Noir Classic: He Walked by Night

DATELINE:  Movie as TV Pilot

Dragnet

We had never seen He Walked by Night, and it took us aback right away. It is thought to be a 70-year old black and white masterpiece of low-budget, poverty-row studio. Even the directorship is mysterious: was it really Anthony Mann who sneaked over to another studio to do the work?

Right from the Prologue, we recognized the classic line: “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” What’s more, actor Jack Webb had a featured role!

Then came the ponderous narrator talking about Los Angeles, a big city, etc.. This was followed almost immediately with a long discussion of a dragnet across the city!

Yep:  it was Dragnet!  We were about to see some kind of movie prototype of the famous police show of the 1950s.

Webb did not play Sgt. Joe Friday. No, he was some lab rat in the forensics department, and young virile Scott Brady was the cop.

We learned later that Jack Webb befriended Marty Wynn, the LA technical adviser (whom Brady played). They partnered and came up with the radio/TV show Dragnet in 1950.

This movie was unusual for other reasons. The LA criminal psychopath was played by young Richard Basehart—in cashmere gloves and Brooks Brothers suit. He was a tech-savvy genius, creating 12-foot TV projection screens 40 years before they really happened.

This villain was brilliant and diabolical in his murdering rampage. The intriguing concept of Dragnet, always, was that the pedestrian and bland cops were flatfooted, but persistent.

The other feature here was the deadpan humor of the police, likely a defensive response to the evil they always encountered. It too would surface on Dragnet a few years later.

Also a bit ahead of its time, the climax in the underground flood tunnels of Los Angeles is a precursor of the Third Man where Harry Lime (Orson Welles) was chased by police in Vienna.