I love b-noir films. They tend to be darker and grittier, with more room for experimental visuals and risque material. With budgets dipping under the hundred-grand-mark, profits could still be made as long as they had those grimey sets barely lit by inky lights. But without big-name actors, they often fell to the historical wayside. Both noir/crime films I’ll be reviewing now feature those unsung heroes of pulpy, bullet-riddled spectacles of the week which passed through the little cinema shacks of yesteryear. While this area of historical richness mixed with tempting obscurity is my sweet spot for cinematic escapism, I ended up being let down.
Highway Dragnet stars noir regular Richard Conte, famous for his villainous role in The Big Combo. This time he plays the good guy— a relieved Korean War veteran in Las Vegas named Jim Henry who picks up a floozy in a bar. Cut to the following morning. We get no clue as to what went down after Jim planted one on his lady of the night. While waiting for a greyhound bus to take him out of town, he’s apprehended by the police. The girl he had been with is now dead. Jim swears to the officers that he left her to see an old military friend when she was still alive, but cannot get them in contact with said friend, who’s gone incognito. Lacking an alibi, Jim might end up taking the blame and serving jail-time, but escapes at the last minute and ends up on the lamb with a photographer (Joan Bennet) and her young model (Wanda Hendrix). While evading capture, Jim unintentionally woos the young and impressionable model while attracting the ire of the photographer, who is later revealed to have a prickly relation to our murder victim.
First of all, if Jim is innocent, then he would logically not run from the police or make himself a fugitive. Do they not have some way of verifying this alibi, maybe by following a chain of command? If someone accuses me of murder, and I know that when the crime took place I was hanging out with my friend in the witness protection program, do I automatically go to jail? And how could Jim be hanging out with this guy if he’s supposed to be undercover? Also, we as the audience are never given confirmation that Jim truly didn’t murder this woman. So in our eyes, Jim is either guilty or just incredibly stupid. These blunders make the premise hard to accept, diminishing the effect of the rest of the story. The performances pose another big problem. Conte looks miserable throughout. He seems to be aware of how bad the movie is, and just wants it to be over with, seeing as how little passion he puts into his lines and the pallid expression he wears the whole time. I would be remiss to say, however, that some of the bad acting ends up being the film’s only saving grace. Joan Bennett gives a bizarrely drag-like performance bordering on tongue-in-cheek, and her costume and makeup are hilariously garish, calling to mind Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot.
Ultimately, like so many forgettable bad movies, the plot meandered and bored me to tears. Unfocused, sloppy, and tedious, the experience is fittingly much like a horrible, long, hot car ride. You keep getting lost and no one can read the map.
I want to leave you with this. The story for Highway Dragnet was written by a small time rep at a talent agency with no movie work under his belt. He ended up associate producing for no pay, and when the film turned a profit, he quit his job and went into the business full time. His name was Roger Corman. The amount of actors and directors that got their start working under this soon-to mogul? Too many to count. Like it or not, Highway Dragnet is an important piece of film history. | Nic Champion