by Night. No one seems to know for sure, but given that He Walked by Night’s production studio, Eagle-Lion films, had extensive British ties it is entirely possible that Carol Reed et al saw this movie and decided to mount something along the same lines.

Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

Railroaded!

Anthony Mann is justly revered by film buffs for his noir westerns with Jimmy Stewart, but he alo essayed more traditional urban noirs. One of the best is his 1947 low-budget triumph, Railroaded!.

The film opens with a high-voltage portrayal of a blown stickup, as some luckless bad guys fail to get away clean while robbing a gambling joint, despite having inside help. But the heart of the story comes after the opening fireworks, as the lead gunman (reliable bad guy John Ireland) and his boozy floozy (Jane Randolph, who excelled in these kinds of roles) frame an innocent man (a sympathetic Ed Kelly) for the crime. A police detective (a pre-Leave it to Beaver Hugh Beaumont) at first isn’t convinced that the guy in the frame is innocent, but is persuaded to investigate by the attractive, goodly sister of the accused (Sheila Ryan). Action, suspense and romance ensue.

This film was made on Poverty Row, which churned out low-budget B-movies until its business underpinnings were destroyed by the Paramount Supreme Court Case, which I have written about before. The budgets of Poverty Row studios were too small and the films were shot too quickly to consistently achieve quality, but these studios were also a playground for talented people who went on to better opportunities later, including Anthony Mann. The Poverty Row studios were also more comfortable pushing the envelope with the censors, an example in Railroaded! is that when the slatternly Randolph and the saintly Ryan meet in this movie, they get into an extended brawl! (Nice touch by the way: They were dressed in inverted colors for the fight, Ryan all in sinful black, Randolph in angelic white).

Railroaded!, in addition to being an exciting story on its own terms, shows how creative filmmakers can overcome low budgets. The noir lighting and plenty of closeups keep the viewers from contemplating the cheap props and sets. And Mann’s brisk pace (the film is not much more than an hour long) stops anyone from thinking too hard about some of the less plausible aspects of a script, which would have benefited from one more rewrite to iron out some plot contrivances.

By the way, Hugh Beaumont isn’t the only person in this tough, dark crime movie who went on to inordinately wholesome TV stardom. Ellen Corby, who later became Grandma Walton, appears uncredited as Mrs. Wills.

In summary, this is a remarkably solid and entertaining movie given that its budget was probably around two bits. I believe the poverty row studio movies are in the public domain at this point, so I am posting Railroaded! right here for you to enjoy.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Mystery/Noir

Bend of the River and The Naked Spur **Double Feature**

Caftan Woman: The James Stewart Blogathon: Bend of the River (1952)

Nobody can hate like a good man, and maybe that’s why Jimmy Stewart was so magnetic and moving in the hard-bitten Westerns he made with Anthony Mann after World War II. Stewart was a huge star at the outbreak of the war, during which he served with distinction. When the All-American, gee-whiz nice guy every dad hoped his daughter would bring home returned from military service, he was different, the country was different and his films didn’t do great box office. He might easily have appeared on a few TV shows and then drifted into retirement, as did many stars of his generation.

But two magnificent directors saw other qualities in Stewart, including a capacity for rage, bitterness, grief, longing, cynicism and violence. One of them remains famous (Hitchcock), the other, sadly, has mostly been forgotten. His name was Anthony Mann, and you could summarize much of his ouevre worse than saying it was “film noir goes west”.

Their first collaboration, the 1950 movie Winchester ’73, remains famous today because it was a massive hit that revived the then somnolent Western genre. It’s entertaining on any dimension, but for Stewart fans it’s particularly fascinating to see the darkness in his acting. When Stewart’s grief-ridden character (Lin McAdam) mashes Dan Duryea’s face into the bar and painfully twists Duryea’s gun arm, the rage in Stewart’s eyes is frightening; Duryea looks scared that Stewart is really going to hurt him.

The next two Mann-Stewart collaborations are somewhat less known today, which is too bad because they allow Stewart to go deeper into less seemly human emotions. They also both deliver thrilling action scenes. I offer them here as double feature recommendation: 1952’s Bend of the River and 1953’s The Naked Spur.

Western Noir: James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (Universal ...

In Bend of the River, Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, a former Kansas raider now helping a family of good-hearted pioneers settle in Oregon. They know nothing of his past, but slick gunman Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) who becomes attached to their party, does. Cole too seems to want to go straight, and helps defend the party as they make their perilous journey. The pioneers warn McLyntock that a bad man is always bad, and therefore Cole cannot be trusted, but McLyntock knows that he himself needs redemption just as much as Cole does. Ultimately, the pioneers are betrayed by unscrupulous villains, and Stewart, with his old violent nature returning, must try to settle the score.

As foils, Kennedy and Stewart play off each other effectively, and Rock Hudson also does well as a (ahem) charming dandy from San Francisco (Rock liked to watch his own movies with gay friends and laugh at the subtext — they must have chuckled here when he tells a smitten young woman to go away because he wants to be with the men). The violence is extreme for the early 1950s, with dozens of people being wounded or killed on screen. What is unfortunately not out of place in the early 1950s are some mercifully brief but still off-putting scenes with Stepin Fechit as a stereotypical African-American character. But to close on a positive note, the scenery is gorgeous and everyone seems to know how to handle horses and guns, including during the climactic shootout.

The Naked Spur features another psychologically damaged Stewart character who cannot accept that what is lost is lost forever, no matter how much vengeance you take. With able assistance from Mann and two other noir icons (Ralph Meeker of Kiss Me Deadly and Robert Ryan of The Set-Up), Stewart delivers a cowboy movie with psychic weight. The film’s emotional dynamic is the reverse of Bend of the River. Instead of a once bad man trying to be accepted by good people by showing how good he is now, Stewart plays a once good man telling good people that they should not accept him anymore. That’s what makes Stewart and Janet Leigh’s heartfelt closing scene a knockout.

In addition to being a movie star and director, Clint Eastwood is a student of film history, and I am going to give him the last word on the multi-talented, multi-dimensional Jimmy Stewart:

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Strange Impersonation

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: The only plot elements in Strange Impersonation that are not utterly predictable are completely preposterous. But everything else is right in the under-appreciated Anthony Mann’s 1946 noirish tale of two formidable women locked in intellectual and romantic combat.

The film was made just after the war, and could be interpreted in light of women’s changed roles and the desire of some people to change them back. Our heroine, Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall, in a multi-faceted performance) is an independent, brilliant researcher. When her suitor, Dr. Steven Lindstrom (William Gargan) tries to kiss her in the lab she withholds her lips and admonishes “Please dear, science.” Her able assistant, Arline Cole (Hillary Brooke, in her best film role other perhaps than Woman in Green), is a different sort of woman. Arline can’t understand how Nora is putting her career ahead of marrying Dr. Lindstrom. During a dangerous experiment, Arline proves to be the ultimate frenemy; disfigurement, murder, plastic surgery, stolen identity, and romantic double dealing ensue.

Lindstrom’s character is actually too dull for these powerhouse women to be fighting over, so forget him and enjoy the sparks between the female leads. Hillary Brooke was a much better actress than her appearances on the Abbott and Costello show let her demonstrate, and her malicious charm is in full flower here. The film’s budget looks to have been about 50 cents, but Mann makes the most of it by setting up some intriguing camera shots and keeping the pacing brisk. Props to the UCLA Film Restoration team for their work on the now sharp-looking print of this old movie.

A great film? No. A good film that is worth 68 minutes of your time? Absolutely yes.