By John Crosby
(From the New York Herald Tribune, June 13th, 1949. Sent in by television historian MICHAEL J. HAYDE, author of “My Name’s Friday: The Unauthorized but True Story of Dragnet and the Films of Jack Webb”.)
[When DRAGNET first appeared in June 1949, most NBC execs were aghast. They didn’t like the underplaying, nor the lack of gunplay; in fact, they didn’t like any of the things which Jack Webb knew would make it unique. Since Webb was unwilling to change his vision, he expected that the show would be canceled within a month. But an influential voice, that of esteemed critic John Crosby, recognized the merit in Webb’s program. Webb always credited Crosby’s review with saving DRAGNET. Below is Crosby’s complete review. -MJH-]
“Dragnet,” a new sustaining program on NBC 10pm E.D.T. Fridays, is an astonishing cops-and-robbers job simply because nothing very astonishing happens on it. Each one is built around an actual case taken from the files of the Los Angeles Police Department, about which I know little except that it didn’t do very well with the black Dahlia murder.
The show rings with an authenticity that I found absorbing though confirmed mystery addicts may find it just dull. It may have been influenced toward honesty by the great and deserved success of the play “Detective Story,” whose author, Sidney Kingsley, took a long hard look at police stations before he started writing about one. Out in Hollywood, McKinlay Kantor, last I heard, was writing a screen play about the cops, and spent months studying their operations before tackling the job. It’s a healthy trend. The police have for years been depicted either as utter nincompoops or as Supermen of monstrous brains capable of taking apart four armed thugs single-handed.
In “Dragnet,” the two detectives are a couple of attractive, intelligent and vary hard-working young men who operate as a team as detectives usually do. In place of the customary derring-do, these two substitute thoroughness, a minute attention to details, and enormous patience. Their first task on this program was a payroll stick-up. From the outset, they had a pretty good hunch who did it. Picking up the man presented no problem. They knew where he was. The idea wasn’t simply to arrest him. It was to convict him once arrested.
The two detectives plodded patiently through the files of the known criminals, selected one who seemed most likely to have been the criminal’s partner in this enterprise, tracked him down at his sister’s, and then tailed him for weeks. There is no duller sport than this. It means hours, days, sometimes weeks of waiting patiently in a parked car watching a house from which nobody comes out or goes in.
An ex-F.B.I. man told me once about a tailing job he did on a Spanish spy in New Orleans. This spy, a very gay blade, covered just about all the naughtier spots in New Orleans. The F.B.I. man never saw the inside of any of them. He sat outside, night after night, waiting. The only edifice he got inside of was a church where he followed the spy to be sure he didn’t slip out a side door. It’s monotonous work and it takes the patience of Job.
To get back to “Dragnet,” the surveillance produced nothing at all, as frequently it doesn’t, and the two detectives had to try something else. They picked up their suspect, lodged him on another charge, a common practice, and finally by questioning got him to turn state’s evidence on his pal.
That is just one way to catch a thief. There are lots of other standard practices and, if we have to have whodunits on the air, I greatly prefer the real McCoy to the malarkey that is normally served up. There are also, I’m afraid, a great many dodges used to get convictions which are not at all ethical. I don’t expect the Los Angeles Police Department to come clean on this score.
Quite a few crime shows now claim to be based on somebody or other’s files. Few of them sound as authentic as “Dragnet.” Even “This is Your F.B.I.,” which has the official blessing of J. Edgar Hoover, is as tricked up with screeching sirens, chattering tommyguns, teletype noises and filters of all description as to sound no more credible than the “Adventures of the Falcon.”
Trouble is, most police work is so methodical it’s hard to make it exciting. It’s difficult to dramatize a cop searching through 400 photographs to find one likeness. The alternative is to put crime detection in human terms which “Dragnet” seems to be trying to do.
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