Nifty is not really a word that I ever use, mostly because I’m not 80 years old and I’m not totally sure what the word means. I’ve always assumed that nifty is way of saying that something is good without being too good and, if that’s true, then I have to say that the low-budget 1954 film noir, Highway Dragnet, certainly is a nifty film.
Highway Dragnet opens with Jim Henry (Richard Conte, who decades later would play the evil Barzini in The Godfather) in Las Vegas. Jim’s just gotten out of the army and he’s visiting his friend, Paul (Frank Jenks). Paul is a secret agent who is often unexpectedly called away. Unfortunately, this means that Paul is not around when Jim is accused of murdering another man. Since Jim was previously seen hitting on the dead man’s girlfriend, the police naturally assume that Jim’s the murderer. When Jim says that Paul can provide an alibi whenever he gets back from doing his super secret spy stuff, the cops assume that Paul doesn’t actually exist.
Under the direction of the stern Lt. White Eagle (Reed Hadley), the cops are doing a lot of assuming! Now, if Jim was smart, he would say, “Hey, White Eagle, you know what? When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me!” But Jim’s not smart so he decides to fire a gun at the cops and then go on the run!
Hey, Jim …. none of that makes you look innocent!
Anyway, while making his way across the desert, Jim comes across two women who are having car trouble. Mrs. Cummings (Joan Bennett, who went from nearly getting cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind to becoming a low-budget noir mainstay) is a fashion photographer and Susan Willis (Wanda Hendrix) is her model. Jim fixes their car and then asks them for a ride. They agree, little knowing that they’re heading straight into a …. HIGHWAY DRAGNET!
Of course, it turns out that Jim’s new friends have a connection to the crime of which he’s been accused. The plot of Highway Dragnet hinges on a totally implausible coincidence. This is perhaps not surprising when you consider that the script for Highway Dragnet was written by the legendary Roger Corman. In fact, it was the first script that he ever sold and, though the film was directed by Nathan Juran, Highway Dragnet feels very much like a Corman quickie. The plot is whatever it needs to be to get the story from the beginning to the end in 71 minutes. Whether it all makes sense or not doesn’t appear to be all that much of a concern.
So, here’s what does work about Highway Dragnet. First off, director Nathan Juran (who was also an award-winning art designer) manages to capture some memorable images of the Nevada desert and the film ends with a wonderfully over-the-top and atmospheric confrontation in a flooded house. Secondly, Joan Bennett is as passive-aggressively menacing in Highway Dragnet as she would later be in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. I also liked the performance of Reed Hadley, playing the unstoppable and incorruptible Lt. White Eagle.
Last Saturday, I watched Highway Dragnet with my friends in the Late Night Movie Gang and we enjoyed it. It’s undoubtedly a minor film noir but it’s still entertaining when taken on its own terms. If nothing else, the box office success of this low-budget production (which was shot over ten days) reportedly inspired Roger Corman to get serious about pursuing his own career in the film industry and, for that, movie lovers will always be thankful.