The story you are about to hear is true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. It began with a debt collector for the mob taken out to an isolated spot in the Californian countryside and gunned down with a sawn-off shotgun, both barrels, twice for good measure. The police were immediately on the case, led by Sergeant Friday (Jack Webb), as the investigators gathered their evidence from the crime scene, including an impression of a size 9 shoe, and a list of the deceased's associates was assembled for them to question. The one suspect who seemed the most likely culprit was Max Troy (Stacy Harris), but he was saying nothing...
Starting in 1951, Dragnet was a groundbreaking television series that brought tales of supposedly authentic crime to the living rooms of not only America but across the world too, its star Jack Webb becoming so identified with his Joe Friday character that he spent the rest of his life playing variations on him. This success granted him a chance to try his hand at being an auteur, and he created a selection of independent films for the cinema which he would direct himself and often feature in the lead role, and this adaptation of his small screen hit was the first of these, proving just as successful as a movie as it had been as a series, though he never made a follow-up.
Perhaps he recognised Friday was better off on the box, as this film did feel overstretched from what was originally an hour long, with commercials; you do start to grow restless after the halfway mark when there's no doubt the sergeant will get his man. Another drawback from a modern perspective is that Webb's style became so iconic that it proved ripe for parody, from Stan Freberg's comedy record St George and the Dragon Net (and its sequel) to the TV predecessor to the Naked Gun series, Police Squad starring Leslie Nielsen who had emerged from the same pop culture milieu as Webb had, therefore could take off his stylings with perfection. Therefore you find yourself looking for the jokes.
Friday is allowed to crack the occasional smile and fire off a terse one-liner, but for the most part here he is a "Just the facts, ma’am", no nonsense type of guy, if a shade more active than he was on the television: for instance, he gets into an extended fistfight with some suspects with his loyal partner Officer Frank Smith (Ben Alexander) by his side which seems to have been added for excitement value rather than something the real L.A.P.D. would get up to as a matter of routine. Indeed, Friday bends the rules to approximate police harassment of his suspects since he knows fine well they are guilty, and so do we, which makes it perfectly fair for him and Smith to spend all day following Troy for stop and searches in an attempt to wear him down.
Nevertheless, interesting elements did arise, as for example the potential witness who refuses to testify not only because he is scared, but also because he doesn't consider the murder of a known criminal to be worth spending any time on - good riddance to bad rubbish, basically. Not that Dragnet 1954 quite justified that either and frequently Friday comes across as an obsessive about tying up loose ends rather than a seeker after justice. Adding to that spoof-courting nature was the music from Walter Schumann, about a million brass stings that punctuate every scene, every sentence out of our hero's mouth for that matter, which will either irritate or prompt giggles such is the soundtrack's overemphasis. Obviously shot on a budget not far above that of the average TV episode, with sets and location work to match, this may have been as smooth as Webb could craft it but it was not slick, and often it was only his star power that kept the plot moving, yet as a document of a phenomenon, and as the first TV series to make the transition to the silver screen, it remained interesting.