Dragnet (DVD Review)22 Feb, 2010 By: Mike Clark
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Stars Jack Webb, Ben Alexander, Richard Boone, Ann Robinson.
An original poster of this 1954 movie hangs on the wall of my upstairs viewing room and screams, “Hottest Bombshell Ever To Hit the Big Motion Picture Screen!”
Well, not quite. The case involves the ambush-murder of an underworld lieutenant who’s been skimming money off the top from his boss (a debt “enforcer”) and failing to turn in collections. In other words, not exactly a case of O.J. Simpson magnitude — but we know almost from the first shot (pun intended) that the feature film version of actor-director Jack Webb’s TV landmark will be an especially brutal movie for its day.
I’ve never seen anyone note this, but screen violence suddenly escalated to dramatic extremes within a three-month period in 1954. First, Scott Brady took a bullet plainly right through his forehead during the climactic mayhem of Nicholas Ray’s cult feminist Western Johnny Guitar. Then Dub Taylor (as Dragnet’s skimmer) took a full sawed-off-shotgun blast that splatters blood all over his face — even before the appearance of the opening Warner Bros. logo. (In an odd accident of film history, Taylor later played Michael J. Pollard’s father in Bonnie and Clyde, the one who sets up that fatal ambush.)
Investigating are the forever dyspeptic Sgt. Joe Friday (Webb) and partner Frank Smith (Ben Alexander), as the WarnerColor result further exaggerates the stylistic exaggeration that had already helped earn Webb the cover of Time while sparking Stan Freberg’s satirical novelty recording of “St. George and the Dragonet,” which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s charts. Which is to say: Webb’s terse voiceover narration, the pseudo-documentary tone of his weekly NBC police procedurals, staccato editing, Walter Schumann’s blaring-brass score and a smirky attitude toward what would much later come to be known as Miranda rights (none of that sissy stuff here).
The key heavy is Max Troy (Stacy Harris), who has only half-a-stomach from a potentially fatal malady and basically eats baby food. Thus, officer Smith enjoys making Troy queasy by eating sardines during interrogations. And after an unfriendly grand jury trumps their case, Smith also joins Friday in stopping Troy at will — often in the most public places — making him empty his pockets for their amusement.
Whatever else it is or isn’t, this medium-sized box office hit is a supreme artifact of its age, a remarkable look at the formative bad old days of LAPD-dom worthy of author James Ellroy, who might venture some conjecture on whether Friday ever shot baskets for recreation or enjoyed mutual back-rubbing with a female companion. This dude is wired.
But one other thing: Despite its wall-to-wall campy aspects, there’s one standout scene by any era’s standards in which the two cops interview the shooting victim’s boozy widow played by Webb favorite Virginia Gregg (later the voice of Norman Bates’s mother in Psycho). Actresses have won supporting Oscars for as much, no kidding.