Director: Jack Webb
Producer: Stanley D. Meyer
Screenplay: Richard L. Breen
Cinematography: Edward Colman
Editing: Robert M. Leeds
Art Direction: Feild M. Gray
Original 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 (Ethel Starkie), Victor Perrin (Deputy DA Adolph Alexander), Georgia Ellis (Belle Davitt), James Griffith (Jesse Quinn), Dick Cathcart (Roy Cleaver), Malcom Atterbury (Lee Reinhard), William Sage (Chester Davitt), Olan Soulé (Ray Pinker), Dennis Weaver (Capt. R.A. Lohrman), Dub Taylor (Miller Starkie).
This post is part of The Jack Webb Blogathon, a celebration of his huge, and hugely influential, body of work. For more Webb on the web, appearing October 17-19, visit Dispatch (or click on the banner above).
Dragnet (1954) was the first theatrical film spun off from a TV show. The Lone Ranger would follow in 1956. (Later, it would seem that Hollywood didn’t know how to do anything else.)
Dub Taylor is shot in the face with a sawed-off shotgun, THEN the Warner Bros. logo comes up. My case for why this is one of the coolest movies ever made could stop right there. But there’s still 85 minutes left, and we haven’t seen Jack Webb.
The familiar badge (#714) and type appear over the blue-ish L.A. sky–a dozen years before the red backdrop we know so well. The iconic theme is played by the full Warner Bros. orchestra. Big, loud, majestic. Goosebump City.
Dragnet does exactly what you’d expect it to do: dish up all the stuff you like about the show, stirring in the things TV couldn’t offer: more violence, color and thanks to the extra running time, a little nuance here and there. And widescreen—Dragnet was one of the first films shot to be projected at 1.75:1. Warners wanted CinemaScope, but Webb resisted.
But back to our story. Sgt. Joe Friday (Webb) and officer Frank Smith (Ben Alexander) get a rundown on the case from Capt. Hamilton (Richard Boone).
Capt. James Hamilton (Richard Boone): “Shotgun, extreme close range. Recovered 22 pellets double-O. Starkie was hit four times. First two cut him in half.”
Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb): “Second two turned him into a crowd.”
Turns out Miller Starkie (Dub Taylor) was involved with some real lowlifes, who are brought in for questioning. One of them is Max Troy (Stacy Harris).
Max Troy (Stacy Harris): “This gonna take long?”
Sgt. Joe Friday: “You’ve got the time.”
Max Troy: “Mine’s worth money, yours isn’t!”
Sgt. Joe Friday: “Send in a bill.”
Max Troy: “I asked you a question!”
Sgt. Joe Friday: “You’re here to answer ’em, not ask ’em!”
Max Troy: “Now, listen to me, Cop. I pay your salary.”
Sgt. Joe Friday: “All right, sit down. I’m gonna earn it.”
Max Troy: “You already have, the kind of money you make. What do they pay you to carry that badge around, 40 cents an hour?”
Sgt. Joe Friday: “You sit down! That badge pays 464 dollars a month. That’s what the job’s worth. I knew that when I hired on. $67.40 comes out with withholding. I give $27.84 for pension and 12 bucks for widows and orphans. That leaves me with $356.76. That badge is worth a dollar 82 an hour so Mister, better settle back into that chair because I’m about to blow about 20 bucks of it right now.”
That’s about as far as I’m gonna go with the synopsis. As you’d guess, everything plays out in typical Dragnet procedural fashion. With one exception: we know who the killers are from the very beginning. In the series, we’re always in the dark as we go through the investigation with Friday.
You’ll see lots of cigarette smoking in Dragnet (the MPAA would probably call it “historic smoking” today), with some Chesterfield product placement thrown in for good measure.
There’s some pretty inventive camerawork, too, something you rarely see in the TV show. Cinematographer Edward Colman also shot some of the TV episodes, and it looks like he and Webb (below) really enjoyed the feature’s artistic elbow room. But where the move to theaters really pays off is the luxury of time, as Webb lets the characters breathe a bit more.
Jack Webb: “26 minutes doesn’t permit enough time to develop character, plot and to tell a complete story of Joe Friday… In the full-length movie… we can play out a scene to its full emotional value.”
Richard L. Breen’s script was completed in March of 1954, and casting got underway in April. Many of the familiar faces from TV were signed on. There’s a yellow eyewitness played by the great James Griffith. Virginia Gregg has a terrific scene as Dub Taylor’s boozy widow. Stacy Harris, as he’d done so many times on TV, appears as one of the crooks.
Ann Robinson, who’d appeared in The War Of The Worlds the year before, was cast as a policewoman who goes undercover to aid Friday and Smith. Webb made sure she spent a day at the police academy, training with female cadets.
Ann Robinson: “Jack was very thorough and wanted everything to be exactly as if I were a real policewoman.”
Shooting began May 3, 1954, using the teleprompter that helped keep the TV show on schedule and on budget. Dragnet wrapped in just 24 days at a cost of about half a million bucks. It made over four million in its first run.
I was barely familiar with the TV show when I saw this feature as a kid—and it really knocked me out. Everything about it was stark and hard-hitting, and everyone had such cool things to say. The 16mm print the TV station ran was appropriately gritty and the WarnerColor was, well, Warner Color. I loved every frame of it, and it became my gateway drug to crime pictures of the same period and eventually to film noir. Next stop: Charles McGraw.
Dragnet is available on DVD from the Universal Vault program. (Universal owns the entire Dragnet franchise.) It’s a serviceable transfer, but that’s being polite. There’s no widescreen framing, things are a bit soft, and the WarnerColor’s still WarnerColor. But it’s there and you can buy it and live a better life because of it. Highly recommended.
NOTE: As I was working on this post, I read that there was a fire at Ann Robinson’s Elysian Park home just the other day. She wasn’t hurt.
SOURCES: Various newspaper articles from 1954; My Name’s Friday by Michael J. Hayde