For a grimy crime B-film released in 1948 to no more fanfare than any other film noir programmer, He Walked by Night has quite a remarkable family tree. Without this film and its docudrama-style boots on the ground approach to storytelling, which so impressed co-star Jack Webb, there would of a certainty be no Dragnet, and without that seminal 1950s cop show, there would likely be no Law & Order or CSI, nor any of the many procedurally-oriented movies and TV shows that have cropped up in the last 60 years. It's not a particularly brave stretch to claim that He Walked by Night established what has since become the dominant template for crime dramas and cop stories from every country and numerous media, making it arguably the most influential noir in history.
There's more to it than just providing the basis for literally hundreds of police procedurals, though; He Walked by Night also enjoys the distinction of being one of the most nasty-minded, brutal dramas in a genre noted for - practically defined by - its overwhelming nihilism. It's not so easy to trace its particular influence along those lines, but it seems to me at least that its emphasis on pointless, extreme violence has sympathetic echoes in many other films throughout history that might not seem to be obvious descendants; but I'll return to this later.
Here are the facts of the matter: in 1946, a disturbed WWII vet named Erwin Walker - "Machine Gun" Walker to an unfriendly history - absconded with some Army weaponry and committed a series of burglaries to finance an invention he hoped would bring about an end to war. Using his training before the war as a police dispatcher, Walker managed to stay ahead of the LAPD for months, ultimately killing an officer named Loren Roosevelt in June. A few months later, he was apprehended, and sentenced to execution; the subsequent events are fascinating in themselves, but beyond the scope of a mere movie review.
The story was irresistible as a pulp narrative, and shortly after Walker's conviction, the now-forgotten B-movie distributor Eagle-Lion Films turned it into a crime picture that would seem lurid except that most of the facts had hardly even been tweaked: Walker was now named Roy Martin, he kills a significantly greater number of cops, and his motivations aren't quite the same, but the story is mostly the same: an ex-dispatcher who can monitor the police frequencies stays ahead of them and commits one perfect crime after another for months. Excuse the pun, but that's a killer story, and in hindsight it would have been stranger for the film not to have been made.
He Walked by Night is presented by writers Crane Wilbur and John C. Higgins as a story of The Real Los Angeles, starting from the very first moment as a stern narrator (Reed Hadley) introduces the film in language that would be largely copied for Dragnet's famous opening (it's also a bit reminiscent of Jules Dassin's The Naked City, released in the same year). It hardly takes any longer to see that the film's two directors, Alfred L. Werker and an uncredited Anthony Mann (how much of the film the great Mann directed, and why he left the project, are facts lost to history) are fully prepared to honor that idea: virtually from the first shot, the film takes place on L.A. streets lit and shot with the staunch realism of a Dogme 95 project. It's horribly trite to say that a film has "documentary-like" qualities, but it wasn't in 1948, and when He Walked by Night was first released, its unadorned visuals, courtesy of the great cinematographer John Alton (a veteran of most genres you could think to name, though noir and Westerns were his stock in trade), must have seemed revolutionary and hideously plausible. More than any other 1940s film I can think of, from anywhere in the world, He Walked by Night has an almost touchable sense of place. These are dirty and wet streets, and every spot of trash and puddle of water is captured with living intensity. The film's climax in the Los Angeles storm sewers is nothing but a masterpiece of location photography, every bit equalling the following year's The Third Man, which bears more than a slight resemblance in setting and content, though I see no reason to suppose that Carol Reed was copying, or had even seen, the American crime drama.
Yet as great as Werker and Mann's combined talents were, and as singularly important as evocative visuals are in film noir, the film's script and story are just as unique, possibly more. The curious thing that sets He Walked by Night apart from virtually every other police movie I am aware of up to that point is its odd narrative POV. Usually - not exclusively, but usually - a film of this sort will pick one policeman or detective and follow him, and an edgy film will contrast the cop with the killer in equal measure. But He Walked by Night is unusually obsessed with Roy Martin's perspective, leaving the cops to exist as a sort of overall force, rather than a collection of individuals. Despite the fine performances by actors such as Scott Brady and Roy Roberts as the men investigating the crime, I found myself often getting the police characters confused, or at least finding them sufficiently similar that it didn't seem exceptionally important to keep track. But Martin, now he's a memorable figure! Played to perfection by Richard Basehart, in only his third motion picture, and the role that set him on the role to stardom, Martin is one of the great criminal monsters of film noir. The writers and Basehart portray him as basically explicable, but unknowable: the way he casually and violently murders a policeman in the film's opening moments is a truly exceptional introduction to the character, and our first impression that something evil hides just inside his skull is only reinforced the more time we spend with him.
The focus on Martin is the key to what makes He Walked by Night such an especially gloomy work in a genre that made its name in casual viciousness; it is as clear an example as I can name of the rule that film noir describes a universe in which terrible things occur because they might. It is, simply put, a completely nihilistic film, in which the villain's death doesn't seem to have set one thing right; and for this reason it reminds me of such films as David Fincher's Se7en and Zodiac still more than the procedurals which it obviously influenced. For a 61-year-old film to possess that kind of brutal power is shocking, almost as shocking as when it was new, I'd wager, and while He Walked by Night has been copied a literally uncountable number of times in the years since it was made, few indeed of those clones leave the viewer so shaken and unnerved by what they've just witnessed.