Friday marks the opening of “Noir City: Chicago,” the weeklong festival of film noir presented by Music Box and the Film Noir Foundation. This is the ninth annual edition, which should give you some idea of the festival’s popularity, and with each passing year the programmers, having already screened most of the classic noirs of the 1940s and ’50s, have to strain a little harder to come up with fresh titles. Opening night is a case in point: a double feature of L.A. Confidential (1997), Curtis Hanson’s star-studded Oscar winner about corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department of the early 50s, and Dragnet (1954), Jack Webb’s theatrical spin-off from his wildly popular radio and TV show.
The two movies may not qualify as noir, strictly speaking, but they make for a striking double bill at a time when policing has become a critical issue in modern American life. Ezra Edelman’s recent documentary O.J.: Made in America helped acquaint some younger viewers with the darker history of the LAPD, whose aggressive tactics against nonwhite Angelenos were laid bare in 1991 by the videotaped police beating of Rodney King. You could trace a line from the four policemen in the King video all the way back to Sergeant Joe Friday, the upright, deadpan LAPD detective Webb brought to the small screen. As producer, director, and star of Dragnet, Webb struck a Faustian bargain with William H. Parker, the city’s controversial chief of police, trading creative control of the show for access to department resources. The televised Dragnet, which ran from 1951 to 1959 and again from 1967 to 1970, would be praised for its authenticity even as it served as a powerful propaganda tool.
Born in 1920 and raised in downtown LA, Webb survived a rough childhood, the sort that can tilt a man toward authority figures. His deadbeat father disappeared before Jack was even born, leaving him to the care of his divorced mother and her sister. Poor, sickly, and asthmatic, the boy dug through garbage cans for the fiction magazines he craved and found shelter and comfort in the public library while his mother was working. Dreaming of aerial combat, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II, only to wind up as a desk jockey in Texas. Later, as a young radio actor back in LA, he created and starred in a popular hard-boiled detective series on ABC called Pat Novak for Hire. But the job that really changed Webb’s life was his small role in He Walked by Night (1948), an electrifying (and genuine) film noir about the LAPD using the latest technology to track a cop killer through the streets of the city.
Produced by the struggling Eagle-Lion Films, He Walked by Night contained many of the elements that would make Dragnet a classic: the opening title explaining that the names had been changed to protect the innocent, the close attention to modern crime-fighting methods, the commanding sense of Los Angeles as a sprawling 20th-century metropolis. During the shoot, Webb was assailed by the movie’s technical consultant, veteran LAPD officer Marty Wynn, who called out Pat Novak for Hire as a fantasy. Through Wynn (the real-life model for Kevin Spacey’s starry-eyed sergeant in L.A. Confidential), Webb was able to procure actual case files from the LAPD, and he conceived of a new show that would sweep away the whole Dashiell Hammett approach to crime drama with a meticulously accurate representation of police detectives evaluating forensic evidence, interviewing witnesses, and building a case for the district attorney’s office. Dragnet debuted on NBC in June 1949 and proved so popular that two years later it became the first radio series to graduate to television. Three years after that, it became the first TV series to graduate to the movies.
The spin-off feature screening on Friday shows Webb struggling to extend his narrative format to 90 minutes, but the first 30 demonstrate what made the series so compelling. Making his feature directing debut, he opens with a dynamic and highly cinematic sequence in which a local hoodlum, lured into a field by an associate, is ambushed by a third man who takes him down with a shotgun. But after that the movie’s pleasures, in keeping with the show’s radio origins, are chiefly verbal: Friday’s rat-a-tat voice-over narration, compulsively noting the clock time of each errand; the high volume of technical information, as a forensic chemist explains the physical evidence recovered from the scene of the crime; the coiled, world-weary dialogue, ending inevitably in one of Sergeant Friday’s harsh judgments. If nothing else, Webb knew how to deliver a punch line. “Now listen to me, cop, I pay your salary!” cries one suspect. Friday snaps, “Sit down, I’m gonna earn it.”
The big-screen Dragnet also showcases the sort of fanatical realism that distinguished the TV and radio versions from their broadcast competitors. No detail of police work was too small for Webb’s notice—his set designers and decorators would visit police buildings and construct exact replicas of existing rooms. He fills the movie screen with official documents—rap sheets, writs of habeas corpus, etc—and every stamp and signature is faithfully reproduced. The dialogue is littered with obscure police terms, which had the unexpected effect of pulling viewers deeper into the story instead of deflecting them. In essence, Webb invented the police procedural as a TV genre, his documentary rigor setting a high bar for every crime series to follow. And yet Dragnet was really a fraud, an exercise in authenticity that purposely overlooked what was happening on the ground in Los Angeles during the 1950s. It may have been the truth and nothing but the truth—but it was far from the whole truth.
Dragnet was already a radio hit when Parker, head of the LAPD’s Internal Affairs division, was promoted to chief of police and took over the scandal-plagued department in August 1950. By this time Webb had taken to soliciting story ideas from rank-and-file officers and paying $100 for any case history that generated an episode; Parker, who had done public affairs work in the military, put a stop to this immediately and ordered the TV producer to clear every script through his Office of Public Information, whose staff would eventually grow to 20 people. When Dragnet moved to television, Webb was even more dependent on the LAPD—not only for case files but for badges, insignia, squad cars, and all the other accoutrements of visual authenticity. Parker made him jump through hoops for the department’s cooperation, and this arrangement, combined with the overwhelmingly positive feedback Webb received from police who tuned in, inevitably turned Dragnet into a love letter to the LAPD.
Webb always brushed off reporters’ questions about his fatherless childhood, saying he never gave it a thought. But he idolized Parker, a titanic figure in the history of the LAPD. Born in 1905 and raised in Deadwood, South Dakota, Parker was a policeman’s policeman, leather-tough and ramrod-straight, a childless workaholic and a heavy drinker. Over the years he would increase the department’s autonomy, bringing oversight of police misconduct inside the LAPD and away from prying eyes. He worked to root out corruption on the force, but he also fought political pressure to integrate the white and minority units inside the LAPD. Under Parker, the department adopted a tyrannical “proactive policing” strategy that Joe Domanick, author of two books on the LAPD, summarized as “Confront and command. Control the streets at all times. Always be aggressive. Stop crimes before they happen. Seek them out. Shake them down. Make that arrest. And never, never admit the department has done anything wrong.”
Parker’s philosophy permeates the Dragnet movie, which is more violent than the broadcast versions. On TV, Webb’s robotic Joe Friday could show occasional glints of humanity, trading jokes with his partner and sympathizing with victims, but in the movie he’s a snarling, sarcastic avenger. The TV show typically functioned as a mystery story, but here the gangland assassins are identified quickly and most of the action involves the detectives’ dogged (sometimes tedious) efforts to build a solid case. Late in the film Friday and his partner conduct a “bumper-to-bumper tail,” really a daylong harassment in which they trail the suspect and pull him over again and again to be frisked. The movie also exhibits a healthy contempt for the Fifth Amendment, which the suspects all invoke to protect themselves. In the final shot Friday drops a signed Fifth Amendment plea onto the sidewalk, and the signature of the suspect, now dead, is washed away by the rain.
Onscreen this kind of aggression can be exciting, but in real life Parker’s paramilitary approach, with police cadets subjected to the sort of high-stress training favored by the marines, began to make the LAPD seem like an occupying army. Parker bowed to pressure and integrated all LAPD units in 1962, but the department’s relationship with the city’s black and Latino populations remained sour. That same year the NAACP and Malcolm X both denounced the LAPD after a traffic stop of two Black Muslims culminated in 75 officers conducting a deadly assault on a Nation of Islam mosque. Between 1963 and 1965, LAPD officers killed no fewer than 60 black citizens, 27 of them shot in the back. Parker’s clueless response to the Watts riots of August 1965, combined with his increasingly visible alcoholism, had begun to isolate him politically when he died of a heart attack in 1966, at a dinner in his honor that was being emceed by Jack Webb.
Webb made a few attempts to massage the LAPD’s race problems in the 1968-’69 season of Dragnet, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In one episode Friday takes part in a TV debate to defend the LAPD against charges of bigotry and brutality; in another he’s tasked with recruiting more minority candidates for the force, which ends in frustration; in yet another he serves with the city’s Emergency Control Center to monitor black neighborhoods in the days following the King murder. The late-60s incarnation of Dragnet, more commonly rerun now, became a cultural touchstone for political hard hats with its angry condemnation of hippies and drug culture. When Webb died in 1982, police chief Daryl Gates—Parker’s protege—awarded Webb’s family a genuine LAPD badge to place in his casket, a final token of his authenticity. Obituaries inevitably remembered Joe Friday’s catchphrase “Just the facts, ma’am.” But people tend to shape history by choosing which facts to include and which to discard. v