Highway Dragnet (1954)

Richard Conte is Jim Henry, just released from the USMC, decorated several times, so we know he’s a good guy. He stops for a drink in a Las Vegas bar while hitch-hiking to meet a friend in California. He politely offers to buy a drunk for a frowzy blond sitting on the next stool. She initiates a fracas. The next morning she’s found strangled with a strap. The police pin it on Conte and the papers dub him “The Strap Killer.” Later, Conte muses, “Sure, I bought her a martini. Sixty-five cents worth of dynamite.” (That’s the closest we get to poetry.) But Conte escapes, and is reluctantly given a ride through the desert by two women, the professional photographer Joan Bennett and her model, young Wanda Hendrix. The women soon find out who Conte is supposed to be. The viewer with insight or experience will figure out the real murderer at about the half-way point.

The police spread a dragnet across points on the highway but Conte eludes them one way or another. You should see him smash through wooden barriers and demolish a couple of parked motorcycles. This is one tough swinging Jim.

Acting. Nobody wins the silver star here. Conte snaps out his lines in a brusque and commanding tone. His style, which hardly ever varied, doesn’t clash with the character though. Joan Bennett, who was fine elsewhere, is here given a role that turns her into an irritating nuisance. Her New York accent sounds thoroughly specious and swank, with Albian overtones. “After” becomes “Ah-fter.” Wanda Hendrix can’t act.

The story is a kind of mechanical armature around which these three characters (four, if you count the sonorous Reed Hadley, the earnest cop) are molded. It’s as if a couple of experienced writers of B features sat down and said, “Let’s have the hero trying to escape from the police on a desert highway. How many different narrow escapes can we think of?” They did a good job. The close calls are uncountable. Somebody may look at Conte suspiciously and say, “Hey, didn’t I just see your picture in the –“, and the phone rings. Or the director cross cuts between police cars with their sirens ululating and Conte frantically trying to get gas at a station in the middle of nowhere. Only the owner is a lazy Mexican who has an old gas pump that is hand operated, and he ever-so-slowly pushes the handle back and forth while chatting amiably about how he and the ancient gas pump are “friends.” It’s all absurd and fun. Best thing about the movie is the location shooting, which nicely evokes the Mojave desert and, later, the climax at the Salton Sea. Maybe others might not like it as much as I do. It redintegrates memories of being a teen and being cooped up on a Coast Guard cutter that circled for weeks in mid-Pacific. Once in a while, an old movie would be shown at night, and this was one of them. We wept with joy. And Wanda Hendrix, actress or not, looked pretty good.