Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shadow play

If, in the endless debate as to whether film noir is a genre or a style, you take the position that it is a genre, with a coherent world view and set of audience expectations, you are going to have to account for He Walked By Night (1948), which, for my money, is still viewable today only for the cinematography of the great John Alton.

The story is a grubby little police procedural about hunting down a thief who has become a psycho killer. We don't know who he is, where he came from and why we kills and we don't care. We are siding with the police in this one. Many have noted that a very young Jack Webb plays a police technician and the word "dragnet" is used in the script, and have speculated that his is a source for Webb's TV series Dragnet. Dragnet has none of the style, visually or textually of film noir. It is the essence of flat, flat, flat. No irony no humor, just plodding police catching boring criminals. This film partakes of this a bit, but then is redeemed by brilliant sequences, such as the one you find about 0:30 minutes in, or the final chase through the storm sewers, which I would like to point out, antedates The Third Man's sewer chase by a year.

Like T-Men and Raw Deal, also made at Eagle-Lion, there are so many scenes with low-key single source lighting, often directed across the picture or toward the lens. There is a lot of wonderful fog, and of course the extreme light and dark of the aforementioned sewers. If the movie has a theme is that life, like this unexplained villain, comes up out of the shadows and returns to the shadows, and if you've been able to perceive anything during that brief moment in the light, well, good for you.

Another point in favor on this one--no music score, which means no overdone, cliched score, unlike many that mar otherwise perfectly good late 40s films. And if you're serious about studying the look of this film, which is quite dazzling, don't rely on public domain copies, like the one embedded above, but seek out the MGM/UA DVD, which, while not restored, comes from a cleaner clearer print than this.

No comments:

Post a Comment