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Rated 3.04 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Alton's Masterpiece
by Richard Jack Smith

He Walked by Night perfectly fuses its electrifying content with neat, economical style. Based on a true story, the film focuses on a manhunt. Cop killer/thief Roy (Richard Basehart) is on the run, having gunned down Officer Rawlins (John McGuire). Despite the best efforts of the Los Angeles Police Department, Roy proves too elusive and clever to fall victim to their dragnet. Alfred Werkerís picture boasts a few classic moments: Roy operating on his bullet wound; eyewitnesses who have been mugged or held at gun point help the police put together a picture of what Roy looks like; and -- best of all -- the filmís unforgettable ending. Basehart totally convinces in a role tailor-made for his talents.

The cold-blooded murder of Rawlins both fascinates and puzzles the investigators, including Captain Breen (Roy Roberts). A lack of motivation could be perceived as a shortcoming but not here. The film comes across as fascinating to watch for anyone who has even a slight interest in police procedure. From the methods used to interrogate suspects to the examination of key evidence, the picture has been assembled with significant attention to detail.

On the surface, He Walked by Night may prove to be an enigma. Character development seems short and concise. We learn what we need to and move on. At just under 80 minutes, the film has no time for playing about. Therefore, pacing forms a higher priority than in the mega epics. Yet, watch how often editor Alfred De Gaetano keeps the camera rolling on a scene without a cut Ė even Orson Welles could learn a thing or two here.

Above all, the film distinguishes the work of one artist, cameraman John Alton. He Walked by Night features long, impenetrable shadows distinguished by sharp points of light. There are some beautiful camera set-ups. A case in point is the introduction to Roy as he cases an electrical store at night. Alton paints with light, throwing broad beams of illumination into the frame, casting long shadows like a subtle magician. Close-ups are also used sparingly to punctuate a scene, adding detail where needed and standing back when the situation calls for it. I definitely recommend Altonís book Painting with Light (1949), a seminal piece of literature on the art of lighting for motion pictures. This volume alone will get you thinking about negative space and framing. To compare Altonís ideas in this book with the black-and-white images seen in He Walked by Night feels like a rare privilege which no student of cinema can afford to miss.

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