07 November 2019

The Real Legacy of He Walked by Night

He Walked by Night didn’t influence The Third Man, but it definitely did influence American popular entertainment.

To start with, it appears to be the first movie that includes a scene of self-surgery. The bad guy stitches himself up after being shot, using a mirror and a lot of grit. I’ve seen variations of that scene in The Terminator, Ronin, and Master and Commander, but this might be the original.

Even more clearly, He Walked by Night gave birth to the most visible and long-lasting form of the dramatized police procedural. It even starts with an announcement that the story was based on real crimes, and that “names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

One of the supporting characters in the movie is a police lab technician played by Jack Webb. He’s young and almost winsome in the role.

At the time, Webb’s most prominent parts were as the star of the radio dramas Pat Novak, for Hire, about an unlicensed investigator who works at a pier, and Johnny Madero, Pier 23, about a pier manager who undertakes investigations. As was standard in hard-boiled mysteries, the cops in those stories were at best a rival for the hero, at worst a hindrance.

While working on He Walked by Night, Webb met the movie’s technical advisor, Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn of the Los Angeles Police Department. Their conversations and the movie’s format gave Webb the idea of creating a radio drama about a police detective, inspired by real crimes and portraying realistic law-enforcement techniques.

The LAPD also loved that idea and got behind it. Dragnet premiered in June 1949 with Webb in the starring role of Sgt. Joe Friday. It ran for more than eight years on radio. For most of those years, a version also ran on television for nine years, and there was a movie adaptation as well. Then the TV show was revived in 1966 with a TV movie and more than four more years of episodes. Webb expanded the procedural franchise in the 1970s by producing Adam-12 and Emergency!

Dragnet made Webb’s Joe Friday character a national icon, cementing his image as an actor and even his politics. That means it’s very striking to see him play a different personality in He Walked by Night, or to hear him as a cornet player during Prohibition in the fine radio drama Pete Kelly’s Blues.

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