Highway Dragnet (1954)

Highway Dragnet (1954) is an innocent male war veteran accused of murder mistaken identity road movie and sexual tension couple on the run thriller film noir, set on the highways and desert areas of Nevada and California.

Highway Dragnet holds the distinction of being the inaugural film to feature Roger Corman in the credits, marking his debut in the industry.

Corman was part of a team of six screenwriters who crafted this tension-filled melodrama shot on location. The film features Richard Conte as a former Marine fleeing from an unjust murder accusation. During his escape, he encounters Joan Bennett, a sophisticated magazine photographer, and her leading model, Wanda Hendrix, as they embark on a cross-country journey. 

Highway Dragnet (1954) opens with a great film noir pick up, Richard Conte and Mary Beth Hughes

In a twist that aligns with the viewers’ predictions, the real perpetrator is revealed to be one of the passengers in Bennett’s vehicle, eluding the police’s radar. The film culminates in a gripping finale set in a deluged house, where the murderer lurks, ready to target the next victim. Despite initial criticism for its modest production standards, Highway Dragnet has lasted well the test of time and remains a compelling watch for audiences far into the future of 1954.

Wrongly accused of killing a bar-girl he was seen with earlier, a Korean War vet flees from the police in the company of a woman photographer and her young female model.

Highway Dragnet emerges as a captivating escapade, a true homage to the classic era of crime cinema where the protagonist, unfazed by the chaos, navigates perils with a James Bond-like finesse. Richard Conte shines as the quintessential hero, his performance matched by the formidable presence of his female counterparts. 

The film’s climax, set against the haunting backdrop of the Salton Sea’s inundated dwellings, exudes a palpable atmosphere that grips the viewer. Although the denouement’s revelation of the culprit may stretch credulity, it does little to detract from the film’s overall impact.

Director Nathan Juran’s astute decision to forgo the confines of the studio for the stark beauty of the desert elevates the visual narrative, enhancing the film’s authenticity. While Highway Dragnet may not claim the status of a film noir masterpiece, it stands as a well-crafted and thoroughly engaging piece of cinema. It comes highly recommended, offering a complete cinematic journey in a succinct 70 minutes.

Highway Dragnet, released in 1954 by Allied Artists, is a succinct thriller that encapsulates the essence of a B-movie with its straightforward plot and brisk 70-minute runtime1. Directed by Nathan Juran, the film is noted for its economical storytelling and a commendable cast featuring Richard Conte, Joan Bennett, and Wanda Hendrix, among others. 

The film’s release marked a pivotal moment for its main stars, particularly Joan Bennett, who was making a comeback after a scandalous episode involving her husband. Richard Conte, transitioning from a terminated contract with Fox, found himself navigating the landscape of B-movies during the 1950s, a prelude to his later roles in acclaimed films like Ocean’s 11 and The Godfather.

Wanda Hendrix’s career also intersected with Highway Dragnet, as the film coincided with her temporary retreat from the silver screen. The personal tribulations of these actors, intertwined with their professional journeys, reflect the tumultuous nature of Hollywood during that era.

Roger Corman, who would later become a legendary figure in filmmaking, began his screen career with this film. His original screenplay, House by the Sea, underwent significant alterations by a team of writers before becoming Highway Dragnet

This transformation from Corman’s initial vision to the final product is a testament to the collaborative and often unpredictable process of movie-making. The film stands as a historical piece, marking the early stages of Corman’s influential career and the transitional phases of its stars.

Joan Bennett’s career was significantly impacted by the scandal involving her husband, film producer Walter Wanger. In 1951, Wanger shot and injured Bennett’s agent, Jennings Lang, due to suspicions of an affair between Lang and Bennett, which she vehemently denied.

Following the incident, Bennett’s screen career suffered. She was compelled to shift her focus from movies to the stage and television. She toured the nation with several stage productions and later received an Emmy nomination for her role in the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows.

Desert motor car noir — Highway Dragnet (1954)

Reed Hadley supports the stars as the policeman White Eagle.  Hadley was a blue-collar, hard-working character actor with 130 credits to his name.  While never an A-lister, Hadley was experienced with studio filmmaking as well as early television shows, particularly westerns.  He is right at home playing a Native American police officer on the hunt for a murderer.

Wanda Hendrix, as Susan Willis, also supports the two top-billed stars but shines as brightly as they do.  She is pretty, with just the right amount of sass, and looks good in a bathing suit as well.  She worked in a ton of 1940’s westerns and 1950’s melodramas before transitioning to television in the 60’s.  But her star had lost its shine by 1970 and her career stalled significantly.  

She was perhaps better known as WWII hero and film star Audie Murphy’s wife, at least for seven short months around 1950.  Tragically, she died of pneumonia at the age of 52.

Wanda Hendrix — and Joan Bennett in Highway Dragnet (1954)

The other stars of this vehicle (it is a vehicle only for the purposes of this pun) were Richard Conte and Joan Bennett.  Bennett’s career spanned from the silent era into the early 1980’s and she had some great credentials during that time.  

She’s probably best known to the lovers of film noir and other noireaux for her star turn in 1945’s Fritz Lang-directed classic Scarlet Street although her last film was Dario Argento’s Suspiria and she followed that up with three television movies, including the solid little haunted house thriller This House Possessed before passing away at the age of 80.

Like Hadley, Richard Conte was also a blue-collar actor who truly worked for a living.  Unlike Hadley, Conte did make some genuinely classic films as well as some popular genre features.  He featured in a ton of 40’s and 50’s noir and melodramas and one of his best was for sure, for sure the Jimmy Stewart vehicle Call Northside 777

He transitioned into television in the early 60’s before being considered for the lead in Coppola’s The Godfather.  Ultimately, Marlon Brando took that part but Conte was cast as Brando’s Sicilian rival, Don Barzini.  

He finished his career in Italy where he starred in some reasonably solid fun and typically giallo crime thrillers there like Fernando Di Leo’s The Boss and Shoot First Die Later, Tonino Ricci’s The Big Family, and Sergio Martino’s The Violent Professionals, along with some fair old dreck like Evil Eye and Return of the Exorcist.

Highway Dragnet (1954) crosses the desert from Vegas to the flooded coastlands of Salton Sea

The scandal left a stain on her career, and as a result, Bennett made only five movies in the decade that followed. She was virtually blacklisted from Hollywood, which led her to relocate to Chicago to appear in theater, and later in television, as the scandal was too significant a mark on her movie career4. This period marked a transition for Bennett, as she navigated through the aftermath of the scandal and found new avenues to continue her acting career. Despite the challenges, she remained active in the industry until the early 1980s.

(original print ad - all caps)

SHOCK AFTER SHOCK...MILE AFTER MILE...in Las Vegas' sizzling manhunt for thrill-killers! (original 6-sheet poster)

PANIC in each desperate kiss...in each revealing mile... (original lobby card)

SIZZLING MANHUNT...for Las Vegas thrill-killer! 

(original Insert Card poster)


(original poster-all caps)

THREE-STATE ALARM FOR THRILL-KILLER...Along the Roaring Crime Route from Las Vegas! (original poster)

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. 

Highway Dragnet is a film that thrives on the timeless man on the run trope, a narrative device that has become a cliché precisely because it makes for such compelling storytelling. Richard Conte’s character, freshly discharged from the Marine Corps after a gruelling and yet heroic, medal-awarding and pistol stealing tour in Korea, finds himself in Las Vegas, ready to indulge in the city’s vices before embarking on a renovation project at his Salton Sea home. The film quickly establishes its noir credentials with a bar scene from hell that sets the stage for the nasty ass romance drama to unfold.

The bar, a quintessential setting in film noir, serves as a microcosm of urban decay and moral ambiguity. It’s a place where characters’ paths cross, often with life-altering consequences. The interaction between Conte’s character and Mary Beth Hughes’ peroxide blonde is a n uncomfortable sleazorama of understated tension and unspoken desires. Their conversation, laden with subtext, reveals the nuanced performances that can elevate even a B-movie to something memorable.

All of which is to say that this is another elemental, basic, classic film noir pick up, with the man joining the lonesome woman at the bar, and snarking up some verbal magic, and of course cigarettes are heavily involved.

As the narrative progresses, Conte’s character finds himself wrongfully accused of murder, leading to a series of events that see him on the run from the law. The film deftly navigates through various close calls and roadblocks, all while developing the dynamics between Conte’s character and two women he encounters: Joan Bennett’s magazine photographer and Wanda Hendrix’s model.

Joan Bennett’s presence in the film is particularly poignant, given her real-life scandal that rocked Hollywood and derailed her career. Her portrayal in Highway Dragnet reflects a transition in her acting roles, mirroring her personal journey from scandal to a form of redemption through her craft.

[last lines]

Jim Henry: [Jim and Susan arm-in-arm as they look out toward Jim's partially submerged house with the rising waters of the Salton Sea] You know, things may be a little tough before we get the place fixed up.

Susan Wilton: How tough can they be with a swimming pool in every room.

[Jim and Susan embrace]

Highway Dragnet, a film produced by Roger Corman and directed by Nathan Juran, is indeed an intriguing entry in the film noir genre. It takes a classic narrative—a fugitive on the run requiring the aid of unsuspecting individuals—and gives it a unique twist. The film’s straightforward plot is a hallmark of noir storytelling, with its roots deeply embedded in themes of desperation and survival.

Joan Bennett in Highway Dragnet (1954)

The Las Vegas setting, with its inherent glitz and underlying seediness, provides the perfect backdrop for the unfolding drama. Richard Conte’s portrayal of a Marine returning from service, who becomes entangled in a murder accusation, captures the essence of a noir protagonist caught in a web of circumstance. His interaction with Mary Beth Hughes’ character sets the stage for the tension that propels the film forward.

Despite its low budget and the limitations that come with it, such as the dialogue and technical aspects, Highway Dragnet manages to deliver a compelling story. The performances of Joan Bennett and Wanda Hendrix add depth to the narrative, as their characters grapple with the presence of Conte’s fugitive. The film’s climax, set against the submerged town in the Salton Sea, adds a poignant layer to the story, symbolizing the murky depths to which the characters have sunk.

Reed Hadley in Highway Dragnet (1954)

The film’s ending, while happy for Conte’s character, does not shy away from the darker elements that have been a constant presence throughout the story. The death of Bennett’s dog and the severe trials faced by Conte’s character underscore the film’s commitment to portraying the grim realities of its characters’ lives.

The contributions of the supporting cast, including Reed Hadley, Frank Jenks, and Iris Adrian, enhance the film’s authenticity. Tom Hubbard, one of the screenplay’s writers, also appears, adding a meta-layer to the production. Your recollection of the film after nearly half a century speaks to its lasting impact and the enduring appeal of the film noir genre. It’s a testament to the power of storytelling and the ability of a well-crafted narrative to resonate across time. With more resources and refined dialogue, Highway Dragnet could have indeed reached even greater heights, but as it stands, it remains a memorable piece of cinema history.

[first lines]

Jim Henry: [referring to the empty bar stool next to the blond he is addressing in seeing no other places to sit] Seat taken?

Terry Smith: [smugly] Reserved.

Jim Henry: For whom?

Terry Smith: [looking at Jim] For a guy who smiles.

Jim Henry: How's this?

[Jim contorts his mouth into a fake smile]

Terry Smith: Been a long time between smiles, hasn't it Mister.

Highway Dragnet may not surprise viewers with its plot twists, but it remains a testament to the enduring appeal of film noir. It captures the essence of a genre that explores the darker side of human nature, set against the backdrop of a world where innocence is often a casualty of circumstance. The film’s ability to convey this through a tightly woven narrative and rich character development is a reminder of why these stories continue to resonate with audiences.

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. Clothes are on and off. Then word /model' covers many situations. 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 traveller, male, threatens their happiness.

As a solid representative of the style's sub-genre, the themed and committed energy given to the subject of Motor Car Noir, Highway Dragnet (1954) represents so many different automotive possibilities.

Wanda Hendrix and Richard Conte in innocent man on the run film noir Highway Dragnet (1954)

First of course there is the motor car as the medium of escape from crime, as well as the medium of capture, in the hands of the police. There is a deal of car swapping and concealment as the anonymity of the road is highlighted to aid our escaping parties, with the motor car representative of a freedom of a different sort. 

As a couple-on-the-run movie Highway Dragnet also fulfils itself several times over, with slight twists on the form elevating the fun beyond the normal habitats of cliché and predictability. In fact in those wise and with this theme in mind, there are several twists.

The first couple on the run is of course the pairing of Wanda Hendrix and Joan Bennett, which is presented with sexual overtones that cannot help themselves but sneak into manifest view whenever the two are on screen, It's a mother daughter, older and younger lover dynamic, with Wanda Hendrix's character the young model repeating within her performance a kind of wilful ignorance to her boss wickedness, which must of course we assume, include sexual manipulation.

Indeed, although none of it is seen, there appears to have been more sexual manipulation in the case of Terry, the young woman who is killed, and for whom Richard Conte's character takes the rap. Thus the elder predatory lesbian figure of Joan Bennett, comes to represent something more malign in the media industry, murdering on the road and in full escape mode.

The more common couple on the run trope evolves in Highway Dragnet (1954) through the figures of Richard Conte and Wanda Hendrix. Hardly a realistic couple, there was 18 years of age difference between these two actors, although this was something Hollywood never did much bother about in The Golden Age, and still does not especially mind. There is just something about older men and young women that makes sense on the other side of the camera lens, as if it completes other aspects of the fantastical.

This kind of snuck sexual premise could be said to be manifest on one of the most culturally brazen gender standards that Highway Dragnet (1954) presents. and that is the male always drives. First of all of course, are two women, stranded at the roadside, and of course it is a man that stops and fixes the motor for them.

Even marking this as fair enough, the real issue to watch out for here is that men, by default, drive, That is to say if you are a woman who owns a car, as Joan Bennet is and does in Highway Dragnet (1954) the mere fact of picking up a male hitch hiker means that he must default to the driver's seat. And so, Richard Conte always drives, even when the car he is on is owned by and was up until his arrival driven by, a woman.

The most common trope however is that of the innocent man accused of murder who is on the run with a woman whom at first believes him to be a killer, as she comes to believe him usually in an unfair opposite to Stockholm Syndrome, in which familiarity breeds truth, as opposed to embedding ignorance and cementing lies. 

That is to say that this common and quite Hitchcockian idea that an innocent man accused of murder is set on the run with a woman, with the concluding plot item being that she comes to believe him and they fall in love.

The motif of an innocent man accused of murder and subsequently going on the run is a quintessential element of film noir, particularly during its classic period from the 1940s to the 1960s. This narrative trope resonates deeply with the genre’s foundational themes, which include moral ambiguity, existential angst, and the darker aspects of human nature.

Having raced across the desert to stand in a house under the sea, we then get a chance to compare the age difference between actors Wanda Hendrix aged 26 here and Richard Conte aged 44 here. Film noir, characterized by its cynical attitudes and shadowy aesthetics, often plays much older men against much younger women, for entirely ridiculous aesthetic reasons, which deliver a cinematic sense of their own.

There are worse cases in noir actor character coupling than this, but it is worth noting. Maybe everyone knows enough from their own point of view to extrapolate something. Meanwhile noir's characters get on with the big snog and delve into stories where characters grapple with a sense of pessimism and fatalism. The accused innocent man’s plight is a compelling embodiment of these themes, as it places an everyman in a nightmarish scenario where he must navigate a corrupt and indifferent world. He gets a young, young woman.

This narrative device also serves to critique societal and judicial systems, suggesting that innocence does not guarantee safety and that the truth can be easily obscured by deceit and conspiracy. It reflects the post-war disillusionment with American society, the disintegration of traditional moral structures, and a general feeling of unease—all of which were masterfully encapsulated in the noir narrative and aesthetic.

Moreover, the story of an innocent man on the run allows for a rich exploration of character and motivation, as well as providing a vehicle for suspense and tension. The audience is drawn into a web of intrigue and danger, sympathizing with the protagonist’s desperate bid for justice or redemption.

The visual style of film noir, with its deep-focus, bewildering visual patterns, skewed camera angles, and single-source lighting, enhances the sense of entrapment and paranoia that such a character might experience. This era of film noir is marked by a sense of disillusionment, and the innocent man’s narrative is a powerful expression of the struggle against overwhelming odds, a theme that resonates with the uncertainty and fear of the Cold War era.

The narrative of an innocent man on the run, accompanied by a woman who initially doubts him but eventually believes and falls in love with him, is a classic trope in film noir. This trope plays into several key themes and stylistic elements of the genre:

Film noir often explores the psychological depth of its characters. The dynamic between the man and woman allows for a nuanced development of their relationship, showcasing a transformation from suspicion to trust, and ultimately to romantic attachment.

The woman’s initial disbelief reflects the genre’s theme of moral ambiguity, where characters are not immediately trustworthy, and appearances can be deceiving. Her journey to belief and love mirrors the audience’s own changing perceptions as the story unfolds.

The trope creates suspense and adds layers to the plot. The tension of whether the woman will believe the man keeps the audience engaged, and her eventual trust provides a satisfying emotional payoff.

In many film noirs, the woman character may start as a femme fatale—a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare the protagonist. However, as she comes to believe the man, she often becomes a redemptive figure, helping him clear his name and survive the ordeal.

The interplay between the man and woman allows for dramatic scenes and dialogues that are central to the film noir aesthetic. Their evolving relationship can be mirrored in the visual style, with lighting and framing shifting as their connection deepens.

This trope can also be seen as a reflection of contemporary societal issues of the time, such as post-war gender dynamics and the changing role of women. The woman’s transition from doubt to belief and love can symbolize a broader societal shift.

There is a substantial entry for Highway Dragnet (1954) at the Internet Movie Cars Database.

Highway Dragnet (1954)

Directed by Nathan Juran
Genres - Drama, Crime, Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Road Movie  |   Release Date - Jan 27, 1954 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 70 min.

No comments:

Post a Comment