Despite its sensational title, He Walked by Night (1948, dir. Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann) is not one of the most flamboyant films noir. Sure, there are some stunning shots in it (thank you, John Alton) and some great chase scenes, but its police procedural docu-noir style gives it a certain seriousness and, dare I say, down-to-earth quality that 1948 noirs were apparently obsessed with – The Naked City being the other one. But while The Naked City shows us New York City at its most vulnerable, He Walked by Night takes us to the streets of Los Angeles and, on this particular night, Roy Morgan (Richard Basehart) roams one of these streets, looking for a place to rob. Officer Rawlins (John McGuire) spots him, pulls up and asks him what he’s up to. He asks for his identification and, in a move that should have been obvious but nonetheless shocks you, Morgan pulls out a gun and shoots Rawlins. The brutal nature of the crime is as gritty as the rest of the film, as we follow the LAPD in their hunt for the cop-killer. Of course, ‘cop-killer’ doesn’t do Roy Morgan justice. He’s a psychopath with no apparent redeeming qualities, other than his intelligence and resourcefulness – and, one could argue, his love for his dog. But what’s so unusual about him, as a film noir character, is that there is little to no backstory to help us figure him out. This is potentially good, as we’re left with no choice but to come up with our own story for him and decide for ourselves if his actions are justifiable or not. But ultimately, Roy Morgan is noir’s most mysterious character, which would be good in any other circumstances, but in this case, there is nothing to help us along, other than a mere mention that he was in the Army. One could assume that this has significantly changed him and that that’s why he ended up like this, but this is only speculation. One could also look up Erwin Walker, the real-life criminal the movie was loosely based on, but that would sort of make the point of storytelling moot. Instead we’re left with an extremelly intelligent and quietly confident individual, who always seems to be one step ahead of the police by listening to their reports, and who is so savvy, he even extracts a bullet from his body all by himself at one point – a moment that puts Basehart’s fantastic performance up there with the other noir greats. Yes, the lack of background is frustrating, but what we see of him is, at the very least, impressive. Not to mention that Roy Morgan is clearly a prototype for the anti-hero that we’ve seen countless times, more recently on television, which makes him kind of accidentally ahead of his time – speaking of which, Jack Webb, who plays forensics specialist Lee, was inspired by his appearance in the film to create a police procedural drama. Thus, Dragnet was born.
But back to our guy. Roy Morgan is an unusual character in film noir. He’s not a lust-stricken dope like Walter Neff; he’s not a bad-tempered cinic hounded by the rotten memory of his father like Mark Dixon; and he’s not a mogul who had to make a name for himself after overcoming a horrible childhood like Martha Ivers. At least not that we know of. Roy Morgan is psychopathic loner with an unknown past, and unknown motivations. Does that make him more appealing? It certainly makes him more fascinating. Should he be glorified? I don’t think so. Thankfully the serious, documentary-style of the movie doesn’t do that. Film noir often rewards characters if their reasons are clear and justifiable, and more often that not, we end up sympathizing with them. We might even excuse some of them. But He Walked By Night doesn’t give Roy Morgan that. As it shouldn’t.