Film Noir Review: Highway Dragnet (dir by Nathan Juran)


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.

30 Days of Noir #22: Woman On The Run (dir by Norman Foster)


Like many film noirs, this 1950 film opens with a murder.

On a dark night in San Francisco, a man attempts to blackmail an unseen person called “Danny Boy” and gets shot for his trouble.  The gunshot is heard by a frustrated painter, named Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott), who is out walking his dog.  Frank sees the dead body being pushed out of a car and then catches a shadowy glimpse of the killer.  When the killer open fires on him, Frank runs for it.

Like a good citizen, Frank goes to the police but, when he learns that the victim was due to testify against a local gangster, Frank panics and vanishes.  When Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) goes to see Frank’s wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan), he’s shocked to discover that Eleanor isn’t shocked by Frank’s disappearance and that she doesn’t seem to care one way or the other.  As Eleanor explains it, Frank is a notorious coward and, years ago, their once strong marriage became a loveless charade.  Frank’s vanished and Eleanor doesn’t care.

Or does she?

While it quickly becomes obvious that Eleanor is telling the truth about not knowing where Frank is, she’s not being totally honest about no longer caring about him.  For instance, when she learns that Frank has been hiding a heart condition from her, Eleanor goes to the doctor to pick up his medicine, just in case he should happen to come by the house.  Of course, it’s not always easy to get out of the house, especially now that the police are watching Eleanor.

Eleanor wants to track down Frank without involving the police and it seems like there’s only one person who is interested in helping he do that..  Played by Dennis O’Keefe, this person is a tough reporter and he says that he wants to do an exclusive story on Frank.  He offers to help Eleanor track him down and he even says that he’ll pay $1,000 for the chance to interview Frank.  The reporter and Eleanor are soon searching San Francisco, retracing Frank’s day-to-day life and discovering that Frank loved Eleanor more than she ever realized….

What’s that?  Oh, did I forget to mention the reporter’s name?

His name is Danny.

That’s right.  Eleanor is trying to find Frank so that she can save his life and working with her is the one man who wants to kill him!

Needless to say, this leads to a great deal of suspense.  On the one hand, you’re happy that Eleanor is rediscovering how much she loves Frank.  On the other hand, you spend almost the entire movie worried that Eleanor is going to lead Danny right to him.  Shot on location in San Francisco and featuring all of the dark shadows and tough dialogue that one could possibly hope to get in a film noir, Woman On The Run is an underrated suspense gem.  Full of atmosphere and steadily building suspense, Woman on the Run features a great and acerbic performance from Ann Sheridan and a genuinely exciting climax that’s set at a local amusement park.  Seriously, roller coasters are super scary!

Woman on the Run was directed by Norman Foster.  If you’ve recently watched The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix, you might recognize the name.  A longtime friend of Orson Welles, Foster played the role of Billy Boyle in Welles’s final film.

The Fabulous Forties #44: His Girl Friday (dir by Howard Hawks)


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The 44th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the classic 1940 comedy, His Girl Friday.

Earlier this week, when I mentioned that Cary Grant’s Oscar-nominated work in Penny Serenade was not the equal of his work in comedies like The Awful Truth and The Philadelphia Story, quite a few people took the time to let me know that their favorite Cary Grant film remains His Girl Friday.  And I can’t blame them.  Not only does His Girl Friday feature Cary Grant at his best but it also features Rosalind Russell at her best too.  Not only that but it’s also one of the best films to ever be directed by the great Howard Hawks.  There are a lot of career bests to be found in His Girl Friday, and that’s not even counting a supporting cast that is full of some of the greatest character actors of the 1940s.

The film itself is a remake of The Front Page, that classic story of an editor trying to keep his star reporter from leaving the newspaper in order to get married.  (Along the way, they not only manage to expose municipal corruption but also help to hide and exonerate a man who has escaped from death row.)  The action moves fast, the dialogue is full of quips, and the whole thing is wonderfully cynical about … well, everything.  The major difference between The Front Page and His Girl Friday is that the reporter is now a woman and she’s the ex-wife of the editor.  When Cary Grant’s Walter Burns attempts to convince Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson to cover just one last story, he’s not only trying to hold onto his star reporter.  He’s also trying to keep the woman he loves from marrying the decent but boring Bruce Baldwin.

Bruce, incidentally, is played by Ralph Bellamy.  Bellamy also played Grant’s romantic rival in The Awful Truth.  To a certain extent, you really do have to feel bad for Ralph.  He excelled at playing well-meaning but dull characters.  As played by Bellamy, you can tell that Bruce would be a good husband in the most uninspiring of ways.  That’s the problem.  Hildy deserves more than just a life of boring conformity and Walter understands that.  Not only do Walter and Hildy save the life of escaped convict Earl Williams but, in doing so, Hildy is also saved from a life of being conventional.

As we all know, it’s fashionable right now to attack the news media.  Quite frankly, modern media often makes it very easy to do so.  For that matter, so do a lot of a movies about the media.  To take just two of the more acclaimed examples, there’s a smugness and a self-importance to both Good Night and Good Luck and Spotlight that becomes more and more obvious with each subsequent viewing.  (Admittedly, Edward R. Murrow was prominent way before my time but, if he was anything like the pompous windbag who was played by David Strathairn, I’m surprised that television news survived.)  Far too often, it seems like well-intentioned filmmakers, in their attempt to defend the media, end up making movies that only serve to remind people why the can’t stand the old media in the first place.

Those filmmakers would do well to watch and learn from a film like His Girl Friday.  His Girl Friday is a cheerfully dark film that is full of cynical journalists who drink too much and have little use for the type of self-congratulation that permeates through a film like Spotlight.  Ironically, you end up loving the journalists in His Girl Friday because the film never demands that you so much as even appreciate them.  There are no long speeches about the importance of journalism or long laments about how non-journalists just aren’t smart enough to appreciate their local newspaper.  Instead, these journalists are portrayed as hard workers and driven individuals who do a good job because deliberately doing anything else is inconceivable.  They don’t have time to pat themselves on the back because they’re too busy doing their job and hopefully getting results.

If you want to see a film that will truly make you appreciate journalism and understand why freedom of the press is important, watch this unpretentious comedy from Howard Hawks.

In fact, you can watch it below!

Horror on the Lens: The Amazing Colossal Man (dir by Bert I. Gordon)


For today’s horror on the lens, we present the 1957 film, The Amazing Colossal Man!

Directed by Bert I. Gordon, The Amazing Colossal Man tells the story of what happens when Lt. Col. Glenn Manning (Glen Langan) is exposed to an atomic blast, the force of which not only burns off his clothes but leaves him bald as well!  At first, everyone is convinced that there’s no way Glenn Manning will survive but, to everyone’s surprise, he does survive.

And he starts to get bigger!

That’s right — radiation does the craziest things!

Soon, Glenn’s a giant and he’s not very happy about it.  As the government tries to keep both the accident and the mutation a secret, Glenn grows more and more bitter and angry.  And it certainly doesn’t help matters when the scientists decide they want to inject him with a giant syringe.

Seriously, you’ve got to see this syringe!

Anyway, The Amazing Colossal Man is one of those fun sci-fi films that elitist critics love to criticize.  But you know what?  If you’re watching a movie like this because you want to nitpick every little detail, you’re missing the point.  The Amazing Colossal Man is a 1950s B-movie and, when taken on those terms, it’s a lot of fun.

Add to that, Glen Langan really throws himself into the title role!

Enjoy The Amazing Colossal Man!