Movie review – Highway Dragnet (1954)

What did you watch? Highway Dragnet from 1954 starring Joan Bennett and I should stop typing but I’m already committed.

You love Joan Bennett! I sure do, so that’s why I should stop watching this.

Wait is this one of those movies that is sold as a tense action adventure but it’s really about some meathead who acts like a jerk to women while on the run from the law and one of the women falls in love with him and you’re like “what?”? Yes.

And it has Joan Bennett? Sorry Joan, if I knew you back then I would have warned you.

I’ve written about Joan here before, most notably her appearances in Scarlet Street & The Woman In The Window. Joan was pretty prolific with a long resume of films through the 30’s and 40’s right up until this incident where one of her husbands shot her agent in a fit of jealous rage and then she stayed married to the guy for another 14 years. So she was kinda blacklisted for a bit for this incident even though according to her & her husband’s story she didn’t injure her agent. This is one of the few movies she got to make after the shooting, and I feel worse for her.

Highway Dragnet starts off with armyman Richard Conte who walks into a bar and strikes up a conversation with a floozie at the bar. They do and don’t hit it off, and this movie kind of drags you into everyone’s emotional abuse. Does she like this guy or not They fight and then they’re making out, and then in the next scene she’s been strangled with a strap and when Conte walks in the cops are their they accuse him of murder. He ESCAPES, and meets fashion photographer Joan and her assistant/model Wanda Hendrix on a desert highway. They’re having car trouble AND Joan’s lapdog is missing its strap, I MEAN LEASH, and as Conte triest to help them, they witness the dog get run over. Ugh, this movie.

What are they doing in the desert outside of town? Well it turns out that they wanted to get away from it all because Joan’s husband committed suicide OVER THE SAME FLOOZIE that Conte hooked up with (I’m assuming) and was killed. What follows next in this interminable yet somehow 70 minute long movie is Joan playing some kind of game with Conte, where she wants to get rid of him, but doesn’t? There’s a bunch of fakeouts where you think they’re going to leave him at a diner whose only other patrons are two cops, but he’s taken their car keys. Okay, at that point, ladies, shout for the cops. They’ll give you your keys back once they beat it out of him.

There’s a few other mishaps, a funny one where they pull into a hotel and the manager is a fan of Joan’s and fancies himself a photographer and Joan cleverly slips him a note in the camera slate that she’s with Conte the suspected killer, and he not very discreetly tells everyone in the hotel that the killer is in the vicinity. Then Conte grabs the ladies and drives them through the desert, where the car stalls and Joan tries to kill him a couple of times. It’s because, if it’s not obvious by now, she’s the one who killed the floozie, and not because Conte is hitting on Wanda who is probably half his age. We find out that Conte is on his way to see if he can meet a mystery engineer pal who has top secret clearance and that’s why he can’t tell the cops about him (what?) and the mystery engineer pal is going to see if Conte’s home, currently submerged in a flood zone, can be salvaged. Well, like in a lot of these movies, Wanda just falls for Conte as he carries her through the water into the kitchen where she discusses what changes she could make to it when they’re married. Then the cop chasing them walks in, but then Joan walks in and shoots the cop, intending to fame Conte and kill Wanda too. The gun is now empty and Joan runs but falls into the water, and confesses because she thinks she’s sinking. She’s not, the cops hear the confession, and Conte & Wanda are going to live happily ever after whether the house can be saved or not.

There’s not much to this movie other than Joan Bennett herself, and even then there’s not much for her to work with (they probably told her when she showed up, “you’re the killer, aaaaaand action!”). Conte is also pretty intense and carries the rest – actually, everyone does a pretty good job, but the mystery and Conte’s frantic behavior isn’t excused because he’s innocent. The cinematography of the submerged house is pretty interesting, the rest of this movie takes place in the desert in black & white, so, meh. Also a dog is (fake) killed as part of the plot, and so is the first woman introduced. Conte’s plan isn’t even to clear his name, he’s driven because he needs to meet his friend he can’t name and how and why is that a plot point that causes him to be a fugitive and endanger 2 women?

Well, there is a warning sign on this film: it’s Roger Corman’s first, as a writer. It was filmed in 10 days which I’m sure seemed like a dare to Corman (“oh YEAH, I bet I can make one in 2 days, with 1 location!”) inspiring him to be more involved with his future scripts before getting behind the camera soon after. That said, since he only wrote it, there’s a sense of competence in the filming, the acting is pretty good, and the narrative isn’t a jumbled contradictory mess.

The director was Nathan Juran, a veteran of western films who went on after this film to make equally exploitative sounding sci-fi movies like Attack Of The 50 Ft Woman and The Deadly Mantis. I recognize Richard Conte as the mean mobster in The Big Combo, he was pretty prolific in the 50s but had a 2nd career in the 70s in many mobster films.

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