Some noirs like The Big Sleep are timeless. This isn't one of them. Dragnet fans will get a kick out of seeing the movie that inspired the television series. Dragnet creator and star Jack Webb even pops up in a supporting role in the film. Plus, John Alton's chiaroscuro photography is sheer artistry and a redeeming feature in this documentary-style film policier. But ultimately this film gets bogged down by slow pacing, a thin plot and dated police procedures.
Voiced over in a no-nonsense, just-the-facts-ma'am style by an anonymous narrator, the film follows a cop-killer and the LAPD's finest as they try to catch him. Actually, make that the LAPD, because their finest are nowhere in evidence. Richard Baseheart's sociopathic loner Roy seems like a criminal mastermind only in comparison to the cops, who have a strange penchant for ignoring clues and putting on unnecessary costume disguises. And so the movie stretches to 80 minutes, though it seems longer like when a whole scene is spent explaining how a facial composite is created.
The incompetence of the police, in particular sulky Sergeant Brennan, makes the viewer more sympathetic towards the killer. Roy's only friend is his small dog. A dog likes him. He can't be that bad! The cops aren't given any personality. In fact, their blank and emotionless faces seem inhuman as they pursue a terrified, exhausted Roy in a rousing sequence through the underground storm tunnels beneath the city.
Director of photography John Alton plays with light and dark, steam and water, and makes everyday settings look like great art. The film's other accomplishment is to make the villain more human and sympathetic than the nominal heroes. He Walked By Night isn't a bad movie, but you don't have to run to see it. Just walk.(June 28, 2001)