Monday, 1 September 2014

"Highway Dragnet"

Today's film is "Highway Dragnet", the 1946 picture directed by Nathan Juran and written by Herb Meadow and Jerome Odlum, based on a story by U.S. Anderson and Roger Corman. This movie is not to be confused with the television series "Dragnet" or the film based on it.  It is also worth noting that Anderson has the most patriotic name ever.

The film stars Richard Conte (who would later appear in "The Godfather") as Jim Henry, a Korean War vet who enjoys going to bars and ticking off dames.  He meets a former model,  and after ticking her off and having the whole bar be witness to a scene of her yelling at him, she later turns up dead. As he was the last one seen with her, he becomes the number one suspect.  As he tries to get out of dodge, an organized and somewhat effective police force try to shut down his escape route.

The film opens with cheerful music, which basically tells you something about the nature of the story, that its cheerful mood will be reflected in the ending.  This is for audiences who are comforted by a happy ending.  I'm not sure how much I approve of this.  Yes, there has to be some sort of resolution, but I'm not generally a fan of when things wrap up so neatly.  I prefer a more noir, darker tone in my endings, to be totally honest.

But that's being kind of unfair to this film.  There are some pretty effective moments as Jim fashions his escape.  He meets up with another model named Susan Willis (played by Wanda Hendrix) and her photographer Mrs. Cummings (played by Joan Bennet), and there are some tense scenes as the two begin to suspect that Jim is the target of all the police they keep running into.  There is a nice paranoid tone set here, and it drives all the characters to take progressively proactive and malignant actions.

With situations like these, beauty and its offshoots such as photography modeling unfold as a prominent theme in the movie.  The movie asks questions about the precarious nature of beauty.  The former model Jim meets in the films beginning has a short temper, and her fuse is lit by remarks such as "wow, you were so beautiful once." Meanwhile, Susan is seen checking her proportions out in a mirror, depicted by a lingering shot of her gams, and noting somewhat clinically that she still "has it."

I kind of have to comment on the nature of the police force.  First of all, it's hard to take them seriously when their lieutenant is named "White Eagle" and sports a ten gallon hat or whatever it's called, some sort of cowboy hat.  This kind of leads to the most, I think, disappointing feature of the film.  I really like the idea of a solitary man being pitted against an omnipresent police force supported by numbers and knowledge, and while it's true they are a constant threat, they are in no way all-seeing and all-knowing.  Unsuspecting police officers run into Jim all the time and he pretty much always leaves without raising an eyebrow.  And I kind of have to mention their hilariously ineffective roadblock, in which Jim plows through a sign that says "Roadblock" without decreasing speed one iota.

Another criticism I have is with the nature of the love story that takes place in this film.  Susan has known Jim for all of a day, I think, and still falls deeply in love with him, despite his status as a murder suspect.  I guess girls just like dangerous guys?  It kind of seems weird to me.

One thing I do like is that this pretty obviously takes place in a noir universe. The characters are all hard-boiled, well acquainted with the concept of murder, and they never flinch when a gat is pointed at them. Unfortunately, this is undermined by the nature of the story, that suggests this is a world where crimes are always solved with the minimum loss of human life.

So this film has some problems, but is ultimately supported by its paranoiac elements and its exploration of the beauty concept. I kind of wish the police were scarier though, because the movie's tension theoretically resides in the effectiveness of the titular "dragnet".

Random Thought: Jim gives as an alias "Jim Johnson" which I think is just about the worst fake name ever. (For reference, the name I would give in such a situation would be "Marky Edwards.")

Best Line:  "When a mortar hits, you don't need to look twice to tell it's gone off.  I think falling in love is like that," delievered pensively by Richard Conte.

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