Noir Nook: YouTube Bs – Highway Dragnet (1954)
YouTube is a treasure trove of film noir classics – on it, for free, you can find gems like Scarlet Street (1945), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), House of Strangers (1949), Kansas City Confidential (1952), and many other major studio releases from the era.
I’ve discovered, though, when scrolling through the seemingly endless noir offerings on YouTube, that there are far more obscure ‘B’ pictures than there are features that are familiar to most noir fans. I usually give these movies the “go by” (as Joe Gillis from Sunset Boulevard would say), but recently, my curiosity got the better of me. They can’t all be clinkers, I figured. So I decided to find out.
This month’s Noir Nook is the first in a series of “YouTube Bs” – low-budget, little-known features from the film noir era that are worth your time. My inaugural feature is Highway Dragnet (1954), starring Richard Conte, Joan Bennett, and Wanda Hendrix.
Released by Allied Artists, the film opens at night in Las Vegas – it’s fascinating to see all of the old casinos (to me, at least – I LOVE Vegas), most of which are no longer standing. The camera takes us inside one of these, where we see Jim Henry (Conte), a recently discharged Marine, lose a couple of coins in a slot machine and then sit beside a rather inebriated blonde at the bar. Her name is Terry Smith and she’s an ex-fashion model – her picture is hanging on the wall of the bar, and Jim makes the mistake of telling her how beautiful she was “back then.” Terry takes offense and a rather public brouhaha ensues, which ends when Terry plants a big, wet one on Jim and we fade. To. Black.
We next see Jim the following morning, hitchhiking along the highway, when he’s nabbed at gunpoint by the local police. Turns out that Terry has been murdered – strangled with some kind of strap – and Jim’s on the hook for the killing. He loudly protests his innocence, but Lt. Joe White Eagle (Reed Hadley) of the Las Vegas police department doesn’t believe him. Especially when he finds a gun and a torn and bloody shirt in Jim’s suitcase, Jim’s bracelet under the dead woman’s body, and an alibi that doesn’t check out. The lieutenant and his men prepare to place Jim under arrest, but Jim isn’t having it, and in one of the coolest moves I’ve seen in a while, he kicks the lieutenant in the face, takes the guns from the men, and escapes in a police car.
When Jim spies two women on the highway with a stalled car, he finds a place where he can change out of his Marine uniform and get rid of his identification, then joins the women to offer his help. Once the car is fixed, Jim winds up behind the wheel of the car, helping the women — professional photographer Mrs. Cummings (Bennett) and her model, Susan Wilton (Hendrix) – drive to their next job. This sets up the rest of the film, as Jim tries to elude the police manhunt and we (and the women) try to figure out if he’s guilty or innocent.
I must admit that I had rather high hopes when I saw the cast of this film – Richard Conte is one of my favorite noir performers, and Joan Bennett is always a welcome sight. And I wasn’t disappointed. It was no Double Indemnity, but it held my interest from the very first scene, and director Nathan Juran kept the proceedings moving at a steady clip. There’s nary a dull moment in this 71-minute feature, although there were a number of unintentionally humorous moments, intended to ramp up the tension, but always involving some kind of misdirection or nick-of-time circumstance. But even this, for me, adds to the film’s quirky charm.
Grab yourself some popcorn, tune into YouTube, and see what you think. And meanwhile, enjoy some trivia tidbits about the film’s cast and crew:
- The director was Nathan Juran. You may not have heard of him, but you’ve certainly heard of two films he directed in 1958: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He also won an Academy Award for Art Direction for How Green Was My Valley (1941).
- House Peters, Jr. (who I first noticed because of his unusual name) played a small part as a state patrol officer. Peters’ main claim to fame is that he served as the face and body of Mr. Clean in the commercials for the Procter and Gamble cleaning product.
- Lt. White Eagle (I assume he was supposed to be a Native American?) was played by Reed Hadley. If you don’t recognize his face isn’t familiar, his voice may be familiar – he served as narrator for numerous noirs and other films, including The House on 92nd Street (1945), T-Men (1947), He Walked By Night (1948), and Canon City (1948).
- Terry Smith was played by Mary Beth Hughes, the star of one of my favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, I Accuse My Parents (1944), as well as one of my favorite obscure noirs, The Great Flamarion (1945). Hughes quit acting in the early 1960s and worked as a receptionist in a plastic surgeon’s office. In later years, she also worked as a telemarketer and opened her own beauty parlor.
- A small role as a sassy waitress was played by Iris Adrian, who specialized in these kinds of parts. You can also see her in such films as the Barbara Stanwyck starrer Lady of Burlesque (1943) and Go West (1940) with the Marx Brothers, as well as numerous Disney features later in her career, including That Darn Cat! (1965), The Love Bug (1968), The Shaggy D.A. (1976) and Freaky Friday (1976). She died in 1994 at the age of 82, due to complications from injuries she suffered in a Northridge, California, earthquake.
- The film was co-produced and based on a story co-written by Roger Corman, who would make a name for himself as the producer of more than 500 films. He’s still working as of this writing, with a new film set to come out later this year.
- You may know Wanda Hendrix from her prominent role in the 1947 noir Ride the Pink Horse. She was married to war hero-turned-Western screen star Audie Murphy, but the union was short-lived, reportedly plagued by Murphy’s combat-related paranoia and violence. Hendrix left Murphy after less than a year, and later married the brother of actor Robert Stack. She died of double pneumonia at the age of 52.
- Two actors who enjoyed their respective heydays a decade earlier were seen in small parts – Frank Jenks and Murray Alper. Jenks is best remembered for his role as a fast-talking reporter in His Girl Friday (1940), and Alper can be seen in such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Saboteur (1942), and They Were Expendable (1945).
If you get a chance to watch Highway Dragnet, I hope you’ll come back and share your thoughts. And stay tuned for more YouTube Bs!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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