He Walked By Night

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November 1, 2011 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 


By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)


The Los Angeles Police Historical Society presented He Walked By Night at the theater in Barnsdall Park.   About thirty people attended.  No one who doesn’t browse the LPHS website – and not that many people do – knew about the film.


The detective novel rose in response to the fragmentation of human life after the Industrial Revolution.  The detective connects the disparate parts of the city with the thread of his moral code.   Raymond Chandler was this one of this city’s truest poets: his Philip Marlowe with his hard-boiled detective office on Hollywood Boulevard is a knight-errant drawn from the King Arthur myth.   Film noir grows from the detective novel and plunges into the underside of urban life and its moral chaos, which reflects the disintegration of society during and in the years that closely followed World War II.


Charles Bukowski is this city’s urban poet without the ethical component.  His writing is about what happens when everything gets screwed.  This city provides a canvas of possibilities for getting fucked, and Bukowski explored as many of those he could.


He Walked By Night (1948) isn’t film noir because there were only a few women in the film, and they played minor roles: a police dispatcher, a witness to a burglary who only spoke Spanish, and a woman who lived in a Hollywood court apartment who believed the manager poisoned her milk.  True Film Noir requires a sociopathic woman lead character.  Nothing ends well in Film Noir.


This film was a police procedural film, and it began the radio and then the television series Dragnet and its spawn.  Jack Webb plays a crime lab technician with an unusual sweetness and marked East Indian calm that contrasts with his later tough detective role in the Dragnet series.   Webb’s mother was Irish-Indian, and he grew up on Bunker Hill and in Echo Park.


James Ellroy spoke at the film’s showing.   He’s a Republican who supports the LPHS and was a golf caddy.   Divorce is important to him because he pays alimony.


Ellroy is proof an author can be extraordinarily annoying and yet write well.  His mother was murdered when he was ten, and the crime remains unsolved.  When he was a teenager, he was a peeping Tom who broke into houses in Hancock Park to sniff women’s underwear.  The police always caught him.  He was not an evil genius criminal, yet he found women to marry him.


The film is a fictionalized account of a real criminal Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker.   Young Richard Basehart plays Walker.  The real criminal had been a brilliant student at the California Institute of Technology.  He became a dispatcher in the Glendale Police Station.  In the film, as in the real story, he escapes for a time through intelligent understanding of this city’s storm drain system: a poignant echo of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and the protagonist Jean Valjean’s escape threw the Paris sewer system.


In the film, the police kill him in the storm drain system.  In real life, he survived a death sentence and lived out the last years of his life in Nevada.



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