Highway Dragnet (1954)

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Nathan Juran directs this Poverty Row noir about a wrongly accused ex-Marine on the run. Decorated Korean War vet Jim (Richard Conte) meets a drunken former model (Mary Beth Hughes) in a Las Vegas bar, has a fling with her, and the next morning she’s found murdered. Witnesses saw Jim argue with her, and the Army engineer buddy who’s Jim’s alibi is on a secret assignment using an alias Jim doesn’t know. With all the evidence making Jim look guilty, he bolts, steals a police car, ditches it in the desert and hitches a ride with famous photographer Mrs. Cummings (Joan Bennett) and her model/assistant Susan (Wanda Hendrix). The rest of the movie is the chase, during which it dawns on the ladies that Jim is the wanted “Strap Killer,” Jim uses them to get through roadblocks and to his Army buddy/alibi, and Jim learns he has come in contact with the real Strap Killer.  

The story (Roger Corman is one of six credited writers) depends a lot on coincidence, absurdly close calls and ridiculously frequent and frustrating obstacles. There are lots of plot holes, like an investigator who isn’t anywhere to be found when Cummings outs Jim, even though he was there only moments before. Jim is found the morning after the murder with a bloody shirt in his suitcase and that’s never explained. People get shot up close, drop as if dead and then walk into the next scene with a smile. The false alarms become comical; just when Jim and the ladies think they’ve cleared a state line inspection, an officer stops their car again, and, after a tense pause, smiles: “don’t forget your temporary permit!” They stop to get gas with police only minutes away, and happen to pick the oldest, slowest manual pump station in the country, manned by the oldest, slowest, chattiest pump operator in history (the new pumps will be here tomorrow, he says). Complications meant to stretch suspense become so excruciating that even Jim laments, “I was born on the wrong side of the planet!” Joan Bennett scowls and glares and stews, while Hendrix’s character goes from suspecting and fearing Jim to believing he’s innocent. The script gives away the killer’s identity way too early, and connects the clue to a wrenching scene involving the death of a pet.

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Even with all these flaws, this movie was still a fun time, a fast, short and satisfying adventure with enjoyable actors. It was amusing to watch Cummings’ failed attempts to rat Jim out, dump him, run him over and shoot him. Some of the hardboiled dialogue is laughable but Conte delivers it like he takes all the implausible setbacks, with a mix of determination, disbelief and weariness. The scenery is great, whether it’s the casino, desert, cute resort where Cummings does a photo shoot, or Jim’s final destination, his childhood home flooded by the Salton Sea. That’s an imaginative and atmospheric setting where Jim and Susan admit they love each other, save the cop pursuing them (Reed Hadley–just listening to him talk gets bonus points from me), and have a showdown with the real killer, who makes a confession while stuck in quicksand.

Mary Beth Hughes does wonders with her scene and other familiar faces here are Frank Jenks, Harry Harvey and Tom Hubbard. Iris Adrian (link to my bio of the sassy character actress) plays a diner waitress who has better things to do than serve anybody. She throws menus at the trio when they sit down and trades put-downs with the troopers who come in talking about the Strap Killer and how bad the diner’s burgers are. 

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24 thoughts on “Highway Dragnet (1954)”

    1. I feel the same about Conte and he was pretty good here, but it’s not one of Joan’s best and she doesn’t look thrilled. Still, I enjoy a good cheap fun movie like this.

  1. You make it sound like a hoot. Love Bennett and I’ve never heard of this one. After Bennett’s husband, Walter Wanger, shot her agent, Jennings Lang, in a parking lot, her movie career pretty much ended. She starred in no more A-pictures after that. If that incident happened today, she’d be more famous than ever!

    1. Yes isn’t that the truth. Her last scene in this is kind of embarrassing, but she plays a good nasty lady. At least having actors of he caliber lifts this as far as it does.

  2. I remember downloading this on to disc from youtube a few years back and finding it such an odd film. With all the plot holes, coincidences etc it felt a bit shoddy and was hard to take seriously but all of that made it fun in an odd sort of way, such films are fun as long as we don’t see too many of them. Joan Bennett really looked disgusted by the whole thing though didn’t she?

    1. I really had fun with it, as much as I was shaking my head at the unbelievable things, at least it never bored me and that counts for a lot. Plus fans of these actors should see it, not their best roles but they manage to make the most of it. Thanks and Happy New Year, hope it’s good so far.

  3. This is a programmer plain and simple but because there was no money for it there is also no fat on the film. Parts of it are absurd but it moves and everybody does crisp work. I adore Joan Bennett and think she’s one of the great undervalued Golden Age actresses, at least after she made the switch from blonde to brunette which sort of helped define her persona. Love that she’s tough as nails in this, though it’s a hoot that the character would chose to drive through the desert in that smart (and uncreased!) white dress. Oh well the demands of the star spot even in lesser fare.

    1. Yes, I really enjoyed it, even where I was shaking my head at the crazy twists, there was not one dull moment and that’s what counts. I tend to like these types of movies more anyway, and with this cast you just can’t go wrong. Joan was a Great, ruthless in this one, and yes, that is so funny about the dress, she kept the glam going all the way through. Thanks for commenting!

  4. I really enjoyed this one — like FilmMad says above, the weird/silly stuff was part of the charm (except I hated the part about the dog!). I was especially fascinated by the Apple Valley Inn, which I discovered was also seen in that era in the movies FIREFOX and THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW. The filming at the Salton Sea was great! The movie led me to do a good bit of reading/research on both the Salton Sea and the Apple Valley Inn, which goes to show another value of a movie like this, catching really interesting “places in time” on film and proving to be a bit educational even if it’s a weak movie.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    1. oh, the doggie, that hit me hard! I wish there was another way they could have planted that clue. Really liked it and like you, I found the settings a huge plus in this one, made it unique. There’s a Val Kilmer movie called Salton Sea which first got me curious about that place, Highway Dragnet uses it in a really creative way. That’s neat about the Inn being in the other films. Thanks!

  5. Great post! Just added this one to my Amazon Prime Video watchlist. I’ve always enjoyed Richard Conte and just discovered Joan Bennett in a couple of film noir movies last year.

  6. Ha! I’m on a bit of a Nathan Juran kick at the moment.
    HIGHWAY DRAGNET was pretty good,I thought,
    I’d love it to get an “official” release,.
    Another Juran flick that came my way recently was his
    sole “Euro Western” LAND RAIDERS..now out on a lovely
    looking Blu Ray from Explosive in Germany and region free to boot!
    Firstly we have three actors with Greek roots (Telly Savalas,
    George Maharis,George Coulouris) playing Mexicans.
    38 year Jocelyn Lane almost convinces playing an 18 year old!
    Veteran Brit actor Guy Rolfe plays a cavalry officer.
    Add to the mix Arlene Dahl..not a good career move!
    My friend who has far more highbrow tastes than me (not a stretch!)
    says the ending is a rip-off (homage?) of Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD.
    Nevertheless,I loved it and it’s also testament to Juran’s talent that he was able
    to make such an entertaining picture despite working with a stacked deck.
    Juran’s output ticks all my boxes-Fifties Universal Westerns,Fifties Creature
    Features,Crime Thrillers;Sindbad and all the rest,.
    Belated Happy New Year Kristina…love your blog!

    1. Yes this was fun and Juran made a lot of good ones in all the cool genres, I recently had fun with his The Black Castle, and have a bunch more of his I need to see. Land Raiders sounds fun, just those 3 actors would be a draw for me!
      I just reviewed the Jack the Ripper from you, and loved it! I and yes I am planning on joining the Allied blogathon, still haven’t picked a movie though, lots of good crime flix to choose from. Thanks as always for the visit!

  7. Whoops! Sorry the above Jocelyn Lane age should have read
    32! Still she’s pretty convincing as an 18 year old!

    BTW,Kristina are you on-board regarding Toby’s Allied
    Artists Blogathon….HIGHWAY DRAGNET would have been
    a pretty cool choice!

  8. Mouth-watering review, Kristina! This is another of those little Allied Artists films that has gone under my radar. I have to see this one – sounds like it is ‘just up my street’!

    Happy New Year, Kristina.

    1. As the commenters mostly agree, this is a fun one so you’d surely enjoy it. I know I did, there’s one on Youtube so you might be able to see it soon. Happy 2016 to you as well and thanks so much for stopping by.

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