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November 10, 2020


dragnet 1954.jpg

Jack Webb - 1954
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Jack Webb's TV series has been a part of my life since its first version in the 1950s. I was a bit too young to follow what all of the details when I watched the occasional episode during the final year or so, around 1959. The introductory four notes at the beginning of the show and Webb's deadpan request of "Just the facts" were well ingrained as part of the general popular culture of the time. Even as a would be high school aged hippie in the late 1960s, I watched Jack Webb's police Sergeant, Joe Friday, back in prime time television, but something of a man out of his time with the current zeitgeist. My affection for Dragnet also included catching the 1987 film with Dan Ackroyd as the nephew, also named Joe Friday.

The series began on the radio, and the original TV series is almost filmed radio. Primarily dialogue based with Friday and his partner, Frank Smith, driving around Los Angeles, interviewing witnesses and possible suspects. Purportedly based on true life crimes, each episode ends with the perpetrator caught, and the sentence announced at the end. There is not much of interest visually, mostly close-ups and medium shots of people talking. The emphasis is on the procedures and ordinary legwork of solving a crime. The film takes an entirely different tack, with Friday and Smith having to find the material evidence needed for proof of the crime.

Much of the movie version is like a big screen version of what was seen at home. But Webb, as director, also takes Dragnet where he would not have been able to for home consumption. The film opens with the shooting in a field of one small time hood by another. The killer has a saw-off shotgun. The victim, an uncredited Dub Taylor, is in the foreground, while the killer can be seen several yards back. Taylor's back is to the camera. When he is first shot, he twists towards the camera in close-up revealing a bloody face. Given when the film was made, this is an extremely violent moment. Later, Friday and Smith get into a fist fight with some gamblers with everyone getting bloody and bruised. That fist fight also has plenty of Point-of-View shots with the viewer being the recipient of several of Friday's punches to the face. The dialogue also goes beyond what would be allowed on television with Friday responding to a hoodlum's crack about his mother, with Friday responding that unlike the hood, his mother "doesn't bark". Unlike the television show, Webb here has a few opportunities to create shots with one character in the foreground with another further back, as well as using a few overhead traveling crane shots. What bits of cinematic style exist here would be explored more thoroughly the following year with Webb's best film, Pete Kelly's Blues.

Webb was unusually generous for a producer-director-star. Both Dragnet and Pete Kelly's Blues have credits with a card following Webb's name as "in the Screen Play by Richard L. Breen". These were the only two films that Breen wrote for Webb, and the only two films that Webb provided the unusual credit for writing. While the visual aspects of Webb's films are inconsistent, there are thematic consistencies. Webb's films are about generally homosocial groups, be it the police force in Dragnet, the 1920s Kansas City jazz band of Pete Kelly's Blues, the marines in The D.I. or the newsmen in -30-. Even the women, Ann Robinson as a police woman here, are essentially one of the guys. The lives of these characters are within their chosen professional activities.

Film historian Toby Roan provides the commentary track for the Blu-ray. Identification and some details are provided on the supporting cast that includes Richard Boone, and uncredited Dennis Weaver, and an assortment of character actors with careers often weaving between radio, television and movies. Roan's commentary track can be heard on the wide screen version of the film (1.75:1). Dragnet is also available in the Academy format of 1.37:1. What I am assuming is that the film was intended to be exhibited in the standard 35mm format, but Warner Brothers wanted to hop onto some kind of wide screen format following the introduction of CinemaScope the previous year. Dragnet was one of several films that were re-formatted for wide screen during this transitional period. While there is no significant loss of visual information, my own preference is for the Academy ratio. Dragnet can also be enjoyed for some of the on location filming around the streets of Los Angeles. Even while very much a product of its time, Jack Webb's creation not only thrived through the changes in mass media and popular culture, but has remained defiantly iconic.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 10, 2020 06:59 AM