Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Highway Dragnet (1954)



"First guy who moves gets a belly full of lead."

Jim Henry (Richard Conte) was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jim meets with a fellow Marine in Las Vegas to discuss fixing up his seaside home that's been flooded by rising waters. While in Sin City he meets temperamental model Terry Smith (Mary Beth Hughes). The night after their confrontation at a bar, she winds up dead in her hotel room, the result of strangulation with a strap. The police, led by Det. Lt. Eagle (Reed Hadley) are led to Jim who has an alibi with his Marine friend whom he plans to meet back in California. He's the only one who can prove Jim's innocence. After escaping the police, Jim finds two women stranded on the desert highway: photographer Mrs. Cummings (Joan Bennett) and model Susan Willis (Wanda Hendrix). After helping these two with their broken down car, he rides off with them hoping to get back home to find his friend. The two women quickly realize this mysterious hitchhiker is on the run from the cops. Can Jim make it back home in time to prove that he's not the strap killer? Or will the cops catch up with him before he gets the chance?

Released by Allied Artists, Highway Dragnet (1954) is a short B-movie thriller directed by Nathan Juran. It clocks in at 1 hour and 10 minutes and while that may seem rather short the story is fairly simple and straightforward and the time frame worked perfectly for the plot. It's low budget, a bit cheesy but has a great cast in the form of Richard Conte, Joan Bennett, Wanda Hendrix and supporting players like Reed Hadley and Mary Beth Hughes. Fans of Christmas in Connecticut (1945) will recognize Frank Jenks who plays a Marine suspected of being the runaway convict.

This film came out at a time of transition for the three main stars. This was a few years after Joan Bennett's infamous career halting scandal. A love triangle resulted in her husband, producer Walter Wanger, shooting her agent, Jennings Lang, in the groin. Lang survived and Wanger was convicted and sentenced to four months in jail. Highway Dragnet was her return to movies. Richard Conte had recently lost his contract with Fox and the 1950s brought him many B-movie roles. In the following decade his career would take a turn with some small parts in better movies including some of my favorites like Ocean's 11 (1960) and The Godfather (1972). The year Highway Dragnet was released was the same year actress Wanda Hendrix briefly retired from films. After her disastrous marriage to actor Audie Murphy, she decided to step back from acting when she married James Langford Stack Jr., brother of actor Robert Stack. When that marriage fell apart she returned to acting with a handful of parts on TV and a few more movies in the 1960s and 1970s.

Highway Dragnet is famed producer/director/writer Roger Corman's first credited screen role. He wrote a screenplay entitled House by the Sea, a reference to the protagonist's beloved home, and sold it to Allied Artists. Corman didn't realize the transformation his screenplay would undertake at the hands of the filmmakers. Several writers worked on the script including Herb Meadow, Jerome Odlum, Tom Hubbard and Fred Eggers. The end result was far different from Corman's original vision. According to biographer Pawel Aleksandrowicz,

"Corman was so appalled at the difference between the original version and the final product that he decided to produce his films by himself in order to have full control over them." 

He used the funds he earned from Highway Dragnet to produce The Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954). Corman mastered the art of making low-budget movies that entertained audiences and turned a profit. And the rest is history. I would love to read Corman's original screenplay to compare with the final movie. I have some ideas about what was left out or changed.

The relationship between the two female leads played by Joan Bennett (Mrs. Cummings) and Wanda Hendrix (Susan) suggest something more going on in the background. Perhaps this was intended in Corman's screenplay but played down in the final script? Their relationship hints at a romance between the two and they switch gender roles throughout the film. Susan is dressed in a crop top and pants and covered in grease from trying to fix their car, something Jim points out when he meets Susan for the first time. In contrast, Mrs. Cummings is full on glam in a white dress, heels and sunglasses. We learn that Mrs. Cummings is a photographer and Susan is her model. The two have a close relationship that extends beyond their business partnership. When they arrive at the hotel for their poolside photo shoot, the dynamic shifts with Mrs. Cummings taking the lead and Susan being the object of her attention for both good and bad. When Susan develops an affection for Jim, this threatens their relationship. Perhaps romantically but the story focuses more on the dark secret Mrs. Cummings is hiding from everyone except for Susan. The hotel scenes reminded me greatly of the film Carol (2015) starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara which also involves women, traveling down a highway on a road trip and a fellow traveler, male, threatens their happiness.




Highway Dragnet (1954) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. They've been releasing DVDs and Blu-Rays of a variety of independently produced/released films from mid-century Hollywood. I encourage you to check out their growing catalog of Kino Lorber Studio Classics, many of which I've reviewed on this blog.


Many thanks to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of Highway Dragnet (1954) on Blu-Ray to review!

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