Sunday, September 04, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Highway Dragnet (1954)

Last week I was searching Netflix for Joan Bennett titles when I stumbled upon HIGHWAY DRAGNET available for streaming. I noted Bennett's costars for this apparently low-budget noir were Richard Conte, Wanda Hendrix, and Reed Hadley. Sold!

HIGHWAY DRAGNET was the first producer credit for Roger Corman, who cowrote the story along with coproducing. Clocking in at just 70 minutes, it's a nifty little crime film about Jim Henry (Conte), an ex-marine who's arrested by the Las Vegas police for the murder of a woman (Mary Beth Hughes) he'd met in a bar the previous evening.

Detective Joe White Eagle (Hadley, the narrator of countless docu-noirs) is convinced Jim is guilty. When his alibi doesn't come through, Jim decides to make a break for it. He hitches a ride with magazine photographer Mrs. Cummings (Bennett) and her model Susan (Hendrix) after he helps repair their car.

Mrs. Cummings, incidentally, acts rather tense when the police are around...

I found this movie great fun. It starts off with wonderful period stock footage of old Las Vegas, and there's some terrific location shooting in the California desert, particularly at the Apple Valley Inn and a flooded-out home at the Salton Sea.

The Apple Valley Inn is seen here in a postcard dating from the mid-'60s or later, when Roy Rogers leased the inn. The pool on the postcard (click to enlarge) looks identical in the movie, which was filmed a decade or more before this photo was taken. I was struck by the glass wall near the pool in the film, which would be just to the left outside the frame of the photo seen here; perhaps the wall serves as a windbreak? There are a couple shots in the hotel parking lot where the wind really whips the actors' hair and clothing.

Paradise Leased -- a site recently recommended by Dear Old Hollywood -- has a terrific photo-filled post on the Apple Valley Inn, including another shot of the pool and the glass wall. The movie brought a slice of half-century-old Southern California to life, also including the problems with flooding at the Salton Sea, which I visited once in my early childhood.

The plot itself relies fairly heavily on coincidences, such as Jim just happening to end up in Mrs. Cummings' car, and one wonders just why Jim was in such a frenzy to run off and find his alibi in the first place, instead of letting things play out gradually. (Since he had just been discharged from the military, perhaps his reaction was a form of post-traumatic stress?!) There are also points at which characters could easily make a break for it and don't.

All that said, the movie stars a quartet of film noir pros -- I saw Hendrix last week in RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947) -- and with this cast, the fun locations, and the fast-paced story, what's not to like?

The movie was directed by Nathan Juran and photographed by John Martin.

This film does not appear to have had a release on VHS and has not had an authorized release on DVD. DVD Beaver has an interesting post about a poor DVD-R which was briefly sold at the Turner Classic Movies site. He shares my enthusiasm for the film, calling it a "clandestine gem" and "very appealing."

I love exploring relatively little-known titles and finding surprises like HIGHWAY DRAGNET; for me, there's a real thrill of discovery in watching a movie like this unfold. When favorite actors are involved, so much the better! Ignore the two-star ratings and check it out. HIGHWAY DRAGNET is recommended for fun viewing.

March 2018 Update: Good news! This film has now been released by Kino Lorber in a lovely print, on both Blu-ray and DVD. My review of the Blu-ray is here. I mentioned DVD Beaver above, and he gives the new Blu-ray an enthused review here.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Sounds right down my street!

10:04 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I found this great fun, hope you have the chance to see it!

Best wishes,

11:32 AM  

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