Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Stage to Screen Blogathon: Death of a Salesman (1951)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Stage to Screen Blogathon, currently underway from October 17-19 and hosted by Rachel’s Theatre Reviews and The Rosebud Cinema.  For a complete list of the participating blogs and the topics discussed, click here.

Traveling salesman Willy Loman (Fredric March) returns home early from his established New York route one evening…and his devoted wife Linda (Mildred Dunnock) is understandably nervous.  She will later explain to Willy’s two sons, Biff (Kevin McCarthy) and Happy (Cameron Mitchell), that their father seems to be losing his tenuous grip on reality.  He drifts into nostalgic reveries of days gone by, and occasionally has difficulty delineating between the past and present.  His advanced age and inability to concentrate on his job has resulted in his demotion at work; he is no longer on salary and must depend on the commissions from his sales.  He’s not crazy, but Linda has noted signs that her husband is contemplating suicide.  At sixty-three years of age, a lifetime of bad career decisions, missed opportunities and unreasonable expectations have left Willy Loman disillusioned and depressed. 

Many of those unreasonable expectations are rooted in his son Biff—Willy has never wavered from his conviction that Biff was destined for great things, and because Biff has had difficulty “finding himself” ever since graduating from high school it has led to constant friction between father and son.  (There’s an event from both men’s past that brought all this on—which neither individual will discuss.)  Willy is haunted by visions of his older brother Ben (Royal Beal), who achieved great success in life (“When I was 17, I walked into the jungle…when I was 21, I walked out—and by George, I was rich!”), yet confounded by the down-to-earth pessimistic practicality of his neighbor and best friend Charley (Howard Smith), who’s first to admit he doesn’t have all the answers (“My salvation is I never took any interest in anything”) and whose son Bernard (Don Keefer) is a successful attorney, scheduled to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court.

Willy’s offspring have their own problems: Happy is what his mother describes as “a philandering bum” and Biff’s earnest attempts to reconcile with his father only produces more aggravation.  To pacify his father (at Linda’s request), Biff tells Willy that he has a business proposition for an old employer, a man named Bill Oliver—but in his zeal to meet with Oliver, Biff confronts the cold hard reality that he has no influence with a man for whom he once worked…and who fired him after Biff stole company property.  (Biff has continued his devotion to petty theft by swiping a fountain pen during his get-together with Oliver.)  At a restaurant in which they plan to treat Willy to a celebratory meal, Happy tries to persuade his brother to lie to Willy about the Oliver deal going south.  The senior Loman could use some good news, since he was let go by his boss (David Alpert) earlier that morning.

But Biff is simply unable to sustain the fantasy that has enveloped his father’s world—we learn that the reason he’s denounced his father as a “fake” all these years is due to the incident that’s gone undiscussed between the two of them: Biff discovered his idol had feet of clay when he visited his father’s hotel room in Boston unannounced…and found Willy dallying in an extramarital affair.  Biff finally confronts his father and explains that even though he’s never going to be what Willy has envisioned he still loves him.  With that knowledge—and having made sure he’s paid his insurance premium—Willy takes his own life in a car crash.  At his gravesite, Linda muses on the irony that they now own their home “free and clear”…and yet there’s no one with which to share this.

Death of a Salesman, considered by consensus to be playwright Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, was already under consideration for silver screen treatment even before Salesman was awarded the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  Shortly after the play’s opening in February, Variety reported that the Music Corporation of America had expressed interest in putting together a movie package that would include Miller, Salesman director Elia Kazan, and lead actor Lee J. Cobb…and according to Miller, would probably be produced at 20th Century-Fox.  Subsequent trade paper announcements speculated on the possibility of an independent production (with Kazan directing and Miller penning the screenplay) and deals at RKO and Paramount (William Wyler directing and Kirk Douglas starring).

Instead, Arthur Miller sold Salesman’s rights to independent producer Stanley Kramer, who had just inked a deal with Columbia Pictures for a series of motion pictures.  Kramer secured the services of performers Mildred Dunnock, Cameron Mitchell, Don Keefer, Royal Beal, and Howard Smith—all of whom had been in the original Broadway production—as well as Kevin McCarthy, who had played Biff in the London version of Salesman.  But Kramer was warned off Lee J. Cobb, who originated the role of Willy on stage, because of the actor’s past political affiliations; instead, Stanley went with a seemingly bigger draw in two-time Academy Award winner Fredric March.  (While many lamented the loss of Cobb, the actor did reprise the role opposite leading lady Dunnock in a CBS network production that was televised in 1966.)  Stanley Roberts adapted Miller’s play for the screen and László Benedek was assigned the director’s chair.

Apart from the acknowledgement that the film version of Death of a Salesman was based on his play, Arthur Miller had little participation in the motion picture.  There’s speculation that this might be the reason why the playwright later distanced himself from the movie; he remarked that director Benedek “chop[ped] off almost every climax of the play as though with a lawnmower” and he had no love for March’s portrayal, either, believing the actor interpreted Willy Loman as “a lunatic.”  (He could hardly criticize Roberts’ script, most of which used Arthur’s language verbatim from the play.)  It’s not hard to discern why Miller felt the way he did—again, despite his non-participation it was he who took much of the heat when the film was released due in part to his having attracted the notice of the House Un-American Activities Committee when Salesman hit theaters (because of the HUAC attention, chapters of the American Legion threatened to picket movie venues; the Washington, DC chapter actually did so in the case of the Ontario Theatre).

Arthur also objected to a one-reeler that had been paired with the main feature entitled Life of a Salesman, a propagandistic short subject designed to convince audiences that being a salesman really wasn’t the soul-sucking existence depicted in Miller’s play.  It was thrown together at the last minute to appease those groups who saw Death of a Salesman as an anti-American film and an affront to capitalism, but Miller objected in the strongest possible terms—even threatening to sue Columbia over its inclusion.  The studio backed down at the last minute, and Arthur won the day: “Why the hell did you make the picture if you're so ashamed of it?”

Columbia head Harry “White Fang” Cohn no doubt regretted greenlighting Death of a Salesman; the movie was a box office failure and sort of soured the relationship between the studio and producer Kramer, who would only see big receipts in two of the films in his Columbia contract, The Wild One (1953) and The Caine Mutiny (1954).  Admittedly, the film is a bit of a downer (Willy Loman is not visited by an archangel who demonstrates to him life isn’t all that bad) and audiences just weren’t jazzed about seeing a movie critical of “the American Dream.”  Kramer himself (along with director Benedek) came under criticism for the “cheapness” of Salesman—something Kramer and Benedek had little control over (according to his contract with the studio, the producer wasn’t allowed to exceed $980,000 in his budgets).  Despite the criticism and tepid response from moviegoers, Death of a Salesman garnered five Academy Award nominations: nods for March, Dunnock and McCarthy, and in the categories of Best Black & White Cinematography (Franz Planer) and Best Score, Adaptation or Treatment (Alex North).

Right now I hear you asking: “Alvin, why have I not come across Death of a Salesman at any time on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in recent memory?”  After all, the 1951 version got a vigorous airing on television in the late 50s/early 60s, and is not only available for non-theatrical screenings but has aired on stations outside the United States.  Sadly, by the 1970s it dropped out of sight…and if you Google “death of a salesman dvd” you’ll more than likely be pointed toward the 1985 TV version starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy, which was produced after a successful theatrical revival of the play in 1984.  The speculation has long been that Miller preferred this version to the 1951 film, and since the movie rights to Salesman reverted back to his estate at that time he had no interest in a VHS release (let alone DVD).  The only way to see the 1951 version of Death of a Salesman is to get into contact with your friendly neighborhood bootlegger.

The unavailability of the 1951 movie is a tragedy almost equal to the subject matter in the play itself.  Arthur Miller went to great lengths to express his disdain for Fredric March’s turn as the heartbreaking hero in his play…but what is not generally known is that Miller originally offered March the opportunity to play Loman on stage, only to be turned down.  Freddie has come under considerable criticism for his performance (with many believing he’s “over-the-top” in the second half of the movie) but I was blown away by him the first time I watched the 1951 version.  He convincingly conveys the deterioration of a man who’s lied to himself all his life, who’s blinded by the contradictions of his warped philosophy and is frightened by the bewilderment that everything has gone wrong…somehow.  I recall reading about the time of the TV production that Miller was most praiseworthy of Dustin Hoffman’s presentation of Willy…and yet when I watched it (I had just finished reading the play for a college English class, an event that had a rather profound effect on my life) all I saw was a guy in unconvincing old-age make-up.

Mildred Dunnock gives the performance of a lifetime as the supportive Linda; I bow to no one in my admiration for both Thelma Ritter (nominated in the same Best Supporting Actress category as Dunnock for The Mating Season) and Lee Grant (Detective Story) but Dunnock was robbed at the Academy Awards (sorry, Kim Hunter fans—it’s true) and there’ll be no further discussion about it.  Oddly enough, it’s not Dunnock giving Linda Loman’s legendary “attention must be paid” speech that makes me weep—it’s a statement she makes to son Biff shortly before that, criticizing his frequent absences from home: “Biff, you’ve got to get it through your head—that one day you’re going to knock on this door and there’ll be strange people here.”  Linda spares no criticism of her sons, but in Dunnock’s hands one never gets the impression that’s she simply a one-dimensional nag or scold—she just doesn’t want to see her husband hurt anymore.

The cast in Salesman are all great—McCarthy, Mitchell, Beal, Jesse White, Claire Carleton—but I need to give special props to actor Howard Smith, who’s tattooed into my brain as the corpulent boss of James Daly in that great Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby” (“Push push push!”); he’s splendid as neighbor Charley, who Willy acknowledges as the only friend he’s got despite their mutual antagonism (the fact that Charley is willing to offer Willy employment—which the proud Loman refuses to capitalize on—is just emotionally devastating).  Another Zone veteran, Don Keefer—he was the poor fool transformed into a jack-in-the-box in “It’s a Good Life”—plays Charley’s son Ben…and I got a little choked up when I watched him in this movie last night since the actor shuffled off this mortal coil in September at the age of 98.

There are rumors that there is a splendid-looking copy of the 1951 Salesman circulating on grey market video (culled from a 16mm print) but the one I have is a bit splicey (it’s still watchable, though).  The film was preserved in 2013 by Columbia and The Film Foundation in honor of Stanley Kramer’s centennial, and while I’m optimistic that a future release on DVD might be in the works I can certainly understand the studio’s hesitancy to release a movie they technically don’t own.  The 1951 Salesman is, I think, unquestionably the finest film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s voluminous output…and if you have the opportunity to see or acquire a copy, grab it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Black Widow (1947) – Chapter 3: Hidden Death

Last week on Serial Saturdays, the hero of our current serial, The Black Widow (1947), apparently tumbled into a vat of acid…

…but in actuality, criminology student and pulp fiction author Steve Colt (Bruce Edwards) missed it by that much.  Hooray for Steve!  Disappointed that he was unable to properly dispose of his nemesis, henchman Ward (Anthony Warde) does a Johnny Weissmuller with a nearby pulley…

…and swings his way to the exit, where he and his sidekick beat a hasty retreat.  As Colt gets to his feet, he discovers that the nameless drone working at the Cornwall Chemical Company has also become conscious and phoned the police about the ruckus.

STEVE: What do you know about those mugs?
EMPLOYEE: I never saw them before in my life…they seemed awfully anxious to get a hold of that acid…what’s this all about, anyway?

As the employee stubs out Ward’s discarded cigarette, Colt looks over at the “No Fumer” sign.

STEVE: You don’t believe in signs?
EMPLOYEE: Oh—I sure do…that big fellow was smoking when he came in here…

Colt grabs the cigarette butt and examines it…a clue!  He then asks the employee if he has a classified phone book, and it’s at this point in the action that thorn-in-his-side and gal reporter Joyce Winters (Virginia Lindley) arrives on the scene.

JOYCE: What a pretty picture!  Prominent author-detective Steve Colt siphons cigarette butt…
STEVE: How in the blazes did you get here?

“And what would it take for you to return?  To blazes, I mean…”

JOYCE: Very simple…you just hail a cab, give him an address and presto—you’re there!
STEVE: All right, all right… (Leafing through the phone book)
JOYCE: What are you looking for?
STEVE: Cigar and cigarette manufacturers…
JOYCE: I don’t understand…
STEVE: That’s not surprising…

“The complexity of this caper is a bit too complicated for your tiny ladybrain to comprehend…”

STEVE: …one of the Black Widow gang left this custom-made cigarette…if we can find the man who makes these, we’ll be one step closer to our mysterious friend… (Leafing through a few pages, then speaking to the employee) Do you mean if I tear this out?

“Well, considering the trail of destruction you’ve left ever since you entered this joint—why the hell not?”

STEVE: I’ll see you at Walker’s…
JOYCE: Hey—wait for me!

Oh, Joycie…he’s just not that into you.  The action then shifts to the lair of Sombra (Carol Forman), the delectable damsel of depravity who’s working on a scheme for world domination with her there-he-is-no-he’s-gone papa, Hitomu (“Brother” Theodore Gottlieb).  The vanishing patriarch is not in this chapter, by the way, so if you’re disappointed you can come back next week.  For the time being, Sombra consults with henchman Ward and lackey Dr. Z.V. Jaffa (I. Stanford Jolley)…

WARD: …and I’m tellin’ you that character Colt is gonna make me blow my top one of these days…
SOMBRA: We don’t have to lose our heads…even though we may have lost some time…now that we know what the neutralizing acid is, one of our agents in Chicago can send us some…
JAFFA: And when the acid arrives, it will be very simple to extract the rocket fuel formula from the tube…
SOMBRA: Then we will have successfully completed the first step in our work…and my illustrious father, Hitomu, will be able to continue with his plan to conquer and subjugate the enemies of our culture…
WARD: I’ll buy that!

“I don’t have a dollar on me right now, though…but I’m good for it.”  Outside the building that houses Sombra’s fortunetelling parlor, Blinky the Stoolie (Ernie Adams) watches from his post while snapping candid photos of passersby.  He spots Bruce and Joyce pulling up in their coupe, and gets on his faux hearing aid to contact his boss…

BLINKY: Steve Colt just drove up…he’s stopping at Kabob’s tobacco shop…
(Sombra thinks for a moment, then notices Ward smoking a cigarette)
SOMBRA: Kabob’s?
WARD: Yeah!
SOMBRA (to Blinky): Get close to them…turn up the volume…

Colt attracts the attention of a man whose business sign identifies him as “A. Kabob”—but the characters do not pronounce it “kuh-bob” as it would follow the word “shish.”  Instead, it’s “kay-bob,” as if it were a radio station out on the West Coast.  (“You’re listening to K-BOB…the home of boss oldies, twenty-four hours a day with limited commercial interruption!”)  Kabob is played by character veteran Frank Lackteen, who’s normally a villain onscreen (his most famous serial role is in 1941’s Jungle Girl, as Shamba—but you might remember him as Koloka in the Serial Saturdays presentation of Don Winslow of the Navy [1942]) so it’s a refreshing change of pace to see him as a good guy.  Lackteen also appeared in a number of Columbia two-reel comedies, notably the Three Stooges shorts Shivering Sherlocks (1948) and Malice in the Palace (1949).

STEVE: Was this cigarette made here?
KABOB: Why, yes—that’s my wrapper…would you like to order some?
STEVE: I’ll order ten thousand if you can tell me who buys those…
KABOB: I have many customers…but if this is a special mixture I will know…

Kabob takes the remains of the cigarette and inhales deeply…then he sneezes.  “A thousand pardons,” he explains to Colt.  “You see, I am allergic to tobacco.”  Kind of an odd occupation to be in if you’re allergic to your own product, but hey—this serial features a little guy who pops in and out of a throne…so who am I to judge?  Kabob is able to identify the source of his allergies as a brand he mixes up especially for “a very fine gentleman, Mr. Ward.”  (Bro…ther…)

STEVE: What’s his address?
KABOB: Oh, that I do not know…
STEVE (peeling a twenty off a roll of bills): Perhaps this will refresh your memory…
KABOB: It would…but I don’t know where he lives…he always orders by phone and picks up his own packages…
STEVE: Here’s my card—suppose you let me know the next time he’s supposed to show up?

Kabob is most accommodating and promises to give Colt a ring, and as The Unholy Three continue to monitor the conversation via Blinky’s phony hearing aid Ward observes: “Pretty smart cookie, that guy…looks like I’ll have to change my brand…”

SOMBRA: On the contrary
WARD: But he’s got it fixed with Kabob!
SOMBRA: At the moment, that’s to our advantage…if Colt found out that much about you, he may know more…we’ll have to put an end to his meddling

Sombra’s scheme is to have Jaffa make a duplicate of the rocket fuel tube while Ward will lure Steve into a trap by ordering more cigarettes.  As the preparations for Operation Colt Castration continue, the action shifts to The Daily Clarion and the offices of John M. Walker (Gene Stutenroth), editor.  “I wonder what’s happened to Sherlock?” asks a seated Joyce as the object of her sarcasm strolls in.

JOYCE: We were just talking about you…
WALKER: Well—what happened to you?
STEVE: I’ve been running down a lead to one of the Black Widow gang…
WALKER: You have?
STEVE: Yeah…fellow by the name of Ward…
WALKER: So?  I’ve got a cousin in Milwaukee by that name…

You may not realize this—but Noel Coward worked on this script uncredited.  The phone rings, and Walker hands it off to Steve—it’s Kabob on the other end, letting Colt know that Ward will be around at three to pick up some cigarettes.  Hanging up, Steve informs Walker that’s he’s off to attend a meeting—“And I’ve got a secret for you, editor…I don’t think he’s your cousin from Milwaukee!”  (Oh, my sides.)

JOYCE (as Steve heads for the door): Hey, wait—I’m coming, too!
STEVE: Snap it up!

There’s a real douchey side to that guy.  Back at Sombra’s, Jaffa proudly shows his boss the duplicate rocket fuel test tube…and she is most generous with her praise.  “Excellent, Jaffa,” she purrs.  “I can hardly tell the difference myself.”  And she’s not kidding—as she hands one back to her lackey, he quickly corrects her that she’s handed off the wrong one.  With the dummy tube in his hands, Ward editorializes “Pretty neat job” as he absentmindedly taps the tube on his fingers.

JAFFA: Ward!
SOMBRA: Careful—the explosives in there are for Colt…not for us…and remember…after you pick up the cigarettes…go right to Mendoza…and be sure you’re followed…
WARD: Okay…okay

Ward picks up his cigarettes as Steve and Joyce watch from the car across the street…and when Ward starts to motor, the couple follows in pursuit.  We then sit through a couple of minutes of driving footage until Ward arrives at his destination…

…one of the caves that I’m sure was used in our last Serial Saturdays presentation, (Big) Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion (1951).  Steve and Joyce pull up not long after and follow Ward inside.

Inside the cave is a laboratory, and the attendant in charge is the “Mendoza” referenced by Sombra in the last passage of dialogue.  He’s played by Ken Terrell, a stuntman-actor with a long list of serial credits—over sixty in all, including Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939), The Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), The Masked Marvel (1943) and The Invisible Monster (1950).  (If he’s playing a small part in a chapter play…it’s a good bet there’s a slugfest in the making.)

WARD: Better hurry…they’re right behind me!
MENDOZA: It’ll only take a few seconds to set the trip mechanism…

Mendoza works his magic on the phony test tube, and when Steve and Joyce enter the lab he and Ward dash into a nearby room and close the iron door on them.  “Well…the end of another wild goose chase,” observes Joyce.  As Joyce discovers the test tube in a vise on Mendoza’s lab table, Steve is preoccupied with an open vent leading to the other room.

JOYCE: Hey, Sherlock—check it out!
STEVE (removing the tube from the vise): No…it can’t be!
JOYCE: Oh…what a story!
STEVE: There won’t be any story until this is safely deposited in Weston’s vault… (Pointing in the direction of the vent)  Let’s go…

As the two of them head for the door, Steve gives Joyce the game plan: “Get this to Weston’s—I want to see what’s behind that door…”  So Joyce is off like a prom dress, and Steve doubles back to hide behind the door of the room that Ward and Mendoza ducked into.  The two creeps then re-enter the room.

WARD: You sure now that the explosive in that tube will go off all right?
MENDOZA: Your two friends will be blown to bits before they ever reach their destination…

“In fact, they’ll have a new destination—Kingdom Come!”  Steve emerges from his hidey hole at this point, barking “Get ‘em up—over there!”  So Mendoza decides to give him a “stool sample”…

…sorry about that.  There’s a fistfight—although I’ve noticed the donnybrooks in this serial seem to be performed with a bit more gusto—and after successfully pummeling his assailants into unconsciousness, Colt rushes out of the cave…but he’s too late, Joyce has already sped off in his car.

So Colt steals Ward’s car (not cool, Stevie!) and goes after Joyce in even more exciting car chase footage; he starts honking his car horn once he gets within striking distance of Joyce in his car…but she ignores his horn honking because of that stupid rivalry they have going on between the two of them.  In the meantime, the test tube is on the passenger seat behind her—and smoke starts to curl out of the enclosure…

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Jack Webb Blogathon: He Walked by Night (1948)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Jack Webb Blogathon, currently underway at The Hannibal 8 (your blogmaster is Toby) from October 17-19 and spotlighting the work of all-around movie-radio-TV auteur (writer, director, producer, actor) and TDOY fave Jack Webb.  For a list of participating blogs and the topics under discussion, radio “Dispatch” here.

On a warm June night in The City of Angels, Hollywood Police Division officer Robert Rawlins (John McGuire) is off-duty and headed for home when he spots a suspicious individual (Richard Basehart) lurking about a radio appliance shop.  Rawlins pulls up alongside the man to ask a few questions, and requests that he be shown some I.D.  The lurker explains that he left his wallet at home but would be only too happy to show him his discharge from the Army.  Unfortunately for Rawlins, the discharge comes from a gun.  The mortally wounded Rawlins is able to slow down the felon’s pursuit by crashing into his vehicle…and then he slips into a coma.

The unwritten law of the men in blue is there is nothing more dangerous than a cop killer; after all, if someone is crazy enough to shoot a cop, he’s liable to inflict even more grievous injury on an innocent member of the public.  So it’s no surprise that the fuzz arrive at the scene of the crime with lightning-quick speed; after being apprised of the situation, Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) assigns detectives Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) and Chuck Jones (James Cardwell) to the case.  Rawlins was a close friend of Sergeant Brennan’s, and finding the man responsible becomes even more urgent when a search of his abandoned vehicle turns up an arsenal of weapons and hardware swiped from an Army-Navy surplus store.

TDOY fave Ann Doran has a cameo as a police dispatcher...
...and Sam Drucker is hauled in for questioning.  Okay, just having a little fun.  The detective on the left grilling Frank Cady is Kenneth Tobey of The Thing from Another World fame.
As was the custom in Casablanca, the usual suspects are rounded up in a dragnet…but apart from a few parole violations, little progress is made in identifying Rawlins’ assassin.  It’s only when the police receive a call from a client of electronics store owner Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell), who charges that a television projector Reeves has tried to sell him was stolen from his house.  Reeves explains to Brennan and Jones that he obtained the device from one Roy Martin, an unassuming gentleman who’s been giving Reeves similar items to sell on consignment.  Reeves is instructed (after receiving a phone call from Martin) to notify the suspect he needs to see him at the shop that evening, where the detectives will lay in wait for him.  Martin arrives early for his appointment and, learning of the presence of the cops, has a shootout with his pursuers that leaves Jones wounded and paralyzed.

His consignment money gone south, Martin supplements his loss of income with a string of liquor store robberies—taking special care to wear a variety of disguises to avoid possible description by eyewitnesses.  Martin’s change of M.O. is soon discovered by police lab technician Lee Whitley (Jack Webb), who notes similarities in the shell casings used in the liquor store robberies and the ones left behind at the shootings of Rawlins and Jones.  Witnesses from the robberies help Breen and his men put together a composite sketch of Martin but his lack of a criminal record continues to confound the investigation—even a late-night visit to Reeves to demand payment for his consignment items concludes with Martin once again eluding capture, ducking into a tunnel in the city’s storm drain system.  Sergeant Brennan gets a pranging from Captain Breen as a result of this sloppy handling of the affair.

Byron Foulger plays a police clerk because...well, this is a movie made in the 1940s and he's Byron Foulger.  His superior (right) is none other than MISTER John Dehner.
Pulled off the case, Brennan has a conversation with Jones in his hospital room…and when Jones reminds him that their unknown suspect not only seems to know what the police are thinking but has a disturbing familiarity with their methods, Brennan devises a theory that Rawlins’ killer might be a cop.  Pounding the pavements to every nearby precinct, Marty finally gets a break when a clerk (Byron Foulger) in the Bureau of Records and Identification recognizes the composite sketch as a former employee, a one-time radio technician.  The man is identified as Roy Morgan…and after showing his sketch to several mailmen, one of them (Wally Vernon) recognizes Morgan as an individual who lives in an apartment court on his route.

Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.
After confirming Morgan’s residence (by posing as a milkman on his route), Brennan alerts Breen that the manhunt is over and the L.A. police soon close in on Morgan.  In a sweat-inducing climax, it looks as if Morgan will once again evade the long arm of the law by retreating to his storm drain environs as he did earlier.  Sadly for our marauder, his means of exit is blocked thanks to a patrol car parked on top of a manhole cover…and he is shot and killed by the police.

He Walked by Night (1948) has its origins in the case files of the L.A. police department; centering on a miscreant named Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, who drifted into a life of crime after a hitch in the Army during World War II.  Like his silver screen counterpart Roy Morgan, Walker had been employed in a police station capability (Glendale) as a radio operator and police dispatcher.  Erwin committed a series of thefts and burglaries between 1945 and 1946, several of which led to shoot-outs and one in the death of a California Highway Patrol officer, before he was captured by L.A. police in December of 1946.  Walker’s life had a happier ending than the antagonist of Night, however; though he was sentenced to be executed for the cop killing a suicide attempt postponed his date in the death house and he spent a great deal of time in several psychiatric hospitals before finally being paroled in 1974.  He died in 1982.

Scripted by John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur from a story by Wilbur, He Walked by Night is a police procedural thriller that deserves to be better known despite its low budget, programmer origins (it was co-produced by Bryan Foy, in charge of Warner’s B-picture unit at one time).  Film noir buffs know Night was mostly directed by the great Anthony Mann despite the official crediting of Alfred L. Werker; for reasons unknown, Mann took over for Werker early on but his directorial stamp is all over the finished product: the unforgettable moments where Morgan must self-extract a bullet rather than risk being attended to at a hospital; the shoot-out in Reeves’ electronics store between Morgan and Brennan; a sequence of Brennan approaching Reeves’ house in which he’s shot in half-profile.  This last contribution parallels a similar shot involving Charles McGraw in Mann’s T-Men (1947), which (in addition to Night) features cinematography by the legendary John Alton (Alton also worked on such Mann noirs as Raw Deal [1948] and Border Incident [1949]).

Of the performers in He Walked by Night, it was Richard Basehart who received most of the critical plaudits; it was his third feature film (following Repeat Performance and Cry Wolf) and the first time he worked with Mann—Basehart would later make an unforgettable Robespierre in Mann’s French Revolution noir, Reign of Terror (1949—a.k.a. The Black Book).  Basehart’s Morgan must surely rank as one of the great screen villains of all time: a clever, methodically ruthless criminal who possesses a sort of animal cunning—it’s interesting to note that when Morgan suspects a trap at the electronics store he doesn’t see the detectives but senses them, as if he’s picked up their scent.  Morgan’s only companion is a scruffy terrier dog, which reinforces the animal metaphor…and of course, the events leading up to his demise—three years before a similar (and far more praised) manhunt in Carol Reed’s The Third Man—suggest that he’s literally a rat trapped in the sewers.  (No, he does not encounter any giant ants while he’s down there—that wouldn’t happen until six years later and the climax of Them!)

Roy Roberts and Scott Brady are first-rate as the detectives doggedly (there’s that animal thing again) pursuing Basehart’s killer; Roberts would later play a similar cop role in 1951’s The Enforcer.  Whit Bissell is also sensational as Reeves, the creampuff electronics store owner who you know probably wet himself when the cops start to lean on him, thinking he’s good for the job.  But this is a blogathon about John Randolph “Jack” Webb, who was just at that time fulfilling his ambitions to be a movie star in his first credited film appearance as a savvy police lab technician.

After doing his bit in the U.S. Air Force during WWII, Webb relocated to San Francisco and landed a job as a late night D.J…but his thespic ambitions soon took hold and he begin to produce and perform in a number of productions for ABC Pacific Radio affiliate KGO.  He headlined his own self-titled comedy program (yes, intentional comedy) as well as serious series like Spotlight Playhouse and One Out of Seven, and is perhaps best known for creating a private eye drama entitled Pat Novak for Hire in which the hard-boiled shamus dialogue (contributed by longtime collaborator Richard Breen) was so over-the-top it bordered on camp.  (Webb revived Novak briefly for ABC nationally for a short time in 1949 before his famous contribution to radio drama premiered on rival NBC…more on that in a sec.)

Jack left KGO in 1947 to relocate to Hollywood; once there, he found work on such popular radio programs as Suspense, Escape and The Whistler while starring on such crime drama series as Johnny Madero, Pier 23 and Jeff Regan, Investigator.  He Walked by Night was his big break in the movies (he also had a bit part in the 1948 Hollow Triumph—a.k.a. The Scar), and during the movie’s filming he became good friends with Det. Sgt. Marty Wynn—one of the L.A.P.D. detectives that captured the real-life Erwin Walker and who was serving as a technical consultant on the film.  Webb was fascinated by Wynn’s tales of police work and expressed an interest in creating a series that would demonstrate to the listening public the true nature of police investigation; there would be no glamour involved, only the limitless patience and endless hours of expending shoe leather in tracking down leads and interviewing eyewitnesses and suspects (as demonstrated in Night).

Wynn was enthused by Webb’s proposal.  He told Jack to “go to school,” and soon Webb accompanied Wynn and Officer Vince Brasher on night patrols, learning police jargon and studying methods of crime investigation by taking classes at the police academy.  Jack’s research laid the groundwork for what eventually became the dean of radio/TV police procedurals: Dragnet.  He Walked by Night is unquestionably an embryonic version of that seminal series, complete with its stentorian narration (from movie/radio veteran Reed Hadley), its semi-documentary feel, concentration on forensic methods, and a prologue that concentrates on the city of Los Angeles as a minor character (Hadley even announces “This is Los Angeles” as he conducts a quick travelogue over various montages of L.A. landmarks).

That last sentence has a familiar ring to it.

Released by Eagle-Lion Films in 1948, He Walked by Night has been released to VHS and DVD in an incalculable number of public domain editions even though its P.D. status is debatable—MGM/UA released a disc in 2003 that’s acknowledged as the best-looking of the DVD releases…but my personal preference is for a two-disc set released by Roan Group Entertainment in 1999 that not only features Night but two additional noirs from Anthony Mann, T-Men and Raw Deal.  (This was one of the first DVD’s I bought when I finally got a DVD player—call me sentimental.  It’s out-of-print, but I believe it’s still available from some online vendors.)  He Walked by Night is essential viewing for the noir devotee, and an important building block in the incredible career of Jack Webb.