How come nobody told me about these?
If you’ve never seen any of the original black-and-white Dragnet episodes from the Fifties–most of which, alas, have been out of circulation for decades–you don’t know what the show was really like. As I wrote in an essay called “In Praise of Drabness” that was published last year in National Review:
Like the later color version, the Dragnet of the Fifties was a no-nonsense half-hour police procedural that sought to show how ordinary cops catch ordinary crooks. The scripts, many of which were written by James E. Moser, combined straightforwardly linear plotting (“It was Wednesday, October 6. It was sultry in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of homicide”) with clipped dialogue spoken in a near-monotone, all accompanied by the taut, dissonant music of Walter Schumann. Then and later, most of the shots were screen-filling talking-head closeups, a plain-Jane style of cinematography that to this day is identified with Jack Webb.
The difference was that in the Fifties, Joe Friday and Frank Smith, his chubby, mildly eccentric partner, stalked their prey in a monochromatically drab Los Angeles that seemed to consist only of shabby storefronts and bleak-looking rooms in dollar-a-night hotels. Nobody was pretty in Dragnet, and almost nobody was happy. The atmosphere was that of film noir minus the kinks–the same stark visual grammar, only cleansed of the sour tang of corruption in high places. But even without the Chandleresque pessimism that gave film noir its seedy savor, Dragnet was still rough stuff, more uncompromising than anything that had hitherto been seen on TV. In 1954 Time called the series “a sort of peephole into a grim new world. The bums, priests, con men, whining housewives, burglars, waitresses, children, and bewildered ordinary citizens who people Dragnet seem as sorrowfully genuine as old pistols in a hockshop window.”
Here’s the opening sequence of “The Big Cast,” a 1952 Dragnet featuring Lee Marvin. It’ll give you a feel for what you’ve been missing: