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Tales from the Silver Screen: Part 5—Killer Noir

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In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, hopefully a pandemic, and so many other things, can be or are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access. In my fifth in this limited series of film observations, I thought I would take a step back from noir that addressed social and political concerns and focus on something a tad sleazier. Well, by some measure sleazier: killers in noir. The reason was simple enough. The Coronavirus has levied death in large numbers around the earth in 2020 and continues with a vengeance in 2021. While there are still wars going on and people dying as a result, we have been paying most of our attention to Covid-19. Perhaps that is as it should be. How much grief for the earth can we be expected to absorb? How many tears can we offer? Even as I write this, as I attempt to justify a passion for old films, I am captured by images of the dispossessed fleeing Africa in the most unstable and congested of vessels, being swallowed whole by the unmerciful Atlantic Ocean.

Oddly, and somewhat inappropriately perhaps, writing about two lonely outlier cinematic killers and films about such creatures might seem almost a positive act. Yeah! Quite odd. I’ll concede that. So, as I write about film, about anything, I remain aware of the real world and its horrors. I have a desire to write. I also bear a duty to stay in the here and now. For this column, there were quite a few choices available of subject films, but two delightfully modest and seedy (seedy in only the best way) examples in particular came to mind quite quickly, two that I suspect are not as well-known as they deserve to be: the 1952 Arnold Laven film, Without Warning and the Alfred Werker/Anthony Mann jointly directed 1948 thriller, He Walked by Night. Both films feature lone wolf killers. Actually, that is not totally accurate. One killer has a dog companion. The other, dogless, petless, does have a neighbour child with whom he engages on occasion. She is not really a companion but serves to humanize him somewhat. In addition to those two connections, they each seem able to communicate in their respective work spheres, one a gardener/landscaper, and the other an inventor/technician with a light-fingered touch.

I should note here that a third film, Edward Dmytryk’s 1952 thriller, The Sniper, also immediately came to mind, but I opted simply to make a note of it here along with a link to the trailer. 

It does bear an uncomfortable similarity to more modern-day mass shooters, those forlorn school, church, and assorted other venue cluster-shooters who have emerged in significant numbers these past two decades but were not unknown even further back in time. I featured one of Dmytryk’s films, Cornered, in an earlier instalment, Hiding in Plain Sight. Killer Noir: Without Warning There is little mystery in Without Warning. It has no big stars to speak of. And stars probably were not necessary to the telling of the story.

Actor Adam Williams portrays the protagonist, Carl Martin. For much of his career, Williams was a supporting player. Moderately interesting, in this film, his wife at the time, Marilee Phelps, plays an undercover police woman and barely escapes with her life (cinematically speaking.) Moments in, its police procedural roots start showing.  For much of the subsequent journey, we follow both the police investigation, the gathering/discarding/processing of information, and the two worlds of the killer, his workaday world, and his murderous machinations, his killer’s world. As we watch him in his hilltop home neighbourhood, we are short months away from witnessing the tragedy of a soon to be bulldozed community, the marvellously lost Chavez Ravine. Eventually the neighbourhood became the home of the former Brooklyn Dodgers. Though Without Warning is not a study in gentrification, it’s greater value may be that it has left us with images of a community that is no more. This adds considerable worth to the film. In fact, that is a major quality of numerous film noir or films almost-noir that were filmed on location. We get the feel of the community, the streets, the businesses, the homes, the way life was once lived. 

                  

These two real-life images give a sense of the community fightback as well as the means of destruction employed. It was a lengthy battle and though new housing was promised, ultimately a huge portion of the neighbourhood became Dodger Stadium. As for the film, there is lovely jazz score by Herschel Burke Gilbert that carries us along into the city, the unfolding night. As it begins, we shortly arrive at a no-name motel. A body is discovered. The wheels of law and order begin a careful journey to catch the killer. The narrator’s deep rich voice (not Reed Hadley who narrates He Walked by Night but Gene Wood’s sonorous tone) keeps up fully informed about the steps taken by police. Wood, in later years would be the off-screen voice on countless Game Shows. Our murderer is a hunter. And a bit of a gardener as we learn shortly…though the gardening shear he carries to terminate his victims gives a fairly obvious clue early on He is an amiable sort…most of the time. He has relationships. None too intimate. Carmelita, a child who lives nearby is upset. Her doll has broken. Its heads snapped off. He tries to repair it. He is easily spooked. Fred, who runs the garden supply business he frequents is friendly with him…his blond-haired daughter is visiting…husband’s gone overseas…Korea perhaps…she spooks him.

As the story unfolds, the noose of justice tightens. As noted, our villain is drawn to the daughter of the garden supply owner. We are meant to identify with her, her innocence. Her simplicity.

While the plot is anything but complex, we do notice that there is serendipity at play. The killer has favourites, but he is also flexible. As I hope I have made clear, this is not a particularly great film. Still, it has its historical merits and is well worth an hour and a bit of your time especially for those Chavez Ravine images. Killer Noir: He Walked By Night He Walked by Night is a somewhat more intricate film then Without Warning. As well, though I can’t say with any confidence that Without Warning was based on fact, the producers of He Walked by Night leave us little doubt that it is rooted in a real and tragic series of events. The film begins very Dragnet-like. Almost ‘This is the city. Los Angeles California.’ Almost, but not quite. As he did in several films, actor Reed Hadley provides the narration. His deep resonant voice lent an air of documentary authority to a number of superior noirish movies including The House on 92nd Street, Boomerang, and Canon City. Though Jack Webb is featured in the film, it is not his movie. However, many authorities argue that Webb’s role in He Walked by Night was the catalyst for his later creation of Dragnet. But this film is very much a police procedural. And like Without Warning it begins fairly early with a terrible crime.

In this case, a police officer on his way home, drawn to a suspicious fellow on a dark street, is shot and killed. From there, we get glimpses of the killer. Played by Richard Basehart very early in his career, the killer, alternately known as Roy Morgan and Roy Martin,  seems to be a purveyor of electronics. Posing as an inventor, we quickly determine that he is more than likely a thief. As for the shooting. this movie crime originated as a real crime. This officer, Loren Cornwell Roosevelt, a California Highway Patrol, was shot nine times at the end of his shift Wednesday, June 5, 1946. 

The killer, Erwin Walker aka Machine Gun Walker, was eventually captured, sentenced to death, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and, hours away from his execution, he attempted suicide. This eventually led to his transfer to a state hospital where he resided for a dozen years. Then, given a clean bill of mental health, his death sentence was commuted in 1961. A decade later, he was freed and died at the ripe old age of ninety-one in 2008. Not bad for a cop killer.

As much as I sometimes believe movies are real life, He Walked by Night does take a few slight turns away from it precipitating crime.

As both Without Warning and He Walked by Night are relatively short films clocking in at seventy-seven and seventy-nine minutes respectively, the action is reasonably fast paced. Especially He Walked By Night. Without Warning, having as it does a protagonist who is a gardener, there is a more plant-like pace. He Walked by Night is, by contrast,  frenetically paced. And darker. 

Perhaps the biggest leap away from the actual event is the beautifully done escape by the killer.  Trapped in his auto court room, he has a handy escape plan and makes a run for it, ending up in the delightful storm drains of L.A.

There the excitement is shadowy, violent, perhaps somewhat predictable. 

A favourite Sci-Fi film, Them, was also filmed in a similar watery hole in the Los Angeles ground. Whether giant ants or whacked out killers, sewers and storm drains offer little reprieve from extinction.

Killer Noir: Final Thoughts. You will notice should you watch the film that though the protagonist in Without Warning fits most definitions of a serial killer, this is not particularly the case with the character played by Richard Basehart in He Walked by Night. Neither in fact are mass killers. By that I mean, Adam Williams character kills women one at a time. Of course, murder of any kind is reprehensible. He fits the basic definition of a serial killer, that is, three victims or more. Basehart’s character kills in a more situational setting. He doesn’t necessarily plan to kill anyone, but he is more than ready if circumstances demand. And they did. I don’t know if I have tempted you to watch these two little films or driven you away. As a film lover I have often watched films many others would not enjoy. It is a burden I carry. A very minor final thought: Harlan Warde in addition to appearing in both Without Warning and He Walked by Night also had a bit role in The Sniper. I find that interesting. 

About the Author

Bill Engleson

I am a Canadian author with two books, my 2013 novel, Like a Child to Home, and my 2016 collection of humorous literary essays titled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.


10 Comments

  1. Norah says:

    I think our tastes in movies differ. Your explanations and descriptions are interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Charli Mills says:

    Bill, I appreciate how you share your knowledge of the films in such a way that they become a glimpse back in time.

    Two ideas come to mind. First, I hadn’t considered films made in locations that no longer exist. There is great controversy in many American urban areas that tore down thriving Black neighborhoods under the guise of development, whether sports stadiums or freeways. It has a lasting impact. Just reflect on the summer of BLM this past year.

    Second, it occurs to me that narration is a storytelling element that’s gone out of fashion. In literature, too. It feels intrusive these days. I wonder if the power of narration mid-twentieth century reflected the social credibility found in a white male voice. I ponder this thought as our community has erupted with a local social debate from a university professor claiming that diversity measures subject his male whiteness to racism. In film, you can go back in time and see how far social norms have changed.

    Thank you for sharing your passion with us!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Such in-depth knowledge of so many movies! I am 100% sure I’ve mentioned it here before, but after reading all about these noir things, I’m tempted to watch “Scarlet Street” again.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Bill, I always enjoy your delve into noir, and am glad to finally get to this ‘killer’ post in your series. As a Brit who lived in California for two decades, a large chunk in LA, I have long been fascinated with its history. I remember hiking past the aqueduct and taking spins in a Dodge Charger through the dust (not me driving, regretabbly!). I watched ‘Them’ growing up in 60s England from our black and white TV, gripped by horror and fascination. Then later of course, came ‘killer noir’. The films then did seem much shorter but as you say, punchier somehow. And the social context in which they were made tells us an awful lot about life today, which ever way we might take it. I don’t recall watching the other films you mention (I guess giant ants stick more in my mind, yet I also remember giant wasps, but perhaps I am confused with Gulliver’s Travels…either way, both caused me many a sleepless night). Great post, Bill, thoroughly enjoyed the read and what you bring to blogging and writing during these hugely challenging, anxiety soaked times. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am always out of my element here. Not much of a movie watcher from any era, but as someone mentioned above, I too appreciate the wrap of history in this column. And I appreciate/commiserate with these statements:

    So, as I write about film, about anything, I remain aware of the real world and its horrors. I have a desire to write. I also bear a duty to stay in the here and now.

    Even a film ignoramus such as myself can learn here and see the threads of realtime, history and cinema that you weave in your thoughtful posts.

    Like

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