Creepy Antihero: He Walked by Night (1948)


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**Minor spoilers only**

There’s much to appreciate about the police procedural noir, He Walked by Night, in which a crafty thief (Richard Basehart) kills an LA cop and then eludes the force aligned against him, altering his targets and appearance to outwit his pursuers. The focus moves back and forth between the police’s strategies for capture and the villain’s efforts to trick them, and our allegiance shifts in spite of the killer’s cruelty.

The film is famous not only for the striking cinematography of John Alton and gripping performance of Basehart, but for launching the idea for Jack Webb’s Dragnet series (Webb plays a CSI in the film). The movie’s realistic portrayal of police work was no accident; the story benefited from a cop’s consultation and is based on the spree of Erwin Walker, whose brutal crimes and daring storm drain escapes inspired the film.

Although we get little of the killer’s character, two relationships give us insights that disturb rather than enlighten. The true-life murderer attributed his crimes to tragedies in his war-time experiences. The film doesn’t include such explanations; instead, we’re left to wonder at the imbalance between antihero Roy’s actions, and his seeming lack of motivation.

Perhaps most disturbing is his relationship with his client, Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell), who offers Roy a job experimenting with audiovisual equipment due to the quality of products he’s rented to him (products that Roy upgrades with electronic tinkering). Roy clearly takes pride in his secret reasons for saying no: why take a job, when he can keep stealing?

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This same secret superiority becomes more transparent later in the film, when he deliberately frightens his former client.

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Paul has reported Roy’s theft of a projector due to a customer complaint. The cops are staking out Paul’s house to trap Roy, assuming the two are collaborators. The smart move for Roy would be to avoid Paul, but instead, he sneaks past the cops, and then torments and steals from his former client, supposedly due to anger at the betrayal and a desire to get the scoop on police knowledge about him.

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But are any of these reasons sufficient to risk capture and certain death (given the state’s death penalty)? He actually seems unsure of what to do with Paul, of why he’s there; there’s a strange but convincing ambiguity to Basehart’s looks and actions, and the actor’s complex portrayal adds to our uncertainty and fear: How can such an unpredictable killer be avoided or stopped?

Roy’s only affection is reserved for his dog, who warns his owner at the cops’ approach late in the film, with frequent looks and whining that is nearly the only sound for some time period.

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This scene is very upsetting. It is long, especially in such a taut film, and we’ve seen the two together earlier, and feel some affection for the dog. We therefore experience unease for an uncomfortable period as the dog is announcing the danger, and strangely, his protection makes us suddenly (and disturbingly) sympathize with the killer. This innocent, after all, loves Roy. What will happen to him if Roy doesn’t make it? John Alton’s eerie cinematography adds to the tension.

I won’t reveal what happens; just watch the film for free on Archive.org or Amazon (if a Prime subscriber). And then see if you can get it out of your head.