• Highway Dragnet



    Released by: Kino Lorber
    Release date: March 20, 2018
    Directed by: Nathan Juran
    Cast: Richard Conte, Joan Bennett, Wanda Hendrix, Reed Hadley, Mary Beth Hughes, William F. Brody, Iris Adrian, Harry Harvey, Tom Hubbard, Frank Jenks, Murray Alper
    Year: 1954
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    The Movie:

    The Korean War now over, former marine Jim Henry (Richard Conte) has come home to roost. While visiting a buddy (Frank Jenks) in Las Vegas, he hooks up with a lively fashion model named Terry (Mary Beth Hughes). The next day, while on his way out of town, Jim is arrested by the local police and informed that he is the prime suspect in Terry’s murder. Insisting that he didn’t commit the crime, Jim snatches an officer’s gun and a squad car, then makes a break for it. Ditching the car in the desert, he comes across two women trying to fix their own car, which has broken down along the side of the road. The women are a photographer, Mrs. Cummings (Joan Bennet), and her model, Susan Willis (Wanda Hendrix).

    Jim helps the two fix the problem, and they offer him a ride. They later ask him to stay with them at a nearby hotel. Unfortunately, Susan finds a newspaper and sees that Jim is front-page news, but because the murdered woman had been having an affair with Mrs. Cumming’s husband (whom, she alleges, died by his own hand), Mrs. Cummings convinces Susan to refrain from calling the police. It ultimately doesn’t matter, as Jim is recognized by someone else anyway and the police are notified. He takes the two women hostage and leaves in the car, confirming his guilt for Susan when he crashes through a police barricade.

    As if he doesn’t have problems enough, Jim tries to drive the car across the desert but gets it stuck. Mrs. Cummings decides to steal his gun and shoot him with it, but by this time, Susan has started to fall in love with Jim and convinces her not too. Jim is not out of the woods yet, however, as the situation grows more precarious.

    Highway Dragnet was the first major production of Roger Corman, who acted as both associate producer and co-writer on the project (though apparently without pay). The film itself was directed by Nathan Juran, who had begun his directorial career with Universal’s The Black Castle two years before and had followed it up with a series of genre programmers. Highway Dragnet (retitled from Corman’s original story idea to capitalize on the success of the television series Dragnet) proved him an efficient journeyman with a flair for action. By no means a great dramatist, Juran went on to hone his craft in television and cheap but entertaining science fiction movies, churning out a mix of higher-brow stuff (relatively speaking) under his own name and lower-brow stuff under a pseudonym. Among his more famous works are The Deadly Mantis, 20 Million Miles to Earth, and The Brain from Planet Arous (all 1957), Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (both 1958), Jack the Giant Killer (1962), First Men in the Moon (1964), and, finally, The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973), with a whole lot of television in-between. He keeps Highway Dragnet moving at a quick pace, as well as coaxes some good performances out of his stars (particularly Conte and Bennett). None of it is very believable—an opinion not helped by some glaring plot holes—but it doesn’t have to be; all that’s required of the audience is that members be engaged, and Juran has no problem ensuring that happen, thanks in part to a number of risqué transitions and daring sexual innuendo.

    As for Roger Corman, he need no introduction, and he continues to work in one capacity or another today. Highway Dragnet may have been a beginning, but it certainly wasn’t an ending for a man prolific as both a director and a producer, a genre giant as instrumental to the success of American International Pictures as either founder James H. Nicholson or Samuel Z. Arkoff.

    As for actress Joan Bennett, many may recognize her as the matriarch of daytime TV’s most deliciously bad soap opera, Dark Shadows (1966-1971).

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Kino brings Highway Dragnet to Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition from a recent 4k scan. The film isn’t quite as sharp as one would expect (especially given many of the desert locations with their rocky landscapes dotted with shrubs), but it’s still a far sight better than any previous presentation, with considerable improvement in detail and nice contrast in the black and white imagery. That some of it appears slightly soft may in part be due to where the camera is focused. The foreground is always in focus, the background is almost always out of focus; this is part and parcel to the way John J. Martin originally shot the film. Also, a couple of shots appear to be the result of an in-frame zoom affected by the original filmmakers—you don’t actually see the zoom happen, only the result—these are both softer and grainer than the rest of the picture, though they too are few and far between. (For an example, consider the scene in which Joan Bennet sneaks up on Wanda Hendrix.) Clothing tends to be light-colored, which in a black-and-white film means a very soft gray, yet there’s still a decent-to-nice level of detail. For the best detail, check out the dress that Joan Bennett or the shirt that Richard Conte wears. Framed at its original theatrical ratio of 1.66:1 (there are slight black bars on each side of the frame) and all the better for it, the picture is consistently clear and attractive. Most of the film takes place either in daylight or in brightly lit spaces, so crush is never a problem; black and gray levels remain strong throughout. From the opening on, it’s clear that there’s a nice layer of mild grain shoring up the filmic imagery, and this grain never wavers, suggesting that the softness mentioned early is not the result of digital noise reduction tools. Stock footage also fares less well than the original footage, but this is to be expected, and in general the stock footage has been cleaned up enough that it’s never distracting. Special effects shots employing opticals (check out the image at 1:07:15) also struggle, but these too are rare. Dirt and debris is extremely minor (transition shots tend to feature more than non-transition shots do); for the most part, the film has been cleaned up nicely, and most viewers will have few to no complaints.

    The sound is even cleaner than the picture. The on-screen display states that the audio track is in English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, but in fact Kino has opted for the film’s original mono soundtrack threaded through both of the primary speakers. Dialogue is clear and crisp; there are no pops or crackles and certainly no hiss. Dialogue is front and center, underscored by the music, with sound effects and ambient sounds providing a nice foundation. These sounds do not conflict. Unfortunately, Kino has opted to not include subtitles for the deaf or hearing impaired nor an audio commentary. (Not that either of these ultimately matter, given the quality of the presentation.)

    The only bonuses are a set of trailers for other film noirs released on or coming to Blu from Kino. These include No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948; 2:06), Cry of the City (1948; 2:33), The Spiral Staircase (1946; 2:00), He Ran All the Way (1951; 2:13), 99 River Street (1953; 2:13), and Shield for Murder (1954; 1:45).

    There are eight chapter breaks, with a ninth returning the viewer to the menu screen. The cover art comes from the original move poster and is strikingly beautiful.

    The Final Word:

    Highway Dragnet is far from a great work of cinematic art, but it continues to do what it set out to do 64 years ago: entertain. Running a mere 70 minutes, it moves too quickly to ever grow boring, and Kino’s new restoration of the sound and image, placed on Blu with a high bitrate, add to the appeal.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2018.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

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