Friday, October 17, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Dragnet (1954)

This post on the 1954 DRAGNET feature film is my contribution to the Jack Webb Blogathon being hosted by Toby at The Hannibal 8. The blogathon is going all weekend, from today through October 19th. Be sure to stop by "The Dispatch" at The Hannibal 8 to check out links to other wonderful contributions, including a terrific post by Toby's daughter Presley on a fondly remembered 1969 episode of the DRAGNET TV series.

Jack Webb's shows are among my earliest TV memories. I remember watching ADAM-12 and DRAGNET when I was very young, and a few years later EMERGENCY! was a huge favorite. We could hardly wait to hear those sirens going off during the opening credits on Saturday nights!

Thanks to DVDs I shared Webb's shows with my own children, and while some of the concepts Webb introduced to the general public, such as paramedics, were no longer novel, the shows held up wonderfully as great entertainment. In fact periodically I notice that my older son, who's now away at college, has been streaming ADAM-12 and EMERGENCY! via Netflix; he finds them relaxing when he's stressed out about finals! It's great to see these shows still being so enjoyed decades after they were filmed.

Despite my great fondness for Webb, there are some gaps in my viewing of his work, and one of the Webb films I'd never seen was the DRAGNET movie from 1954. The Jack Webb Blogathon gave me the perfect motivation to finally watch it!

DRAGNET stars and was the first directing effort by Webb, who also did uncredited work on the script. When the movie started playing it was love at first sight, as the detectives joining Joe Friday (Webb) and Frank Smith (Ben Alexander) to discuss a new murder case include captains played by Richard Boone and Dennis Weaver. How cool is that?!

And the dialogue! Someone mentions that the first gunshot cut the murder victim in half, to which Friday responds that the second shot "turned him into a crowd." Yikes! After sputtering with shocked laughter, I actually rewound to make sure I'd heard it correctly.

The plot is really beside the point, as Friday and Smith try to solve a gangland execution, which is shown before the opening credits and is surprisingly bloody for 1954.

In all honesty the plot kind of peters out in the last half hour of this 88-minute movie, which has an abrupt ending where justice is served, but not as one might expect. But what matters is all the great staccato dialogue -- by Richard Breen plus the uncredited Webb and Harry Essex -- the parade of veteran character actors, and the amazing mid-Century settings.

Webb's Joe Friday seems more high-strung than in his '60s TV incarnation, and he even flirts with policewoman Grace Downey (Ann Robinson, who disappears from the film too early). Webb has some memorable bits, such as the hotel room interrogation of Max Troy (Stacy Harris), where he has a speech about how much money he makes; he also has a great piece of physical business tossing a cigarette lighter to Troy.

And speaking of the hotel room interrogation, what was with police officers taking all the suspects to a hotel for questioning rather than to the police station? Some of the techniques seen in this film would surely face legal challenges in today's world. At the same time, some of the issues are still timely today, such as a discussion Friday has with a grand jury member about phone calls, the right to privacy, and circumstantial evidence.

The movie has an utterly fantastic mid-Century look, from the Googie pattern on the Red Spot bar curtains to the Yellow Cars in Downtown Los Angeles to the San Diego hotel lobby to the cars. Gorgeous!

And then there are the actors. Weaver unfortunately doesn't have much to do after the opening, but Boone appears throughout and is great barking out orders like "Bumper to bumper tail!"

There's a marvelous office scene where the D.A. (Vic Perrin) says they have enough to arrest a suspect; thunder from on high immediately crashes, and the scene is capped by Boone sending Friday and Smith out to get the murderer with the admonition "You'll need your raincoats."

William Boyett, the sergeant from ADAM-12, is the grand jury foreman. Webb regular Virginia Gregg, who appeared over two dozen times in DRAGNET, ADAM-12, and EMERGENCY!, plays the wife of the murder victim. Virginia Christine, who appeared on DRAGNET a few times, plays a member of the grand jury, as does Herb Vigran, who appeared over a dozen times on Webb's shows.

There's a great bit by James Griffith as a timid witness, including a sequence filmed in the L.A. County Natural History Museum.

Disney production designer Harper Goff has a bit acting role, as he also did in PETE KELLY'S BLUES (1955), on which he also worked as production designer. Years later Goff would work with Boone as an associate producer on the TV series HEC RAMSEY.

Other familiar faces in the cast include Olan Soule, Art Gilmore, James Anderson, Dick Cathcart, Ross Elliott, Malcolm Atterbury, Dub Taylor, and Harry Lauter.

DRAGNET was filmed in WarnerColor by Edward Colman.

The Universal Vault Collection DVD mostly looks great but a few of the scenes look pretty bad. The variability is rather strange.

The movie can be rented for streaming from Amazon.

: For another take on DRAGNET (1954) which provides a great deal of additional information, be sure to check out Toby's post at The Hannibal 8.


Blogger Jeff Flugel said...

Great post, Laura!

This, more than the TV series, is one I'm keen to watch. I grew up on ADAM-12 and EMERGENCY as well, though they don't hold the same nostalgic warmth for me as they do for you, as you so eloquently write about here. I suppose I need to give them another shot.

I have seen the startling opening to this film and you're right, it is quite violent for a film from the 1950s.

5:27 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

It seems to me I used to have a paperback version of the movie and probably read it before I had the chance to see the film. I know I still have my Adam-12 comic books.

"Dragnet" was/is huge with its influence still felt on the crime dramas of today.

8:42 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

What in the world is a Warner Brothers picture doing as part of the Universal Vault series?


11:11 AM  
Blogger Kristina Dijan said...

Same here, big fan of the show (and Adam-12!) but haven't seen this yet but now I have to; of course for Webb's work but Boone and Weaver are big attractions for me too :) cheers!

4:54 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all!

Jeff, I hope you enjoy ADAM-12 and EMERGENCY! if you give them another whirl. I find them both fast-paced and engaging, with many well-known faces adding to the fun. (P.S. That opening actually made me wonder for a second if I was watching the right movie! LOL.)

Caftan Woman, love that about the comic books! Incidentally I suspect Webb is behind some of my love for police procedural movies, whether they predated or followed his work.

Brad, my dad was intrigued by your question and did a little digging. It appears that WB was just the distributor for Webb's Mark VII production, but later on somehow Universal acquired the rights, and they did both the VHS and DVD releases.

Kristina, I hope you'll enjoy DRAGNET '54 too -- you've sure got me wanting to see APPOINTMENT FOR DANGER now! Webb and Morgan, and Stacy Harris it!

Best wishes,

7:28 PM  
Blogger LĂȘ said...

Somewhere in my dust mind, I have memories about ADAM-12... or at least its plot. I'm learning a lot with this healthy Jack Webb overdosis! Wonderful post - as always.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

11:19 AM  

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