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Directed by Nathan Juran in 1954 and co-produced/co-written by none other than Roger Corman, Highway Dragnet takes the tried and true ‘wrongfully accused man goes on the run' motif so prevalent in films like this and manages to, if not reinvent it, at least present an engaging and gripping story out of what could have easily become a cliché.
Jim Henry (Richard Conte) is a Marine just back on American soil after spending time abroad in the Korean War. He tries to reconnect with an old friend but winds up falling in with foxy blonde Terry Smith (Mary Beth Hughes), a former fashion model who now lives her life as a bar fly in a Las Vegas casino. They're happy to see one another and they spend the night together. The next morning, he leaves and then later… she's found dead. Of course, the cops all suspect that Jim is the killer, and when they pick him up they find a bloody shirt in his suitcase, but Jim knows better and soon enough, he's busted free and on the lam.
After hitching a ride with a guy in a pickup truck, he eventually gets a lift from a fashion photographer named Mrs. Cummings (Joan Bennett) and her young model/fellow traveler Susan Willis (Wanda Hendrix). He finds them on the side of the highway and after fixing their car for them, manages to talk them into giving him a ride. From here, the movie is essentially a bit of a chase film, with Henry and his two new friends doing their best to avoid the law as they travel out of Las Vegas west to the California coast along some remarkably scenic and beautifully lonesome desert highways. When the girls find out that Jim is a suspected killer, Susan has already fallen from him while Cummings gets far more defensive around him. Before it's all over there's some double crossing, a few neat plot twists and of course, a little bit of romance.
At only seventy-minutes in length, Highway Dragnet is quickly paced and pretty entertaining. Yeah, fine, the script isn't all that original, we've covered that already, but the acting here is pretty good. In fact, Mary Beth Hughes is downright excellent as the doomed catalyst for all of Henry's trouble. The scene she shares with Conte in the bar the night before she's found dead is ripe with overt sexual tension and wonderfully tawdry overtones. They both play this scene perfectly. We know they want each other from the start, even if neither will admit it. If you see enough of these old B-noir's you're not surprised she gets killed, but before she does Hughes and Conte are electric. Joan Bennett is quite good in her part here too, while Wanda Hendrix is in fine form as the model who is almost instantly drawn to her mysterious new passenger. It's a shame she and Conte don't share the same chemistry he shared with Hughs. As to Conte himself, he does the tough guy thing well, no surprise there. He doesn't show tons of range but then, the movie never really asks him to, and that's ok. He does what he need to do to make the part work for him.
If the story has a few plot quirks (how and why did he wind up with a bloody shirt in his suitcase?), at least the cinematography is strong. We get a lot of really great wide shots that show off the mountains and the desert as we travel towards the coast for what is genuinely a very cool conclusion. The location work in the picture is great and it does a nice job of showing off the Las Vegas (and surrounding area) that was, but isn't anymore.The Blu-ray
Highway Dragnet looks quite strong on Blu-ray from Kino framed at 1.78.1 widescreen and presented in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation taken from a new 4k restoration. There are a few scattered shots here and there that are definitely softer than others but this looks like it is due to how they were shot, rather than an issue with the transfer itself. Otherwise, the image here is strong indeed. There's a lot of nice detail throughout the vast majority of the picture, good depth and texture too. We get nice inky blacks and good contrast and the image is free of any obvious compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction.Sound:
The English language DTS-HD Mono track sounds quite strong. Dialogue is easy to follow and understand, the levels are properly balanced and there are no audible issues with any hiss or distortion. There's good presence to the score and the sound effects as well. Range is understandably limited due to the source, but no complaints here.No alternate language or subtitle options are provided.Extras:
The disc is basically barebones, though aside from menus and chapter selection Kino has included a selection of bonus trailers for a few other crime noir/thriller titles from their catalogue.Final Thoughts:
Highway Dragnet is tense, well-acted and quite entertaining. Conte is great in the lead while Nathan Juran's direction keeps the pacing tight. The southwestern settings are nicely photographed and the location work is frequently impressive. Kino's Blu-ray is light on extras but it does look and sound quite good. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.