Viewers familiar with the 1967-1970 TV Dragnet starring Jack Webb and Harry Morgan are likely to be more than a little surprised by the existence of this 1954 feature film Webb made based on the original TV series. This Dragnet—which apparently departs a good bit from the original show—is not at all like the later version in tone. Don’t be expecting the campy anti-counterculture reactionary claptrap of that series. This is a surprisingly violent film, and this Sergeant Joe Friday (Webb) is closer to a fascist thug in those pre-Miranda days than to the moralizing “old grandma” of the 1960s show. He’d as soon beat up, slap around and harass a suspect as not. I guess we’re supposed to accept all this, since we know the object of his harassment indeed did commit the murder under investigation—we saw it in the opening scene (though Joe Friday didn’t). The overall story is nothing particularly exciting, making the experience more of a curio than actually good. All the tropes of the series are there, especially the overly melodramatic musical punctuations of every possible revelatory moment. The dialogue is delivered in the characteristic monotone that Webb took for documentary realism. The plodding procedural approach is there as well, and the flat directorial style—peppered with odd and slightly amusing attempts at stylishness—is fully in evidence. For that matter, so is the constant product placement for the TV show’s then-sponsor, Chesterfield cigarettes. Not only does just about everyone in the film smoke a lot—and always Chesterfields—but every scene that allows for one has a Chesterfield vending machine or a Chesterfield sign boldly in evidence. I guess, like the police procedures, we should merely note that it was a product of a different time.
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