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teaser Dragnet (1954)

"Dum-da-dum-dum, dum-da-dum-dum-DAAA" Not counting licks from pop songs, it's probably the most familiar musical phrase after Beethoven's Fifth and immediately calls to mind the equally familiar verbal phrase "Just the facts, ma'am," a line that, like its fellow immortal "Play it again, Sam" was never actually uttered by the lead character. But what do such facts matter in light of the iconography that is Dragnet (1954)?

It's all part of the vernacular humor and cultural reference now, even for those who were born long after the heyday of the television series on which this film is based-the musical punctuation to emphasize lines; the flat, staccato speech pattern of Sgt. Joe Friday; his unconcealed distaste for lawbreakers and, in a later incarnation of the series, hippies and liberals; the ever-present hat and cigarette; and the words of the opening disclaimer: "The story you are about to see is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent." These were essential elements of the style created by Jack Webb, a former radio actor and minor film player who built an image and career for himself on the mix of drama and semi-documentary style borrowed from He Walked by Night (1948), the crime thriller in which he appeared as a forensics expert.

The Dragnet series, using stories from actual Los Angeles Police Department files, began on radio and moved to television in 1951, where it ran on and off for the next eight years. It reappeared again, with Webb and Harry Morgan taking on the sidekick role made famous by Ben Alexander, from 1967 to 1970. Webb died in 1982, but two more versions of the series were created with new actors in the following years, and a 1987 feature film spoof with Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks made full use of the familiar iconography.

Dragnet was the first film to spin off from the series - in fact, the first big screen version of any TV show - and it sticks to the small-screen formula of emphasizing police procedure over mystery, as Friday and Smith seek to uncover the murderer (revealed at the beginning of the picture) of a two-bit gangster. What the film version adds to the mix is violence deemed unsuitable for television, noted by one reviewer as equaling or surpassing "others of its kind in the modern trend toward detailed brutality."

Also new to the mix is Richard Boone as the officers' superior, Captain Hamilton. The craggy-faced, deep-voiced Boone was already familiar to cinema audiences from his roles as mostly heavies, including a stint as biblical "bad guy" Pontius Pilate in The Robe (1953). Boone went on to a busy and varied film and TV career (until his death in 1981), and from 1957 to 1963 starred in the popular Western series Have Gun, Will Travel as professional gunfighter Paladin. He also hosted and frequently appeared in the short-lived but critically acclaimed anthology series The Richard Boone Show in 1963-64.

Webb's career wasn't confined to Sgt. Friday. He was also a highly successful producer and director, responsible for such films as Pete Kelly's Blues (1955), featuring jazz singers Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, and the military drama The D.I. (1957). Webb starred in both. He also created the very popular TV series Adam-12 and Emergency!.

And just for the record: that famous "dum-da-dum-dum" was not entirely original to Dragnet but was taken from the "Danger Ahead" theme written by noted film composer Miklos Rozsa for the thriller The Killers (1946).

Director: Jack Webb
Producer: Stanley D. Meyer
Screenplay: Richard L. Breen
Cinematography: Edward Colman
Editing: Robert M. Leeds
Art Direction: Feild M. Gray
Original Music: Walter Schumann, Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Jack Webb (Sgt. Joe Friday), Ben Alexander (Officer Frank Smith), Richard Boone (Capt. James Hamilton), Ann Robinson (Officer Grace Downey), Stacy Harris (Max Troy).

by Rob Nixon

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