I have a great deal of affection for Poverty Row film noirs, but more often than not I wish big stars would treat them like Kryptonite. 1954’s Highway Dragnet is a case in point. Richard Conte is reliable as ever, but Joan Bennett is done a great disservice, and devotees of hers would do well to stay as far away from this as she should have.
The film’s “man on the run” premise is a cliché, but it’s the sort of cliché that got that way because it’s such great film fodder. Conte’s character has just drummed out of the Marine Corps after a rough stint slogging a flamethrower up and down hills in Korea. With a few bucks in his pocket and plenty of time on his hands he heads for the Vegas strip for a few laughs with a pal (who we oddly never see or meet). They plan to hit the town before heading west to renovate Conte’s dilapidated home on California’s Salton Sea. While waiting on his buddy, Conte gets bored with the penny slots and enters the casino bar — wood-paneled like a basement rec-room and strewn with lounge lizards and greasy pompadours. He spots an empty stool and falls into it, right beside a peroxide blonde, Mary Beth Hughes, dolled up but cheap-looking, two sheets to the wind and working on three. The stage is set for the best sequence in Highway Dragnet — too bad it happens so early on.
Bar scenes are a useful narrative device in cheap filmmaking, and a noir staple. They also resonate with me, as I spent more than a decade standing at the doors of shitty dives with my arms crossed, trying to make like a tough guy — and occasionally having to be one. I’ve seen some unpleasant things in the thousands of hours I’ve spent eyeballing barrooms, and I have an understanding of, and maybe even some affection for those sad souls who rot away on barstools — perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to the losers that populate crime films. The bar offers filmmakers a convenient place to set characters on a collision course, particularly those of the opposite sex. What better symbolizes the seedy urban milieu than the bar? What could be a more emblematic of recklessness, danger, and the allure of easy sex? What better place to be noticed, or to go unnoticed; to conduct nefarious business or an illicit affair? And then there’s the booze itself, our most expedient gateway to sex, violence, or oblivion — in life, as in art. Bars are used often to such purpose in film noir, so it’s hardly surprising that Highway Dragnet, a 70-minute chase picture, opens with a man and a woman sparring over drinks. The scene is brief, spectacular, and best of all: absolutely authentic — so I’m going to slobber over it. If you are anxious for a summary, just go watch the movie — it’s available for free and plenty short enough.
The scene gets moving after Conte does the polite thing and offers Hughes a drink in exchange for the vacant seat, currently occupied by her handbag. She hungrily accepts, but not before making a floozy’s feint at good-girl morality: “I’m not here for that.” Sure she is. They chit-chat their pasts, how they each arrived at the then-and-now, with both actors coming over as only casually interested in one another, or maybe scrupulously disinterested. Here are two performers who understand the way that life-hardened souls interact in a bar, nursing secret little hopes just as they nurse their liquor. Men and women let their guards down over drinks, sitting side-by-side instead of across from one another. They relax when looking up doesn’t mean looking at, and lighting a cigarette has more to do with connecting than it does with foreplay. Conte and Hughes intuit all of this, and their performances take on the unexpected air of truth.
Conte’s good, but Hughes is great, playing tipsy just right, her head not quite steady as she smiles in his direction, her brassiere showing under her dress as she shifts unsteadily on her stool. The pair share the easy banter of those who believe that sex is either impossible or inevitable, and their certainty is what makes this scene so good: Hughes thinks she’s hooked him while Conte is just wasting time. She tells him she’s an ex-fashion model — her glossy is hanging on the wall, just over there, on your right — yet he blunders when he says, “Hey, you were really beautiful then.” There are few creatures more perilous than the woman sitting alone at the bar: her vulnerability makes her dangerous, and Hughes reacts like a classic mad drunk: she gets aggressive. Conte grabs her, pinning her arms behind back, but to his surprise she smiles — she’s finally getting what she wanted the whole time: human contact. Hard or soft, it doesn’t matter. Her body relaxes and she leers into a kiss, just like she planned it that way, and the scene fades out. It’s a moment that reminds us why we love B-pictures: sometimes, because of their meager budgets and lowbrow subject matter, these cheap movies get it exactly right.
In the harsh light of desert mornings and hangovers, we next find Conte at an arid crossroads thumbing his way west. Too bad for him that the first car by is rocking its springs with law enforcement, not surprisingly on the lookout for our boy. A certain peroxide blonde is splayed blue-in-the-face on the floor of her bungalow, and everyone from the bar remebers her and Conte’s fireworks. The uniforms put him in bracelets and haul him to the scene of the crime, where the script contrives to make Conte look guilty as hell. For the sorts of reasons that only make sense on Poverty Row he has a bloody shirt in his suitcase, and when the detectives check his alibi by trying to call the no-show buddy’s hotel, Conte suddenly recalls that his pal is on a “top secret” assignment and isn’t traveling under his real name. Why the film puts us through all of this rubbish is unclear, there’s never a moment where we believe Conte to be guilty — he’s got a Silver Star for Pete’s sake (they are always war heroes) — though it’s possible the writers want to keep us guessing. After all this is a picture with four producers and six credited writers (including Roger Corman), so some confusion is inevitable. (We never do get an explanation for the bloody shirt.) With his chances at freedom fading fast, Conte makes with the judo and busts out. He dives into one of the idling prowl cars and skedaddles. Believe it or not, at this point the film is only ten minutes old.
The rest of the picture takes place on the run. Conte dumps his khakis and the police car, and then stumbles upon two women broken down by the side of the highway. Joan Bennett is a magazine photographer; Wanda Hendrix (you might know her from Ride the Pink Horse) is her model. Conte gets their pistons firing and they pay him back with a free lift. The remaining reels are concerned with a series of near misses at various roadblocks and diners — all full of donut chomping cops — and the unfolding group dynamic when the girls finally discover that their passenger is a murder suspect. Eventually he’s compelled to hold them in check at gunpoint, but as the minutes go by the vivacious (and horny!) Hendrix is more and more in his corner, while Bennett has a different idea. There are a few twists and turns along the route, though nothing — not even the film’s payoff — will come as a big surprise. What is surprising, however, is poor Joan Bennett.
Bennett was still a household name in 1954, though she was a decade past the vibrant sexuality of Scarlet Street, and the old-gal stability of Dark Shadows wasn’t yet on the horizon. Like Barbara Stanwyck she had transitioned to mature roles, having scored with critics as the determined mother in The Reckless Moment and then successfully partnered Spencer Tracy in the highly commercial Father of the Bride pictures. But in 1951 she veered into career hell. Her big-shot husband, producer Walter Wanger, shot her agent, Jennings Lang, in a Beverly Hills parking lot. Wanger thought they were having an affair, and attempted to settle the issue like a character from one of his pictures. Lang survived the shooting, and rehabilitated while Wanger did a few months at the honor farm. The real victim was a scandalized Joan, suddenly a scarlet woman and a chief subject of Hollywood gossip mongers. By the time she landed Highway Dragnet her career was in purgatory. She looks — and it’s painful to write this — awful. Severe and shrill, she seems angry to even be in the picture, forced to play second fiddle to someone as impossibly young and perky as Wanda Hendrix. Bennett’s role is important, but Highway Dragnet’s final scene is excruciating. It’s the sort of thing that must have pained her in the years that followed, and were she still with us she’d undoubtedly be upset that this film has become available.
Highway Dragnet is a watchable B-thriller, a thematic film noir with very little style (cinematographer John Martin only did westerns) and a few cringe-inducing moments — unmistakably Poverty Row — but should still be of interest to noir enthusiasts. But give the woman in the window a break. She deserves it.
Highway Dragnet (1954)
Producer: Roger Corman, Jack Jungmeyer, and A. Robert Nunes
Story: U.S. Anderson and Roger Corman
Screenplay: Herb Meadow and Jerome Udlum
Cinematography: John J. Martin
Starring: Dick Conte, Joan Bennett, and Wanda Hendrix
Released by: Allied Artists
Running time: 70 minutes