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He Walked By Night (1948)

Richard Basehart shoots at the police

He Walked By Night is a crime procedural/film noir. What mostly makes it noir is the stunning cinematography of Robert Alton. And the fact that the film was mostly directed (though he didn’t receive screen credit) by Anthony Mann.

The film follows the investigation of the L.A. police into the murder of one of their own police officers by a skilled burglar, Roy (Richard Basehart), who has the police baffled and seemingly unable to track him down. Scott Brady is Sgt. Marty Brennan, a good friend of the murdered police officer, determined to be the one to find the killer. Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) provides the authority, Jack Webb is the forensics expert, and Whit Bissell is the electronics dealer duped by Roy into selling stolen wares.

It’s very much an ensemble piece and we never get to know anyone well. Even the motives of the killer, Roy, remain opaque. We know he’s a psychopath, brilliant, knows electronics and radio, but we are never sure what  he wants or why he’s doing what he does.

The film feels like a documentary at times. There is even a super-serious narrator to lend an aura of authenticity. We are assured at the beginning of the film that what we are watching is a true story, only the names have been changed. The story was actually inspired by a real incident involving a veteran of WWII, who’s exploits were chronicled in the newspapers.

The stand-out performance is definitely by Richard Basehart, a chilling presence who nevertheless manages to make you feel his paranoia and fear when he’s on the run or removing a bullet from his side.

Removing a bullet – you can’t help but cringe in sympathy

That scene were Roy extracts a bullet from his side is perhaps the most remarkable scene of the film, except the drainage system finale. He’s shot by the police and nearly caught, and so has to remove the bullet himself. What makes it a remarkable scene is how Anthony Mann stages it. The camera stays unflinchingly focused on Basehart’s face, dripping with sweat and twisted in pain, as he probes for the bullet.

Instead of focusing on the wound, we are focused on his face, which is probably Code dictated, since excessive gore was not allowed. But the effect is to focus the audience, not on the wound, but on Roy’s reaction to the wound. It forces us into his shoes and I found myself squirming as I watched his face and couldn’t help imagining myself trying to do something similar. It’s an example of how showing a character’s reaction to something can be more powerful than seeing the actual something. A wound has no intrinsic emotional meaning (apart from the gross factor) unless we see what its effect is on a person. It’s intense and well acted by Basehart.

The police procedural was a pretty new genre and would, after WWII, become increasingly popular both in fiction and TV. It never became as common as a film genre, though John Sturges also directed another fine early police procedural in 1950 called Mystery Street, starring Ricardo Montalban. It could be argued, with its primary focus on evidence and detection rather than character, that it works better as a TV episode than a full length film. He Walked By Night itself is only 79 minutes. Interestingly, Jack Webb, who plays the forensics expert in He Walked By Night, would produce and star in Dragnet, the TV series from the 1950s that is often credited with popularizing and even defining the police procedural.

There are noir aspects to He Walked By Night, however. It’s set in L.A., the home of film noir and hard boiled detective fiction. The post war focus on human corruption is also present, with war equipment, navy electronic equipment, a German Luger, and war veterans floating around the criminal underworld. But what really gives the film its noirish aspects is the cinematography by Robert Alton. His cinematography style could practically define Noir.

An example of Alton’s use of lighting

Instead of the blanket lighting approach – where sets were illuminated from above to highlight everything in the scene – Alton chose to light his sets by carefully hiding lights in select locations. The result was that his sets appeared to be lit by sources of light from within the scene, like lamps, matches, and flashlights.

He also would light his sets darker than anything I’ve ever seen on film. Almost pitch black at times, especially in the drainage tunnels. The crispness of his black and white photography is beautiful. It elevates simple scenes of streets and tunnels to poetry. Rarely has a city look so beautiful.

The end of the film is the highlight, however, when Roy flees into the drainage system of L.A.. Drains and sewage systems have always been an exciting place for a showdown. Victor Hugo got the ball rolling in 1862, with the confrontation between Jean Valjean and Javert in the sewers of Paris.  Interestingly, the characters of both Valjean and Javert were inspired by the memoirs of Eugene Vidocq, a convict turned police inspector, known for his undercover work. His memoirs inspired many early writers, from Hugo to Poe to Emile Gaboriau (who may have inspired Conan Doyle).

Apart from the many film versions of Les Miserables, in 1949, Orson Welles would meet a picturesque end in the sewers of Vienna, while giant mutant ants have to be battled in the very same drainage pipes of L.A. in the 1954 Them! Drains and sewers have been good to cinema.

Below are some examples of the gorgeous work of Robert Alton.

Richard Basehart loads his gun

Into the drain

Because the dog is so cute – Roy’s dog

Roy dives for the drain culvert

An example of just how dark the screen could often be – Roy runs down the drains

The police wear gas masks

Roy lights a match

The police prepare to surround Roy’s house

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2017 in Movies

 

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Winchester ’73 (1950) – Anthony Mann directs James Stewart

Winchester 73 Poster (1)After seeing James Stewart in Vertigo, I became interested to see him in some of his other movies, specifically his Westerns, since those were the only movies of his at my small local library that I had not already seen him in. The first one I watched was Winchester ’73, directed by Anthony Mann, the first of five Westerns that the two men made together.

Winchester ’73 is hailed as an important film in the history of Westerns. Anthony Mann brought a new ethos to the Western, with more violence and moral ambiguity to his heroes. I haven’t seen a lot of Westerns, before 1950 or after, so I don’t know if I was fully able to appreciate what Mann did.

The story opens with Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and “High-Spade” Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) coming to Dodge City in 1876. They are hunting an outlaw who goes under the name Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) and have been hunting him for years. However, at Dodge City Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) is sheriff and no guns are allowed. When Lin sees Dutch Henry in a bar, both men reflexively draw, but without their guns, it’s just reflex and they can do nothing but exchange glowers at the bar while Earp looks on, telling them they can settle their quarrel after they leave Dodge City.

They do compete against each other in a shooting contest, where the winner receives a “one in a thousand” Winchester rifle (President Grant has the first one made), a gun so perfect that all the men are practically drooling over it. After an extremely close contest that reveals that Lin and Dutch Henry have been taught to shoot by the same man, Lin takes home the prize and accuses Dutch Henry of having shot a man in the back. But Dutch Henry nearly kills Lin in his hotel room and makes off with the rifle, though he leaves town so quickly that neither he nor his men have their other guns or any ammunition. Lin and High-Spade set off after them.

James Stewart and Millard Mitchell look at the "one in a thousand" Winchester Rifle

James Stewart and Millard Mitchell look at the “one in a thousand” Winchester rifle

What follows are a series of vignettes as the rifle is passed from person to person, with the common threads being the rifle and Lin chasing Dutch Henry and always seemingly just beyond the grasp of his own rifle. The gun goes from Dutch Henry to an Indian Trader who is selling guns to a Native American named Young Bull (played improbably by a very young Rock Hudson), who loses it while fighting the US Cavalry, and so on.

Another common thread besides the Winchester and Lin’s hunt for Dutch Henry is the character of Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), a dance hall girl who wants to settle down and is engaged to the cowardly Steve Miller (Charles Drake), though she  likes Lin when she meets him. She gets entangled both with Lin’s story and with the various vignettes involving the Winchester. She is accidentally closer to both the Winchester and Dutch Henry much more than Lin is until the end.

Winchester ’73 is Anthony Mann’s first Western and what is fun about it is that he seems to cover the entire genre in one film. All the cliches are present: revenge, shootouts, Indians attacking the cavalry (the portrayal of Native Americans is not this movie’s strong suit), cheating at cards, holdups, dance hall girls, outlaws. It’s like a summary of the Western.

A big theme is how the Winchester rifle is associated with manhood. Almost all the men seem to equate their manhood with possessing the Winchester rifle and even guns in general. When Dutch Henry and his men leave Dodge City without their guns, his men complain that they feel naked. Practically every man who sees the rifle covets it and are never willing to part with it under any circumstances, killing each other to get it and leaving a trail of bodies in the rifle’s wake. Even Lola’s cowardly fiance, who runs away when they are attacked by Young Bull, is not willing to part with the rifle when the gleefully amoral and murderous outlaw Waco Johnny Dean (marvelously played by Dan Duryea) wants it.

Dan Duryea is not getting the best of James Stewart

Dan Duryea is not getting the best of James Stewart

There are two men who seem to have a different standard of manhood: Wyatt Earp (who keeps the peace in Dodge City and does carry a gun, but only uses it to keep the peace) and Sergeant Wilkes of the US Cavalry (Jay C. Flippen) who is not too proud to admit ignorance or take advice from Lin in defending against Young Bull or to give the Winchester rifle away instead of keeping it for himself. But these two men are the exception, examples of men who do not seem to need to prove anything to anyone and simply do their job.

And of course Lola is not interested in the rifle. She knows how to shoot when she has to and is quite calm under fire, but when her fiance is threatened because he won’t give up the rifle, she urges him to let it go. He does not listen to her, perhaps partly to prove himself in her eyes after he let her down previously.

James Stewart is not actually in the film a huge amount; a lot of time is spent with the Winchester rifle. But Lin is ever present in spirit, single-minded, obsessively focused on catching up with and killing Dutch Henry. He is not so much the hero as the protagonist since he’s not trying to do good so much as exact revenge, a morally dubious aim in life. What really warms his character up is High-Spade, who has ridden with him for years. He asks Lin if he’s thought about what he will do after he’s killed Dutch Henry, concerned that Lin has been hunting him so long that he’s beginning to like it. The warm friendship between them, especially when Lin acknowledges that “he’s rich” in having a friend like High-Spade, goes a long way in keeping Stewart likable.

It’s a great film, not real long (only 92 min.) with a wonderful cast, no dull moments and an interesting take on the West. It a film to see, even if you don’t usually like Westerns.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2015 in Westerns

 

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