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Friday, October 17, 2014

DRAGNET - The 1966 TV Movie

Hosted by The Hannibal 8

"Now you listen to me, you gutter-mouth punk. I've dealt with you before, and every time I did, it took me a month to wash off the filth."

    By 1966 Jack Webb's TV fortunes were at a rather low ebb. After the successful run of the original DRAGNET ended in 1959 he attempted a series based upon his feature film PETE KELLY'S BLUES. Starring William Reynolds (who would later gain fame in THE F.B.I.) the series lasted only thirteen episodes before being cancelled. In 1963 he took over as executive producer of ABC's highly rated 77 SUNSET STRIP and after totally revamping the series, along with replacing most of the cast save for Efrem Zimbalist, the show's ratings tanked and Webb was fired. At the same time  he developed a western series with Jeffery Hunter called TEMPLE HOUSTON which was cancelled after one season.
    When in 1966 Universal Television came calling being interested in a new TV movie based upon the still popular and well known DRAGNET Webb could hardly refuse. Again combing through the L.A. Police archives Webb and writer Richard Bream decided on the case of Harvey Glatman, who along with the Black Dahlia and pre Manson and Zodiac was one California's most infamous murder cases. Starting in 1957, Glatman posing as a professional photographer would hire young women from modeling agencies later assaulting and murdering them while taking various pictures of them He was executed in 1959.

    Unfortunately for Webb his longtime partner on the original series Ben Alexander, who had portrayed Officer Frank Smith, was unavailable as he was working on NBC's FELONY SQUAD at the time. Realizing he needed some of the light comic relief that Alexander provided, Webb turned to Harry Morgan an old friend of his who had appeared with him in a couple of excellent film noirs including DARK CITY (1950) and 1951's APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (in which they play a pair of hit men). Additionally in the original DRAGNET the beefy Alexander provided a contrast to the rail thin dark haired Webb, but now with Friday packing on a few extra pounds Webb went for the tall skinny Morgan as a partner. Universal was so happy with the finished product that they ahead and ordered a new series, with the result being that the movie didn't officially air until 1969.
    In this newest incarnation of DRAGNET Webb's Friday is back to the rank of Sgt., even though he was promoted to Lt. in the last episode of the original series. Webb would later brush off the rank change by saying that ranking officers are desk bound for most part and being a stickler for police procedure Fri. needed to be a Sgt. for the new DRAGNET to work (during the course of the movie a suspect refers to Friday as "the immortal Sargent"). Another big change for the new movie would be the then new "Miranda Warning" law that was coming into effect in 1966. No longer would the police be able to hold suspects indefinitely for questioning with no phone calls or legal consul (Friday remarks at one point "we use to be able to talk to them..."). There's also a small bit of tie-in to the previous series with after discussing the name Smith Friday remarks "I had a partner by that name once"


    Stopping in to pick up his mail while on vacation (but wearing his soon to be trademark grey sports coat, white shirt & tie) Sgt. Friday is roped into coming back early from vacation by his superior Capt. Hugh Brown (this time played by Gene Evans) to help out with security for a visiting Russian dignitary. This is one of a couple of odd little sidetracks (perhaps being undeveloped DRAGNET plots) that the story takes, although here it does give Webb (who was a fervent anti-Communist) a chance to portray some almost cartoonishly loud and blustery Soviet security men with the other being a sidetrack into an unrelated murder that while being only nominally attached to the main plot does help pad the running time.
    Almost immediately Friday is assigned back to his current partner Officer Bill Gannon (Morgan) to investigate the disappearance of several women related to the modeling industry and perhaps a new unrelated disappearance of young woman who was enrolled in a dating service. Discovering the cases are all related they begin the usual Dragnet style investigation which amounts to examples of carefully explained police procedures and the interviewing of various citizens most all of whom are slightly eccentric (or even downright loopy). Although based on a very grim & salacious crime as to be expected screenwriter Bream tones down the elements (it never even hinted at to what happened to the victims before being killed) and there is some of the soon to be famous Bill Gannon comedy relief as here his dental school nephew shows up periodically to try and fit a new bridge. There's also a plot bit running through the story that it's Gannon's last day before retirement.

    The cast is packed with many of the usual gang of Webb regulars (although Stacy Harris, a mainstay of both incarnations of the series and a lead in the 1954 movie is strangely missing) with Vic Perrin playing the killer and Virginia Gregg as the bitchy owner of the dating service. Perrin, another Webb mainstay would continue on to do some Adam-12's (he played the DA in the 1954 movie) and was the control voice for THE OUTER LIMITS. Gregg, who along with Stacy Harris and Perrin would seem to show up in about every other episode of the upcoming series where she alternately would play either slightly ditsy or downright crabby suspects and/or witnesses.
   One of the more fascinating things about viewing DRAGNET in its various TV incarnations is how Webb took the premise and writing style from radio show and basically just moved it to TV. With each plot development carefully explained either by Webb's narration or by the clipped Q&A style of dialogue you could literally just listen to the audio and follow the story perfectly. The movie is filled with Jack's classic three different camera setups (1 person close-up shoulder shot, 2 people waist up & 3 or more people full length), although the climax in driving rainstorm on a mud clogged hillside is a marvel of editing and its also fascinating to watch Webb narrate car chases by the simple use of radio transmissions, with no actual footage shown of the chase.
    The final scene of the movie shows Friday reuniting with his back from retirement partner Bill Gannon. With this sequence seemingly added on later, it makes you wonder if Webb didn't expect this to morph into a series or if he was perhaps still hoping to get Ben Alexander back. Long unavailable on home video Shout included this as a bonus on their DRAGNET 1968 set. A big thanks to Toby over at The Hannibal 8 for hosting this.


  1. "Now you listen to me, you gutter-mouth punk. I've dealt with you before, and every time I did, it took me a month to wash off the filth."

    Of all the great things Webb got to say throughout Dragnet, that may be my favorite.

    Terrific post. It's fascinating to me that Webb had such a rigid structure for Dragnet, which you break down here, but there's a real flair to his other work.

  2. You gotta give the people what they want, and apparently the people wanted more "Dragnet".

  3. Jack Webb was strongly connected to Dragnet, and I don't blame the public. Such an iconic character like Sgt. Friday and an innovative narrative were nothing but memorable.
    Great article!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)