In police terminology, a dragnet is a system of coordinated measures—establishing road blocks, tracing phone calls, consistent tailing of suspects, and the like—used to capture a criminal. The concept is similar to the fishing practice of dragging a fishing net through the water—theoretically, nothing in the path of the net can escape, and (also theoretically) neither can a suspect within the area targeted by the police dragnet. In media terms, Dragnet is a franchise that began with a radio series and has grown to include several television series and movies as well. It’s become common cultural property as well—Walter Schumann’s theme music instantly signals “cop show” whenever it is heard, and parodies of the show’s conventions, from Webb’s catchphrase “Just the facts, ma’am” to the movies’ characteristic voiceover narration, have turned up everywhere from Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors (1960) to Sesame Street to The Simpsons.
The 1954 film version of Dragnet, directed by Jack Webb, asks not “who done it?” but “how will they catch them?” There’s no mystery about who committed the crime, the murder of a mobster, because his face is clearly shown in a precredit sequence depicting the crime. The rest of Dragnet is concerned with showing the elaborate process by which the police investigate the case and, of course, get their man. The effort is led, as it always is, by detective Joe Friday (Webb), who created the franchise. Webb has become so identified with the role of Friday that it comes as something of a shock to see him playing a different character, like the young director Artie Green in Sunset Boulevard. He’s in fine form here as the very epitome of clean-living, right-thinking American manhood (including the attendant occasional lack of regard for civil liberties).
The storytelling in Dragnet is as straightforward as Joe Friday himself—this leads to that which leads to that other thing which eventually leads to the conclusion you knew was coming all along. Cinematographer Edward Colman works in a few visual flourishes, although it’s a bit disconcerting to see the show in color, which can seem a bit gaudy in relation to the black-and-white morality of the story. The actors, including Dennis Weaver, Ben Alexander, Vic Perrin, Olan Soule, and Richard Boone, get the job done with a minimum of fuss, and of course it’s surprise that the cast is predominantly male—welcome to the 1950s, kids!—with the primary exceptions being Ann Robinson as policewoman Grace Downey, who goes undercover for the cause, and Virginia Gregg as the widow of the murdered man.
If the Dragnet franchise didn’t invent the police procedural, it certainly helped establish the conventions of that genre. There’s always a crime to be solved, and the interest lies in watching how the police department goes about solving it. And solve it they always do, which is reassuring in the same way that reading an Agatha Christie novel is reassuring—in the real world, things don’t always work out, so it can be pleasant to escape into a fictional world where they do. On the other hand, the police are always the good guys in Dragnet, and that premise may not be so easy to take given what we know about the reality of police behavior today. | Sarah Boslaugh
Dragnet is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Versions in two screen ratios are included on the disc, 1.75:1 and 1.37:1, along with an audio commentary by film historian Toby Roan and the film’s theatrical trailer.