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DRAGNET (director: Jack Webb; screenwriter: Richard L. Breen; cinematographer: Edward Colman; editor: Robert M. Leeds; music: Walter Schumann/Miklos Rozsa; cast: Jack Webb (Sgt. Joe Friday), Ben Alexander (Officer Frank Smith), Richard Boone (Capt. James Hamilton), Ann Robinson (Officer Grace Downey), Stacy Harris (Max Troy), Virginia Gregg (Mrs. Ethel Starkie), Georgia Ellis (Belle Davitt), James Griffith (Jesse Quinn), Willard Sage (Chester Davitt), Malcolm Atterbury (Lee Reinhard); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Stanley D. Meyer; Warner Brothers; 1954)
“It beats me why Dragnet was such a popular TV show and it further surprises that this uninspiring dullish movie also did so well.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A color film starring and directed in his directorial debut by Jack Webb (“Pete Kelly’s Blues”/”The DI”/”The Last Time I Saw Archie”) and co-starring Ben Alexander. It’s a harsh reality police detective drama based on the black and white Dragnet series, which used stories from actual Los Angeles Police Department files. This big box office hit was the first movie ever based on a TV series. It began on radio and moved to television in 1951, where it ran on and off until 1959. It was brought back again from 1967 to 1970 with Webb and Harry Morgan, now in the sidekick role previously played by Ben Alexander. Webb is a former radio actor and minor film actor who built a hardboiled image and career for himself on the Dragnet success, who went on to become a hack director and a successful TV producer of such shows as Adam-12 and Emergency!. Dragnet was a popular simple-minded show that had a mix of drama and semi-documentary style borrowed from the time Webb appeared in a minor role as a forensics expert in the great film noir He Walked by Night (1948).

Webb is the arrogant wisecracking Sgt. Joe Friday, who sports a fedora, chain smokes, speaks in a crisp, flat, and staccato speech pattern and has an unconcealed dislike for criminals, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution for favoring the guilty, and frowns on why wire-tapping isn’t freely allowed. The detective and his agreeable portly partner Frank Smith (Ben Alexander) round up the criminals by going by the book, using their shoe leather to investigate and finding out the facts.

Screen-writer Richard L. Breen provides the facts and the laconic dialogue, most of it banal and awkward. The movie like the TV show also opens with the disclaimer: “The story you are about to see is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” When a dramatic moment occurs it uses the four-note musical phrase it has become famous for “Dum-da-dum-dum, dum-da-dum-dum-DAAA” to announce that development. The music was lifted from a piece that Miklos Rozsa wrote for The Killers (1946), but didn’t receive credit until 2003.

In Los Angeles, on Saturday, April 9th, around four o’clock, gangster Max Troy (Stacy Harris) and one of his “employees,” Miller Starkie, walk through a field. Another of Troy’s men, Chester Davitt (Willard Sage), approaches from a hilltop and fires four times at Starkie with a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun. The story is based on the murder of the small-time underworld hoodlum Starkie and the arrest of his killers, and since we already know who did it all that’s left is to find out how the mobsters who killed him are caught. Under the command of their Intelligence Division head, Capt. Hamilton (Richard Boone) and with the help of teams from the Homicide Squad, in a strictly police procedural production, the hard working Friday and Smith track down the the mobsters involved. They use undercover policewoman Grace Downey (Ann Robinson) to be wired and to hang out at the known mobster meeting place the Red Spot Grill, secretly owned by Troy, to pick up any possible leads in the case. The Friday and Smith team browbeat witnesses, harass the suspects and have an around the clock tail on the suspects until they finally get a break in the case and have enough evidence to charge the guilty with murder.

It beats me why Dragnet was such a popular TV show and it further surprises that this uninspiring dullish movie also did so well, why the filmmaker thinks it’s so cool to ignore civil liberties, and why anyone would think a reactionary like Friday was such a nice guy. I can only recommend this movie to those who want to take a look at how drily the 1950s was portrayed on TV.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”