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DRAGNET, FILM NOIR, AND POSTWAR REALISM R. Barton Palmer Conceived by radio actor Jack Webb, who also starred and directed, Dragnet was one of the longest-running and most critically acclaimed dramatic series of 1950s American television, with a phenomenal total of 263 episodes broadcast from 1952-1959 and a reprise (for which there was little precedent in the industry) in 1967-1970 that generated a hundred more programs. No doubt Webb's police drama dominated the airwaves in the earlier decade. The initial version of the show was designed for radio, first airing in 1949 and continuing for 318 weekly episodes until 1955. Not only did the two series run concurrently for three years; they were intimately connected, with the radio scripts providing most, if not all, of the material for subsequent televisual production and broadcast. Once Webb made the move to television, his decision to film episodes rather than broadcast them live ensured that Dragnet would, because of syndication, be a continuing presence for years afterward on the small screen. In its radio and television forms, Dragnet left an indelible mark on American popular culture, inspiring a host of popular imitations in its own time (The Lineup, Highway Patrol, M-Squad, and The Untouchables chief among them) and establishing conventions for police action programming that have been followed by the most successful series of the last three decades, including Law & Order, whose producer, Dick Wolf, acknowledges, "Dragnet is the father of us all."' As critics remarked at the time, what made Dragnet distinctive, and popular, was its deep commitment to a form of realism that Webb borrowed, ifin a substantially modified form, from the cinema, where, as a young actor, he had begun to make a name for himself in such hard-edged films as Fred Zinnemann's The Men (1950), Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), and 33 34 R. Barton Palmer Lewis Allen's Appointment with Danger (1951). Albert Werker's He Walked by Night (1949), in which Webb played a small role as a detective, exerted an especially powerful influence on his developing conception of a police procedural series, which would derive its name from the initial response to a bloody murder detailed in the film, the dragnet that brings dubious characters and the usual suspects into temporary custody for questioning. The realism Dragnet introduced to television violated many industry conventions, as Variety effusively observed when the television series was first broadcast in 1952: "There was no wasted motion, establishing the theme swiftly with racy, realistic dialog and deft locale transition. More important, there was no violence or blood-letting, and none of the artificially contrived cliches to achieve suspense."2 While the connection between He Walked by Night and Webb's radio/ television series has been generally recognized, what has hitherto received little attention is the particular form of realism that Webb developed from it. Werker s film certainly could not be said to avoid "violence or bloodletting " or eschew "artificially contrived cliches to achieve suspense." It seems, instead, that Webb's desire was, as a literary critic once remarked of realist and naturalist novelists, "to resurrect the complete illusion of real life, using the things characteristic of real life" (emphasis mine).3 Despite borrowings from the real, all fictional realisms, of course, depend on conventions, not on some special access to actuality denied to other representational traditions . The sense of lived rather than fictional experience that Webb created in Dragnet proves no exception. We may grant that here too is a confection largely dependent on techniques and consciously repeated devices that—providing the consistent stylization necessary for a long-running series to be produced on a limited budget—could easily be, and often were, effectively parodied. More interesting, however, is that Webb's break from the well-established traditions of radio and screen crime drama, as well as his desire to make use of the "things characteristic of real life," was consonant with the critical protocols that elite critics of the age, enamored of the Italian neo-realist films then such a sensational presence on the silver screen, were using to judge Hollywood movies and the various forms of television drama as well. Successfully embodying a realistic aesthetic, Dragnet established its significant difference from ordinary television series, a difference ratified by its continuing popularity and appeal to the critics. A quality program, with artistic connections through its realism to the celebrated live televisual drama Dragnet, Film Noir, and Postwar Realism 35 of the age...


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