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Tag Archives: Crime

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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On the Waterfront (1954)

I watched On the Waterfront as a cinematic duty, fully expecting it not to be my cup of tea, partly having assumed that Marlon Brando was not my cup of tea. But On the Waterfront…I should have known, because usually there is a reason a film is celebrated. It it gripping, exciting drama, the kind of drama you want to lean in towards. But it was the ending in particular that impressed me, possessing an unexpected power that lingers after the film ends.

One the Waterfront was directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, based on a real incident, about dockworkers who are led by union boss/crime boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). He makes sure they get work and he gets a little extra in union dues. Anyone who does not play along does not get work. And anyone who rats on him gets killed.

When Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) unwittingly aids Johnny Friendly in killing Terry’s friend Joey, he begins to feel unsettled by Johnny’s methods. Joey’s sister, Edie (Eve Marie Saint), wants answers and wants Terry to help her find who killed Joey. The priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), also wants Terry to help, but he wants all the workers to stand up against Friendly. Father Barry needs someone willing to go to the Crime Commission and testify…hopefully without getting killed. But everyone is too paralyzed with fear, too beaten down by life, and too locked in a mindset where the authorities are the enemy. One does not want to be a “cheese-eater,” a phrase repeated often throughout the story.

It’s partly a story of conflicted loyalty. Terry feels loyalty to his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), who practically raised him, and to Friendly, who used to take him to ballgames and treats Terry well for the sake of his brother. But Terry also has a conscience bothering him and there seems no way to reconcile the two.

Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint

(Plot Spoilers Ahead) There is a marvelous scene when a member of the crime commission climbs to the roof where Terry keeps his pigeons. The man doesn’t directly challenge Terry or try to convince him to testify about Joey’s death. He simply and subtly manipulates Terry into admitting that Charley and Friendly used him while he was a boxer (having him take a dive), thus planting the seed that he really owes them no loyalty.

But what really convinces Terry to testify is when Friendly kills Charley. Friendly has begun to eat his own, so to speak, and now Terry’s motivation is more like revenge than anything else. He couldn’t quite do it for Edie’s sake, but he will do it for his own, since there is no longer that conflict of loyalty.

What really struck me, however, is that the climax of the film is not when Terry testifies. It comes afterwards. He testifies and suddenly his friends refuse to speak to him. All his friends, who resent Friendly, still turn their back on him and back up Friendly. It’s an amazing moment. Even Terry’s young friend turns his back on him, murdering all his pigeons. It’s actually shocking. That this child would feel so betrayed by Terry that he would murder the birds he’d cared for with Terry.

And that is when the entire dynamic of the film shifted for me. I spent a great deal of the film hating Friendly and wanting to see him brought to justice. But by the end of the film you realize that Friendly is not the problem. The problem is with the dockworkers. Even if Friendly had not existed, there would have been someone else.

In fact, it’s not even clear why, at the end, the dockworkers finally stand up against Friendly. Are they shamed by Terry – someone who is generally dismissed as a “bum” – or is it the sight of Friendly losing control of his temper to such an extant and thus revealing his vulnerability. Or is it the sight of Friendly and Terry fighting. Since Terry was always thought to be in the crowd with Friendly (because of being Charley’s brother), perhaps it is the visuals of watching them go at it (perhaps like a peasant watching a king fight with an aristocrat), thus revealing the weakness of the entire system.

On the Waterfront also won me over to Marlon Brando. I’ve always thought of him as a hyper-macho actor, but you can see why Edie falls for him. He may be a “bum” and not very bright, but he has a boyish charm and uncertainty, which sometimes manifests as a combination of aggressive shyness. He doesn’t know how to talk to Edie or express his feelings, but he doesn’t want anyone to see that, though Edie quickly catches on. I was also impressed with the hard-core and impassioned Father Barry, as played by Karl Malden. I grew up watching him in Pollyanna, the pastor under the thumb of Aunt Polly, and he’s loud and uncouth in The Hanging Tree, clearly possessing  quite an acting range.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in Movies

 

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Reminder: The Agatha Christie Blogathon is coming up next week!

AgathaChristieJust a reminder that next week the Agatha Christie Blogathon begins: Friday the 16th through Sunday the 18th! Domi from Little Bits of Classics and I are really looking forward to reading everyone’s entries.

There is still plenty of time to sign up if you want to participate. We are celebrating all things related to Agatha Christie – her novels, her life, her characters. More information can be found on the original announcement, here.

So please join us in celebration of Agatha Christie’s 126th birthday (September 15th). May her reign as the Queen of Crime continue! 🙂

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Books, Movies

 

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