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Tag Archives: Police Procedural

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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High and Low (1963)

high_and_low_jp_The films of Akira Kurosawa are so beautiful, I find myself mesmerized while watching them. He has become one of the most interesting directors I’ve ever seen. Most of his films I’ve seen are samurai films, with their own unique beauty rooted in the past, but High and Low is no less captivating for being set in the contemporary time of 1963.

It’s partly a crime drama, partly psychological, partly a look at economic disparity and despair. Toshiro Mifune is Kingo Gondo, an executive of National Shoes. He is engaged in a high stakes battle to control the shoe company outright and he has mortgaged everything he owns to do it. But when the son of his chauffeur is mistaken for own his son and abducted, Gondo has to decide whether or not to pay for the boy’s safe return. To do so would be to lose everything: his position, his large home, his entire life’s work.

This struggle actually only comprises the first third of the film. It could be divided up into three parts. The first part occurs almost exclusively in Gondo’s living room, which overlooks the city below, including many poor hovels. The second part is mostly police procedural, as the police – led by Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) – try to track down the kidnapper. The last third is mostly devoted to the kidnapper himself (Tsutomu Yamazaki). By that time, the film has switched from Gondo’s apartment to the wide, seamy underbelly of the city where cocaine addicts, drug dealers, and the less fortunate live.

The film is almost like Psycho in that way – if Janet Leigh’s character got to meet Norman Bates at the end of the film.

(Spoilers ahead) In Psycho there is that riveting scene where Marian Crane talks with Norman Bates and they discover an uneasy kind of sympathy which so upsets Norman that he kills her later. Things happen a little differently in High and Low. Gondo and the kidnapper meet, but only at the end when the kidnapper has been sentenced to death. The sympathy seems to be all on Gondo’s side. Does he see a little of himself in him?

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Mifune listens to the kidnapper’s instructions

The kidnapper tells of his terrible suffering and how much he grew to hate Gondo, living up in that large house on the hill looking down on him. The film ends with him screaming and going mad in chilling fashion while Gondo sits quietly. It’s rather appalling and reads like a powerful indictment. The suggestion is of the crushing, maddening force of soulless economic conditions. The irony is that in hating Gondo, the kidnapper hates a self-made man who has an essential humanity in him. The other executives of National Shoes, on the other hand, seem to be missing that essential humanity, not caring much whether the chauffeur’s son lives or dies. In the kidnapper’s quest to hurt Gondo, many innocent people are hurt: the chauffeur, several cocaine- addicts, people the kidnapper clearly regards as of no value.

Also ironically, he might have actually done Gondo a service, albeit a painful one. Gondo is on his way to becoming like the other executives – his wife complains of it – but ultimately cannot sacrifice a child for his ambitions, however much he tries to talk himself into it. When he meets the kidnapper, Gondo seems a sadder, wiser, and more compassionate man. Toshiro Mifune is an actor with charisma to spare, which makes his quiet sadness all the more striking at the end.

After watching High and Low, it seems that Akira Kurosawa totally could have directed horror movies (or did he?). Especially in the last third with the kidnapper and his sunglasses, making him look like an eyeless monster as he moves through the flowers and preys on a cocaine addict. Even the junkies seem curiously zombie-like.

But Kurosawa’s unique touch is not just limiting to the last third. Even though the first third takes place almost exclusively in Gondo’s living room, the dynamic way he uses the camera, moving one way to pick up a character who is about the speak, moving in and out, is always gripping. No matter where you pause, you can tell exactly what emotions characters are feeling by their posture. There is also the way the police are obliged to awkwardly pretend not to be listening while Gondo is alternately begged by his wife to save the child, betrayed by a close business associate, threatened by bankers, and also while the chauffeur is so desperate to save his son that he bows down and begs on his face for Gondo to save him. It’s a gut-wrenching moment. And an emotionally powerful movie.

 

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Movies

 

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