The 1948 film noir, He Walked By Night, opens with a policeman named Rawlins on his way home from work. As he drives down the street, he sees a man walking alone at night. Because there’s been a number of recent burglaries in the area and the man’s a stranger, Rawlins decides to pull over and ask the man for his ID.
What Rawlins doesn’t realize is that the man is Roy Morgan (Richard Basehart) and yes, Roy is indeed the burglar. Roy is something of a mystery man. (Needless to say, Morgan is not his real last name.) In the pre-Internet age, he has very carefully and very meticulously avoided leaving any sort of paper trail. He lives, by himself, in a small apartment, his only companion being an adorable dog and the police scanner that Roy uses to always stay a few steps ahead of the cops. When Rawlins pulls him over, it’s the closest that Roy has ever come to being caught. Roy get out of the situation by shooting the cop and then running into the night.
The rest of the film deals with the efforts of two police detectives (played by Scott Brady and James Cardwell) and their captain (Roy Roberts) to discover who shot Rawlins and bring him to justice. It’s not easy because not only has Roy done a good job of obscuring his very existence but his police scanner always gives him advanced warning whenever they cops start to close in on him. The only lead that the cops have is a salesman named Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell). Reeves has been buying and reselling the electronic equipment that Roy’s been stealing from houses all over Hollywood. When Reeves tells the cops that he had no idea the stuff was stolen, the cops all share a weary roll of the eye. No matter whether Reeves is telling the truth or not, he’s now the key to tracking down a cop killer….
He Walked By Night is a police procedural and, while the plot may sound familiar, the film is elevated by the atmospheric direction of Alfred Werker and an uncredited Anthony Mann. As visualized by Werker and Mann, the streets of Los Angeles have never been darker and more menacing. Roy emerges from the fog to commit his crimes and then disappears back into the mist, like some sort of paranormal spirit. The film reaches its high point when the police chase their quarry through the sewers of Los Angeles, a scene that will remind many of the famous finale of The Third Man.
Though the film offers up clues to Roy Morgan’s motivation, he remains an enigma for much of the film. Richard Basehart plays him as a paranoid man who only seems to be confident and happy when he’s stealing or when he’s outsmarting the police. In many ways, regardless of whether he escapes the police or not, Roy’s destined to spend his life trapped in a prison of his own design. Even hiding out on the fringes of society, Roy knows that his time is limited. There’s only so many times one person can escape their fate. Until he’s either captured or killed, Roy is destined to always walk the night, alone.