Sunday 28 March 2021

Movie Review: Highway Dragnet (1954)

A man-on-the-run thriller, Highway Dragnet delivers decent dusty action but is constrained by an ultra low budget.

While unwinding at a Las Vegas bar, Korean War veteran James Henry (Richard Conte) tangles with floozy Terry Smith (Mary Beth Hughes), a former fashion model. As he attempts to head out of town the next day, James is arrested and accused of Terry's murder. Protesting his innocence, he escapes from the clutches of Detective Joe White Eagle (Reed Hadley) and goes on the run, intent on clearing his name.

On the Nevada highways he finds a ride with fashion photographer Mrs. Cummings (Joan Bennett) and her model Susan (Wanda Hendrix). With Mrs. Cummings hiding her own secret, the two ladies start to grow suspicious of James as the police chase intensifies, although Susan also starts to feel attracted to the fugitive. After a stop at a motel, James is forced to take the two women hostage and drives into the desert to avoid the police cordon, but more surprises await.

An Allied Artist production and the first movie to carry a Roger Corman credit (for the story), Highway Dragnet is a quick and dirty 71 minutes of straight ahead chase action. Richard Conte and Joan Bennett both finds themselves mired in material well beneath their talent, but go along for the ride as director Nathan Juran points the camera and shoots, plastic acting and single takes holding hands regardless of the howling wind obscuring the dialogue and no budget for dubbing.

The on-location filming in the stark and sun-drenched desert straddling the border between Nevada and California provides points of interest, the sturdy motor vehicles munch through the terrain with satisfying grunt, and the climax at the flooded Salton Sea offers further unique vistas. But the final act is also the setting for the movie's absolute low point, one character panicking in shallow water to laughable effect.

In terms of plot, this is standard fare wrongly-accused-man-on-the-run stuff, the police acting as incompetently as possible to stretch out proceedings, and romance blossoming despite the triple mortal dangers of starvation, dehydration, and a killer on the loose. The plot twist, if it was ever intended as a twist, is telegraphed in bold letters two or three times, just to make sure the steam from overheated radiators does not obscure the real villain.

Highway Dragnet roars through the desert, well short on dollars but enjoying high revs all the same.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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