Dragnet (1954)

89-91 mins | Drama | 4 September 1954

Director:

Jack Webb

Producer:

Stanley Meyer

Cinematographer:

Edward Colman

Editor:

Robert M. Leeds

Production Designer:

Feild Gray

Production Company:

Mark VII, Ltd.
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HISTORY

Over a blank screen, offscreen narrator Bert Holland opens the film with the now famous words: “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” (On the Dragnet television show, this introduction was given by announcer George Fenneman.) The scene of Starkie’s killing then precedes the opening titles. The credits above the title read: “Warner Bros. presents Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday in the Screen Play by Richard L. Breen.” Voice-over narration by Webb continues intermittently throughout the film, providing clarification and exact dates and times for each event, as in a police report.
       The combination of drama and semi-documentary style used in the film version of Dragnet was already familiar to audiences of 1954, as that had been the format of the popular radio and television series of the same name. Both were developed by Webb. Before Dragnet , Webb had been a radio actor (see note for Danger Ahead) and appeared as a forensics expert in a documentary-style police drama, the 1948 Eagle-Lion Films production of He Walked by Night, directed by Alfred Werker (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50.) Webb then developed and starred in the Dragnet radio show, which began in 1949, and which was similar in style to He Walked by Night . After a special preview of Dragnet was telecast on the Chesterfield Sound Off Time program in Dec 1951, the television shows aired intermittently on the NBC network from 3 Jan 1952 through Sep 1959.
       A Jan 1954 ... More Less

Over a blank screen, offscreen narrator Bert Holland opens the film with the now famous words: “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” (On the Dragnet television show, this introduction was given by announcer George Fenneman.) The scene of Starkie’s killing then precedes the opening titles. The credits above the title read: “Warner Bros. presents Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday in the Screen Play by Richard L. Breen.” Voice-over narration by Webb continues intermittently throughout the film, providing clarification and exact dates and times for each event, as in a police report.
       The combination of drama and semi-documentary style used in the film version of Dragnet was already familiar to audiences of 1954, as that had been the format of the popular radio and television series of the same name. Both were developed by Webb. Before Dragnet , Webb had been a radio actor (see note for Danger Ahead) and appeared as a forensics expert in a documentary-style police drama, the 1948 Eagle-Lion Films production of He Walked by Night, directed by Alfred Werker (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50.) Webb then developed and starred in the Dragnet radio show, which began in 1949, and which was similar in style to He Walked by Night . After a special preview of Dragnet was telecast on the Chesterfield Sound Off Time program in Dec 1951, the television shows aired intermittently on the NBC network from 3 Jan 1952 through Sep 1959.
       A Jan 1954 LAT news item, written around the time that the one hundredth episode of the television show had been completed, announced that a Dragnet film, which would be produced in color by Jack L. Warner, director Webb and Stanley Meyer of Mark VII, Ltd., would start production within ninety days. According to the news item, Mark VII, which produced the television series, had already produced the first major color production to appear on television networks, The Dragnet Christmas Story . Modern sources state that Warner Bros. paid Webb $800,000 to make the film version and gave him complete creative control.
       Like its radio and television predecessors, the film was based on an actual Los Angeles police case and maintained the same format, progressing in a linear fashion through “Joe Friday’s” workday. The MPH review described the film as a “documentary recital of every-day police work.” Friday’s characteristic terse comments, which were described in the NYT review as his “fetish for conciseness,” and the abrupt musical stingers that often punctuated them in the television series, were retained in the film version. Many of the actors who appeared in the television episodes were also featured in the film. However, as Webb explained in an Apr 1954 LAT article, the film broke with its own tradition by identifying the killers for the audience before the police solved the case. There is more graphic violence in the film than in the broadcast versions, as the particular story chosen for the film was too violent to be shown on television. The MPH review notes that the film, in particular the murder scene and the fistfight at the poker game, “equals or surpasses others of its kind in the modern trend toward detailed brutality.”
       The characteristic prologue stating a final accounting of justice for each character is missing in the film version. The famous four-note musical signature [“dum-de-dum-dum”], which a modern source described as “possibly the most famous four-note introduction since Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony," was usually heard at the beginning of each television story, but was saved for the end of the film. The theme was inspired by a phrase from Miklos Rozsa's "Danger Ahead" theme, which appears in the 1946 Universal production, The Killers (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50 ). Although Rozsa is not credited for his contribution to the Dragnet film, he is given onscreen credit in a later incarnation of Dragnet , a 2003 television series.
       According to a Sep 1954 HR article, the vacant lot used in the first scene was rented by Webb in early spring, so that flower seeds could be sown and bloom in time for May production. One sequence in the film was shot at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Although their appearance has not been confirmed, May and Jul 1943 HR news items add the following performers to the cast: D. H. Depatie, E. Hollingsworth, Harold Fisher, Stanley Martin, Bert Stevens, and the Herm Saunders Trio. The Pete Kelly’s Blues Radio Orchestra, the jazz combo featured in the film, also appeared in the 1955 Warner Bros. production, Pete Kelly's Blues, which was produced and directed by Webb (for additional information, see entry). Eddie King, who plays himself in Dragnet , was an NBC staff announcer.
       After the original television series, which, like the film, also co-starred Ben Alexander, a revival series, Dragnet ‘67, ran from Jan 1967 through Sep 1970, again starring Webb, but co-starring Harry Morgan as his partner. Webb died in 1982, but another Dragnet series aired during the 1989-90 television season, starring Jeff Osterhage and Bernard White. However, the new version was overshadowed by the popularity of the new kind of realism in other police shows, such as Cops and America’s Most Wanted, and was short-lived. In Feb 2003, a new Dragnet series debuted on the ABC television network, starring Ed O'Neill and Ethan Embry. The series was written and produced by Dick Wolf. In a subplot of the 1997 Warner Bros. police drama, L. A. Confidential , actor Kevin Spacey's character, who is a Los Angeles policeman during the 1950s, serves as technical advisor for a television show that is intentionally reminiscent of Dragnet . The catchphrase, "just the facts," is spoken several times in the film.
       Dragnet ’s distinctive style has inspired many parodies in skits, film, jokes, and everyday life, including the 1953 hit comedy record by Stan Freberg, "St. George and the Dragonet." The idiosyncracies of the Dragnet opus—the four-note musical theme, the musical stingers to emphasize a character's line, Friday’s catchphrases, the staccato dialogue police jargon and dramatic irony—continue to be part of vernacular humor.


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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
21 Aug 1954.
---
Daily Variety
20 Aug 54
p. 3.
Film Daily
20 Aug 54
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
30 Apr 1954
p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter
4 May 1954
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
10 May 1954
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
14 May 1954
p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter
26 May 1954
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
28 May 1954
p. 17.
Hollywood Reporter
30 Jul 1954
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
13 Aug 1954
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
20 Aug 54
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
10 Sep 1954.
---
Los Angeles Times
28 Jan 1954.
---
Los Angeles Times
18 Apr 1954.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
21 Aug 54
p. 113.
New York Times
21 Aug 54
p. 10.
Time
6 Jun 1954.
---
Time
6 Sep 1954.
---
Variety
25 Aug 54
p. 6.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Mark VII Ltd. Production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Dir
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCER
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Chief set elec
Cam op
Cam op asst
Stills
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Props
Props
COSTUMES
Ward
MUSIC
Mus comp and cond
Scoring
"Danger Ahead" theme
SOUND
MAKEUP
PRODUCTION MISC
Tech adv
Captain, Intelligence Division--L.A.P.D.
Scr supv
Best boy
STAND INS
Stand-in for Jack Webb
SOURCES
SONGS
"Foggy Night in San Francisco," music by Herman Saunders, lyrics by Sidney Miller.
DETAILS
Release Date:
4 September 1954
Premiere Information:
Chicago opening: 18 August 1954
New York opening: 20 August 1954
Production Date:
3 May--early June 1954
Copyright Claimant:
Mark VII, Ltd. & Stanley Meyer
Copyright Date:
4 September 1954
Copyright Number:
LP5325
Physical Properties:
Sound
RCA Sound System
Color
WarnerColor
gauge
1.75:1
Duration(in mins):
89-91
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
17096
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In Los Angeles, on Saturday, April 9th, around four o’clock, gangster Max Troy and one of his “employees,” Miller Starkie, walk through a field of flowers. Another of Troy’s men, Chester Davitt, approaches and fires four times at Starkie with a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun. At 7:29 p.m., in the old city jail, Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant Joe Friday and his partner, Officer Frank Smith, meet with Capt. Hamilton and fellow members of the Intelligence Division to discuss the case of ex-convict Starkie’s murder. The only clues to what appears to be a gangland slaying are four empty shells, impressions of a footprint and an airplane ticket with the phone number of a hoodlum hangout, the Red Spot Grill, written on the back. After teaming with the Homicide Division, the policemen round up suspects based on criminal records and mob connections, including Troy and several men connected to him, and bring them to a hotel room for questioning. Davitt, who is a prime suspect, cannot be found, so his wife Belle is questioned, but she is hostile and uninformative. For three hours, Smith and Friday interrogate the ulcer-suffering Troy, who claims to have been at the Red Spot at the time of the murder, then release him for further questioning to the assistant district attorney, Adolph “Alex” Alexander. Friday and Smith then interview a witness, Jesse Quinn, who saw Davitt leave the field at approximately 4:00 p.m. carrying a pipe-like item, possibly a gun. On Sunday, April 10th at 11:30 a.m., Friday and Smith question the staff of the Red Spot. Although the policemen learn little from the visit, they suspect that more can be discovered through surreptitious observation ... +


In Los Angeles, on Saturday, April 9th, around four o’clock, gangster Max Troy and one of his “employees,” Miller Starkie, walk through a field of flowers. Another of Troy’s men, Chester Davitt, approaches and fires four times at Starkie with a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun. At 7:29 p.m., in the old city jail, Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant Joe Friday and his partner, Officer Frank Smith, meet with Capt. Hamilton and fellow members of the Intelligence Division to discuss the case of ex-convict Starkie’s murder. The only clues to what appears to be a gangland slaying are four empty shells, impressions of a footprint and an airplane ticket with the phone number of a hoodlum hangout, the Red Spot Grill, written on the back. After teaming with the Homicide Division, the policemen round up suspects based on criminal records and mob connections, including Troy and several men connected to him, and bring them to a hotel room for questioning. Davitt, who is a prime suspect, cannot be found, so his wife Belle is questioned, but she is hostile and uninformative. For three hours, Smith and Friday interrogate the ulcer-suffering Troy, who claims to have been at the Red Spot at the time of the murder, then release him for further questioning to the assistant district attorney, Adolph “Alex” Alexander. Friday and Smith then interview a witness, Jesse Quinn, who saw Davitt leave the field at approximately 4:00 p.m. carrying a pipe-like item, possibly a gun. On Sunday, April 10th at 11:30 a.m., Friday and Smith question the staff of the Red Spot. Although the policemen learn little from the visit, they suspect that more can be discovered through surreptitious observation and send policewoman Grace Downey, who is equipped with a purse-sized recording device, to pose as a customer. Meanwhile, a team of policemen searches the murder site for evidence using a metal detector, but find only a toy space gun. By Tuesday, the efforts of the police have not yielded results and Alex is forced to release Troy and the other suspects for lack of evidence. Friday and Smith learn from a friendly jazz musician that Starkie appeared to have been beaten severely approximately one month before his death, so they visit Starkie’s one-legged, alcoholic widow, who insists that Troy killed her husband. She hands over a book containing names and addresses used by Starkie to collect gambling debts for Troy. At first the names seem not to provide useful information for the police. However, one name on the list is theatrical agent Fabian Gerard, who claims that he paid Starkie for a gambling debt owed Troy, but later, he was nearly killed by a different man sent by Troy. By showing a bank slip, Fabian says, he convinced the thug that he had already paid Starkie. This information suggests to Friday and Smith that Starkie was killed for keeping for himself the money he collected. Grace reports in, and turns over recordings of conversations made at the grill, including an order from Troy to the bartender to throw away a package from the glove compartment of his car. When Davitt is found, he is taken into custody and booked on suspicion of violating penal code 187, the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought. Although Davitt claims innocence, his shoes are found to match the plaster imprints of the footprints at the scene of the crime. Believing they have enough evidence for conviction, the police move forward with the case, but then Quinn refuses to identify Davitt before the grand jury, and Troy’s subpoenaed men plead the Fifth Amendment. Unable to get an indictment, Hamilton assigns his men to follow Troy’s gang, and Friday and Smith are assigned to hound Troy relentlessly day and night. They detain and frisk him at frequent intervals, making him aware that his every move is watched. When they follow Troy to a poker game, a disrespectful participant starts a brawl with them that is soon joined by others, and Friday and Smith fight back, beating them unconscious. Meanwhile, Hamilton plants a recording device in the back room of the Red Spot, and through it learns that Troy and his men are suspicious of Grace. With the assistance of two other officers, Friday and Smith rescue her, and outside she shows them the alley garbage can, where the bartender disposed of the package from Troy’s glove compartment. The package is retrieved, and inside it the police find shells matching those that killed Starkie. For the next four days, policemen take turns staking out the Red Grill from a room across the alley, listening to back room conversations picked up by the “bug.” Finally, Friday and Smith hear the bartender say that Davitt was killed in Cleveland, and take the recording to Davitt’s wife. Upon hearing it, she hands over the shotgun Davitt used to kill Starkie and promises to testify in court against Troy. After looking over the new evidence, Alex says they have enough to indict Troy, so Friday and Smith proceed to the hospital, where Troy is being treated for stomach problems. When they arrive at the hospital, they learn from Troy's doctor that he has died on the operating table, of gastric cancer, and the case is closed.





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Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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