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Dragnet (1954)

by Glenn Erickson Nov 07, 2020

 

Join Joe Friday and Frank Smith as they make a case against the rotten gangland crooks that moiderized Dub Taylor with a shotgun, point blank! See detectives loiter about while smart remarks and BIG music stings provide the excitement! The big-screen version of the hit TV show has a surfeit of guest crooks, unhappy women, and a script that wants to grant cops the right to harass and wiretap whoever they wish without restraint. Jack Webb’s ‘interesting’ ideas of script, performance and direction are really… interesting. The Joe Friday-fest comes with an informative commentary by Toby Roan, laying down plenty of Dragnet and Jack Webb history I didn’t know, not ‘just the facts.’


Dragnet
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1954 / Color / 1:75 widescreen + 1:37 unmatted / 88 min. / Street Date November 17, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jack Webb, Ben Alexander, Richard Boone, Ann Robinson, Stacy Harris, Virginia Gregg, Victor Perrin, Dub Taylor, Georgia Ellis, James Griffith, Dick Cathcart, Malcolm Atterbury, Willard Sage, Olan Soule, Dennis Weaver, Herb Vigran, Virginia Christine, James Anderson, Harper Goff, Harry Lauter, Meg Myles, Harlan Warde.
Cinematography: Edward Colman
Film Editor: Robert M. Leeds
Original Music: Walter Schumann
Written by Richard L. Breen
Produced by Stanley D. Meyer
Directed by
Jack Webb

Although irrelevant to the film school generation, actor-director-producer Jack Webb was a big man in Hollywood for thirty years. The first Dragnet TV show (1951-1959) is some of the earliest TV I can remember, and like everybody else in grade school I learned to recognize a great Joe Friday imitation on sight. The return of the Dragnet ’67 TV show is recalled as a parody of itself. Every week the monotone Friday slammed somebody with a Silent Majority Lecture, be it a hippie, crook or political extremist. I somehow missed this 1954 feature adaptation but was very interested in Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), for the most part an entertaining tale of musicians and gangsters.

Only later did I learn that Webb was a one-man Hollywood power center, a veritable institution. His Dragnet spin-offs Emergency! and Adam-12 provided a broad swath of Guild employment, generating deep industry loyalty for the producer. Webb launched his last major TV endeavor Project U.F.O. while I was working with effects people on a big Spielberg production. More than one career guild technician considered jumping ship to work for Jack Webb, who was considered a solid guy who ‘looked after his people.’

 

Webb had the TV world wrapped around his finger as soon as his radio show became a hit TV attraction. Made fast and cheap, with a lot of close-ups, the TV Dragnet became famous for a kind of aggressive minimalism. For artless efficiency Webb out-did Monogram and PRC. Between entrances and exits, the actors remained rooted in one spot to say their dialogue.  What with uniform lighting and costumes never that never changed, continuity concerns were reduced to ‘with hat’ and ‘without hat.’

Joe Friday often delivered his key speeches against the same unspecific ‘wild’ wall. Webb’s dialogue was never a real monotone, but he remained at the same pitch at all times — anything cut with anything. This enabled actor Webb to knock off pages of dialogue from different scenes — even different episodes — in one setup, perhaps even one shot, as Edgar G. Ulmer once did at PRC. With proper continuity oversight and an editor who didn’t mind everything playing at the same FLAT pace, the shows could be ground out like sausages. Emphatic music cues were needed just to let the audience know when scenes were finished.

 

Dragnet on radio and TV was an unofficial publicity arm for the Los Angeles Police Department, especially William Parker and his ‘new broom’ reform administration. Remember, this was around the time that James Ellroy’s LAPD whitewash/exposé classic L.A. Confidential is supposed to take place. Joe Friday’s interrogation rooms are wired for secret microphones, just as in Curtis Hanson’s ’90s classic.

The energetic Webb soon built up a broad swath of positive industry contacts. The same reliable supporting actors returned time and again playing different parts — future mega-producer Aaron Spelling (he married Carolyn Jones!) came back five times in one season. Webb’s outreach also extended to friends in the jazz scene, and of course the entire hierarchy of of the LAPD, which Dragnet championed as the epitome of efficiency and virtue.

The deal for the 1954 Dragnet movie adaptation came about when Jack Webb was at his peak. Unlike some TV producer/performers he owned the franchise outright and could do anything he wanted with his big-screen Joe Friday thriller, within reason. Would Webb open up the show with big scenes, bring in big stars or switch to the brand-new CinemaScope format?   Nope. Except for the addition of WarnerColor things stayed mostly the same, but with a more elaborate storyline (taken from a ten-year-old case) and more personnel down at Cop Central. Some shots are taken on location (Ciro’s! Red Cars!) and a camera crane sees use now and then. But most of the movie is as stage-bound as the TV show, with Warners’ New York Street seeing busy night shoots.

 

After an unusually violent, out-of-nowhere shotgun killing in a vacant lot, the movie Dragnet settles down into a procedural just like the TV show. The choice of ‘authentic’ cases is an odd one, as Sergeant Joe Friday (Webb) and his partner Officer Frank Smith (Ben Alexander of All Quiet on the Western Front) seek the killer not of a solid citizen, but a mobster. Lacking evidence and willing witnesses, Joe and Frank track down leads, grill suspects and send a policewoman (Ann Robinson) into a bar with a recording device. Weirdly, none of this pays off in an expected explosive finale, no car chase or major shoot-out. There’s not even the TV show’s ‘ya got me’ arrest scene.

That might be the way the real case went down… maybe. Friday’s superior cancels all leaves — for a single killing?  An incredible number of man-hours are expended to tail multiple suspects night and day. Many scenes play like rank padding, including a veritable infomercial for a miniaturized recording device (before transistors!) and a leisurely visit to the L.A. Natural History Museum. What Ann Robinson’s undercover mission yields isn’t clear, but it uses up half a reel. Our condescending cops address their fellow officer ‘Miss’ and everybody smiles at the notion of her potential attractiveness to the hoods she’ll be chatting up.

 

Jack Webb’s show pushes its message loud and clear: our boys in blue should be set loose to eradicate criminal scum by whatever means they deem effective. Friday’s colleagues are never wrong. The top detectives already know all the crooks in town. They ID the killers who shot Dub Taylor just by association, and a glance at a few file photos. But those pain-in-the-tail lawyers require evidence, dammit.

Hamstrung by the &#*@! liberal restraint, our cops compensate by shadowing and harassing the bad guys, subjecting them to repeated searches on the street and at their homes. They browbeat the arrestees to their hearts’ content. The movie expects us to believe that the cops can easily separate upright citizens from criminal scum, as if they were separate species. Their petty persecutions are for the betterment of society.

The crazy cop behavior just doesn’t stop. The movie’s one fistfight is completely gratuitous — Joe and Frank purposely provoke a punch-out with a roomful of hoods playing bridge. The only result is some band-aids for our two heroes. Back at headquarters, Friday and Smith are unofficially congratulated for their initiative.

 

The movie is still fun, especially Joe Friday’s ridiculous speeches. He dresses down a thug about his detective’s salary in a machine-gun outburst that makes Friday seem mentally unbalanced. We roll our eyes at Ben Alexander’s terribly-scripted, painfully unfunny nods toward comic relief. I missed Dragnet, The Movie at its Noir City screenings, but heard that the crowds loved it and met every overdone eccentric absurdity with delighted laughter. Webb must have thought his shows were genuinely tough and relevant, ‘smart drama.’ But it all goes on far too long, with draggy scenes in under-dressed sets. A grand jury inquest is interminable. Don’t forget the too-colorful ‘colorful’ characterizations. A one-legged alcoholic underworld widow (Virginia Gregg) weeps and whines for almost a full five minutes. Did Webb think he was positioning his actor friends for Supporting Oscar nominations?

Poor Dub Taylor!   Dub didn’t regularly receive billing for four more years. He’d been brutally bludgeoned in Crime Wave (but got to sing along with Doris Day!) and was arrested for stealing a trainload of sugar in Them!  He becomes the first Hollywood shotgun victim to grimace with blood all over his face, in choker close-up. Ooh that smarts, especially without screen credit. That opening shotgun scene promises more action that never really comes.

Webb’s capable actors vamp their way through low-key scenes, looking natural but having nothing much to do. This was Richard Boone’s 16th feature film, and some of his roles had been pretty big (see his 1954 The Raid, it’s great). Here he delivers some monotone dialogue and little more — everybody’s main direction seems to be to stay out of Jack Webb’s way. An early scene gets a big unintentional laugh, when Joe Friday ends a sober cop discussion with a really weak ‘capper’ line, a smart remark so tepid, we can almost hear the shouting: ‘REWRITE! Rewrite on the Set NOW!’ It’s underscored by the biggest music sting imaginable. No overstated joke in the TV parody Police Squad! can touch it.

 

Excellent bad guy actor Stacy Harris adds most of the criminal tension, as a murderer whose malfunctioning stomach is literally killing him. Dennis Weaver contributes a glorified walk-on, while the weird James Griffith is given far too much screen time as a ditzy witness. But actors wanted to be in this show, clearly. Sexy Meg Myles is in for a what was once called ‘a bit of distaff visual delight.’ Favorite Virginia Christine gets one close-up playing an ‘annoying woman who objects to unlimited Police surveillance.’ The great James Anderson and Malcom Atterbury play an important scene in a ridiculous ‘Rear Window’-like setup, observed through a window twenty feet away from Joe Friday’s wiretappers. The framing makes it obvious that the two hoods couldn’t possibly miss seeing Friday snooping at them — it’s pitiful. I have a feeling that Jack Webb had a habit of overriding expert advice on the set.

This is cameraman Edward Colman’s first feature credit as DP. He had plenty of experience in sophisticated movies, but the visuals in Dragnet would seem to be pure Jack Webb. Webb’s idea of cinematic impact is ‘the jarring close-up.’ Webb’s otherwise dull fistfight scene is interrupted by four or five shots of Friday and others punching the camera, as in a 3-D movie. In another scene, in the middle of the flattest direction imaginable, Webb suddenly cuts to a radical up-angle through a glass ashtray.  I’ll bet that got a big laugh at the Cinematheque.

Frankly, when the movie ends, we simply aren’t expecting it — if the show had any kind of eventful finale, it might have been a big hit. Joe Friday walks out onto a rainy backlot city street, the big DHUM DHA DHUM DHUM! theme sounds, and it’s Goodnight Irene. Very strange.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Dragnet is a solid encoding of this seldom-seen item (in my experience). The copyright on the disc shows that its rights reverted to Mark VII Ltd. and its original producer. The WarnerColor image is fine, if a little grainy on shots with dissolves. I’d like to know the rationale on some of these Aspect Ratio decisions. An accurate widescreen scan is provided, and the second un-matted full-frame scan can only be for… who?   With all those open ceilings and rugs, the movie looks like a Monogram one-set-fits-all production.

The audio showcases the powerful Warner house orchestra, recorded with the proprietary microphone placement that results in a particularly brassy, punchy sound. The music is credited to Walter Schumann, whose TV theme remains universally identifiable (even though it can be heard in Miklos Rosza’s The Killers, 1946). I’m not an expert, but various cues throughout the movie sound almost identical to those heard in Them!  It’s probably just a case of similar orchestration. Schumann’s no hack — his score for Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter has some of the most beautiful film music of the 1950s.

The trailer on view looks like a remnant, perhaps a work picture for a sixty-second TV spot. Whatever it is, it isn’t a finished theatrical trailer. Providing solid expert accompaniment is Toby Roan’s feature commentary. We get the usual actor bios — the movie has scores of faces that make us ask ‘who IS that?’  Toby assures us that this was indeed the first feature film adapted from a TV show, and that there were misgivings about the idea. Others point out that an earlier movie was made of the TV show The Goldbergs, and also the China Smith TV series. The history of Jack Webb and Dragnet beginning with He Walked by Night, through the radio breakthrough to the TV show to this feature makes for good listening. Toby ID’s one actor as a jazz musician pal of Webb’s. Most importantly, he sketches the facts of the show’s relationship to the real LAPD, pointing out where names of actual officers are used. Webb really did serve as an all-media PR flack for the L.A. Fuzz (in a good way). We can be sleep secure knowing that he didn’t have to worry about parking tickets.

Toby notes the prosaic adherence to police routine as a positive value, which I agree with on nostalgic terms, for those of us that find the TV shows to be fascinating. Happily, he also notes the controversial nature of the film’s pitch for unlimited detention, surveillance, wiretapping and other powers that I still associate with pernicious Police States.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Dragnet
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Toby Roan; Trailer (TV spot?).
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
October 3, 2020
(6382drag)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.