Universal // 1967 // 432 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Maurice Cobbs (Retired) // September 28th, 2005
Bill Gannon: "It's a new generation, Joe...Kinda makes you wonder, doesn't it? It's like we were living in a different century. We see things as black or white, legal or illegal, right or wrong. They don't seem to see it that way. Maybe they just don't know the difference."
Joe Friday: "Then it's time they learned."
Miklós Rózsa's "Danger Ahead" (Dum...de dum dum) and Walter Schumann's "Dragnet March" comprise perhaps the most recognized television theme in history, but it originated not on television but on the radio, in 1949. Following in the tradition of crime dramas like Gangbusters (which would itself eventually make the leap to television, as did many other popular radio shows), the Dragnet radio program focused on Sgt. Joe Friday, a straight-as-an-arrow cop who lowered the boom on criminals with unswerving dedication, in cases that were "true," with only the names changed "to protect the innocent," and was produced with the cooperation of the Los Angeles Police Department. The show was a big hit and came to television in 1952, running simultaneously on both mediums for those who just couldn't get their fill of Webb's gravelly monotone. In 1954, Dragnet found its way to the big screen, as Joe and his partner Frank Smith (Ben Alexander, who also starred with Webb on the radio and TV programs -- for bonus trivia points, can you name Friday's othertwo partners?) took on the mob while investigating a brutal shotgun murder.
The radio show ended in 1957, and the TV show followed suit in 1959, but Dragnet had already become a pop-culture phenomenon (the Stan Freeburg parodies are a good example of Dragnet's far-reaching influence). Webb busied himself with other projects -- my personal favorite is 1962's cautionary fable The Commies Are Coming, the Commies Are Coming! -- until 1966, when Webb put together a TV movie that put Friday and his partner Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan, M*A*S*H) on the trail of a serial killer who is murdering beautiful young models through a lonely hearts club. Although the movie itself wasn't aired until 1969, it did lay the groundwork for the series we're examining here, often referred to as Dragnet '67. This incarnation of the show, which is perhaps the best-known, lasted until 1970 and marks the first time that a TV show was cancelled and then revived. Of course, Friday had been promoted to Detective Lieutenant by the end of the '50s run, but Webb decided to bust Joe back down to a sergeant for the revival. As Webb himself explained, "Few detective lieutenants get out into the field."
Dum de dum dum...here's the line-up:
Disc One, Side One:
* "The Big LSD": Friday and Gannon encounter a wildly painted teenager out of his skull on acid who calls himself Blue Boy. There's only so much that they can do, since there's no law against LSD -- and by the time one hits the books, it may be too late for Blue Boy...
* "The Big Explosion": The clock ticks as Friday and Gannon interrogate a white supremecist who has stolen a lot of TNT -- and plans to use it to protest the racial integration in an explosive display.
* "The Big Kidnapping": Bill and Joe deal with a hysterical woman whose boss has been kidnapped and will be murdered unless she pays a $75,000 ransom.
* "The Big Interrogation": Bill and Joe interrogate an undercover rookie (Kent McCord) charged with robbing a liquor store while on duty. Joe's prediction that the rookie would spend time in a squad car came true -- McCord was Martin Milner's partner on Adam-12.
* "The Big Masked Bandits": Friday and Gannon are on the trail of a band of thieves who are pulling armed robberies in cocktail lounges all over the city.
* "The Big Bank Examiners": When a pair of con men posing as bank examiners come to town and start bilking the elderly, Bill goes undercover to nab them.
* "The Big Hammer": What sort of animals would beat an old man's face in with a hammer and steal his last six bucks? Friday and Gannon are determined to find out.
Disc One, Side Two:
* "The Big Candy Story": A series of candy store robberies are confounding Joe and Bill's efforts to stop them.
* "The Big Fur Burglary": Bill goes undercover again, this time to nab a band of fur thieves.
* "The Big Jade": Friday and Gannon investigate a $200,000 Imperial Jade robbery.
* "The Big Shooting": A police officer is shot in the stomach with a sawed-off shotgun when he encounters a pair of ex-convicts.
* "The Big Accident": A hit-and-run driver kills an elderly couple, and feels no remorse about it.
* "The Big Bookie": Friday goes undercover to smash a gambling ring.
* "The Big Subscription Racket": A bogus Marine is using his father's Congressional Medal of Honor to sell magazine subscriptions.
* "The Big Gun": The rape and murder of a beautiful young Japanese widow and mother begins to chew at Joe emotionally.
* "The Big Kids": Friday and Gannon take a narrow view of a gang of teenagers who shoplift for kicks.
* "The Big Bullet": A man is found dead after barricading himself in a room. With no way in or out of the room, it seems like a straightforward suicide -- until it is discovered that the bullet that killed the man could not have been fired from the gun found in his hand!
"When you live in a society, you either live by the rules or by democratic process you change 'em. You don't break 'em." -- Joe Friday
Thanks to K. Morgan, and apologies to R. Miller
Dragnet '67 is a retro bag of yummy treats. The world may have been changing all around him, but Joe Friday never did; he dealt with his job with the same straightforward integrity and unabashed conservatism in 1967 that he had in 1949. From the minute that you saw badge #714 (extra bonus trivia points if you know whose badge that was) on your TV screen, you knew that you were gonna get the straight goods. In Joe Friday's view, problems may be complicated, but the law is clear-cut; there are many excuses for breaking the law, but no reasons. Contrary to popular opinion, Friday recognized all the different shades of gray -- but he also knew that in order for gray to exist, you have to start with black and white. He could be sympathetic to a criminal, like to the woman who turned to insurance fraud to maintain her lifestyle after her husband died, or to the neglected teenager who turned to shoplifiting as a plea for his parents' attention; but the law is the law, and if you make a choice to break the law, you face the consequences of it. It's a moral absolute that is almost extinct today; Friday didn't feel the need to apologize for being a good guy, and that monotone could drip with contempt when directed at, say, the drunk driver who remorselessly ran down an elderly couple, or when he said to a smart-mouthed teenaged girl, an accessory to murder, "I bet your mother had a loud bark."
On the other hand, the sixties Dragnet tends to be just a little more preachy than the versions before it; where there had previously existed only hard-boiled crime drama, there was now an element of finger-wagging. Granted, that's Joe's prerogative -- he's far more morally centered than any mere mortal, and it's a little comforting, like having your dad over for dinner and listening to him bitch about the younger generation after he's had a few drinks. Was anyone ever really as upright and forthright as Sgt. Joe Friday? Maybe the world would be in much better shape today if there had been, but the cynic in me suspects that if anyone were to appear on TV these days with such a clear view of right and wrong he'd be hounded out of the country as a right-wing fruitcake. More's the pity.
In any case, these 17 half-hour crime dramas / morality plays are presented here in their original broadcast order, beginning with perhaps the most legendary Dragnet story ever -- "The Big LSD," also known by the name of one of its principal characters: "Blue Boy." This seminal episode would set the tone for Dragnet in the '60s, as Joe went to war against not only thieves and kidnappers and murderers and rapists, but also hippies and addicts and racists of assorted colors. The stories really were based on actual cases -- in fact, Jack Webb had made a standing offer of the princely sum of $25 to any policeman who submitted a story that was later used as the basis of a script. Realism was a sticking point for Webb, and he went to great pains to accurately portray the investigative routine of collecting evidence and running down leads, paying such close attention to police procedure that episodes of Dragnet were used by the LAPD as training tools. But he never said, "Just the facts, ma'am." Never. Not even once, even though Universal saw fit to thoughtlessly place that phrase across the back of the box. Tsk, tsk.
The half-hour format of these shows allows Webb to keep Dragnet lean and tight, without the superfluous subplots that today's police dramas use to pad out their hour-long time slots. That sense of economy extends to all aspects of the show, even the wardrobe: In the four-year run of the series, Bill and Joe always, with very rare exceptions, wore the very same suits and ties. But even within his notoriously economical framework, Webb finds ways to inject the series with style, composing striking shots against cool jazzy scores while using the color template to evoke powerful images, and balancing the stark drama that is the meat of the show with light comedy from time to time.
Whatever else Universal can be criticized for in this release, the quality of the transfer is not one of them. The show has never looked better than it does in this release, considering the age of the material; although there are a few scenes that show their age, such as on-location footage, for the most part the picture is clear, crisp, and clean, with strong, vibrant colors. You'll also be pleased to know that the audio mix makes the most of the 2.0 mono presenatation, avoiding the unfortunate blaring or dimmed sound spots that seem to plague other mono mixes.
Although the actual episodes are pretty classy, the presentation of them is considerably less so. Oh, the actual artwork looks fantastic, but notice that the first disc contains 14 episodes on two sides, and the second disc contains only three. Why? Was this set put together in some intern's spare time? It's shoddy packaging that could easily have been fixed, especially with the addition of a few extra features, which Universal inexplicably seems to avoid like a Celine Dion concert. Also note there are no commenatries, no interviews, no documentaries -- only a "bonus disc" CD with a single episode of the radio program -- "The Big Cut." Whoopee. I suppose I should be grateful that Universal decided to include anything extra at all, considering their track record. But really, would it have killed them to get Max Allan Collins or James Ellroy on the phone and ask 'em to sit in for a commentary or two? Seriously.
Dragnet '67 was an island of common sense in a wild era; with a clear conscience, a fierce sense of duty, and a rock-solid moral code, Joe Friday was one of the last barriers against moral relativism. As a testament to its place in popular culture, Dragnet would be revived three more times: as an unfortunate movie spoof starring Dan Akroyd as Joe's namesake nephew and Tom Hanks as his "freebird hipster" partner, Pep Streebek; as a forgettable short-lived syndicated series in 1989 that left Joe Friday out altogether; and in 2003, when Law & Order creator Dick Wolf put his own spin on Dragnet, reteaming former Dutch costars Ed O'Neill and Ethan Embry in a show that was as topical and hard-boiled as the original was in its day.
On September 28th, trial was held in the courtroom of Judge Maurice Cobbs, in and for DVD Verdict. In a moment, the results of that trial.
"It's not much of a life, unless you don't mind missing a Dodgers game because the hotshot phone rings. Unless you like working Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, at a job that doesn't pay overtime. Oh, the pay's adequate -- if you count pennies you can put your kid through college, but you better plan on seeing Europe on your television set. And then there's your first night on the beat, when you try to arrest a drunken prostitute in a Main St. bar and she rips your new uniform to shreds. You'll buy another one -- out of your own pocket. And you're going to rub elbows with the elite -- pimps, addicts, thieves, bums, winos, girls who can't keep an address and men who don't care. Liars, cheats, con men -- the class of Skid Row. And the heartbreak -- underfed kids, beaten kids, molested kids, lost kids, crying kids, homeless kids, hit-and-run kids, broken-arm kids, broken-leg kids, broken-head kids, sick kids, dying kids, dead kids. The old people nobody wants -- the reliefers, the pensioners, the ones who walk the street cold, and those who tried to keep warm and died in a $3 room with an unventilated gas heater.
"You'll walk your beat and try to pick up the pieces. Do you have real adventure in your soul? You better have, because you're gonna do time in a prowl car. Oh, it's going to be a thrill a minute when you get an unknown trouble call and hit a backyard at 2 in the morning, never knowing who you'll meet -- a kid with a knife, a pill-head with a gun, or two ex-cons with nothing to lose. And you're going to have plenty of time to think. You'll draw duty in a lonely car, with nobody to talk to but your radio.
"Four years in uniform and you'll have the ability, the experience and maybe the desire to be a detective. If you like to fly by the seat of your pants, this is where you belong. For every crime that's committed, you've got 3 million suspects to choose from. And most of the time, you'll have few facts and a lot of hunches. You'll run down leads that dead-end on you. You'll work all-night stakeouts that could last a week. You'll do leg work until you're sure you've talked to everybody in the state of California. People who saw it happen -- but really didn't. People who insist they did it -- but really didn't. People who remember -- those who try to forget. Those who tell the truth -- those who lie. You'll run the files until your eyes ache.
"And paperwork? Oh, you'll fill out a report when you're right, you'll fill out a report when you're wrong, you'll fill one out when you're not sure, you'll fill one out listing your leads, you'll fill one out when you have no leads, you'll fill out a report on the reports you've made. You'll write enough words in your lifetime to stock a library. You'll learn to live with doubt, anxiety, frustration. Court decisions that tend to hinder rather than help you. Dorado, Morse, Escobedo, Cahan. You'll learn to live with the District Attorney, testifying in court, defense attorneys, prosecuting attorneys, judges, juries, witnesses. And sometimes you're not going to be happy with the outcome.
"But there's also this: There are over 5,000 men in this city who know that being a policeman is an endless, glamourless, thankless job that's gotta be done. I know it, too, and I'm damn glad to be one of them." -- Sgt. Joe Friday
It took Huey Lewis until 1986 to figure out that it's hip to be square. But to Joe Friday, this wasn't news -- he knew it all along. Not guilty, although Universal's wacky presentation deserves some hard time.
Review content copyright © 2005 Maurice Cobbs; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 432 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Audio CD of the Original Dragnet Radio Show
* Badge 714