VICE SQUAD (1953) – The Real “Dragnet”

17 Sep

VICE SQUAD (1953) is a sharply-directed, fast-paced black-and-white crime thriller that follows a full shift in a day’s work for a police captain in the Vice Squad of the Los Angeles Police Department. The filmmakers shot it largely on location on a tight schedule and sought authenticity in every scene, adopting a semi-documentary approach that makes it one of the more believable police dramas of the era. As such, it offers a sharp contrast to the popular TV series of the time, “Dragnet” (1951-59), which, as much as I like it and as much as it was based on true cases, has always seemed to me quite stylized in its depiction of the LAPD through the quirky sensibility, off-kilter humor and incessant moralizing of its producer-director-star, Jack Webb, who played Sergeant Joe Friday in the show. I can imagine a conversation among the director, writer and producers of VICE SQUAD, where they wondered what “Dragnet” would look and sound like with someone in the central role who didn’t make speeches to all and sundry and wasn’t immune to bending the rules and making compromises to get the desired results in a case, i.e., someone less like Sgt. Friday (Webb, pictured below) and more like the actual police captain they consulted before making the film.

So they came up with Captain Barnaby:

Edward G. Robinson plays Captain Barnaby and the film was made during a period that is generally considered a downturn in the actor’s long and distinguished career, but I consider this role his best since his film noir heyday in the 1940s (DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SCARLET STREET, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, THE STRANGER, KEY LARGO, et al) and arguably his best starring role in the entire 1950s. (Surprisingly, Robinson was never even nominated for an Oscar and only got an Honorary Award at the 1973 ceremony after his death earlier that year.)

Barnaby is stern, decisive and relentless, but also fair-minded and compassionate. He can be tough with suspects, witnesses and subordinates alike and has to make deals with the occasional shady character to get information. He also has a softer side, which he shows to a young woman seeking help in rescuing her widowed mother from the seductions of a gigolo posing as an Italian Count and to a delusional man who insists he’s being covered in “shadows” broadcast by television. (“Dragnet” had a weakness for eccentric characters and tended to go over the top with them.) The captain even makes time for a live television interview but is called away from the studio mid-shoot to address a crucial development in a case he’s supervising.

The main plot thread involves a gang of ex-cons planning and then carrying out an attempted bank robbery. The police get wind of it in two ways. An officer is shot and mortally wounded when he catches members of the gang stealing a car the night before the main action of the film, prompting an immediate investigation and the pressuring of a reluctant witness. Coincidentally, a parolee busted for burglary and eager to avoid going back to prison peddles a tip to Captain Barnaby about the planned bank robbery that leads to a stakeout just in time to confront the robbers.

The film cuts back and forth between the robber gang meeting, planning and staging the robbery, the police following up various leads, and Barnaby ordering a campaign of harassment of the uncooperative witness—a middle-aged undertaker who witnessed the shooting of the cop while quietly leaving the apartment of his much younger mistress.

The film benefits from crisp editing, short bursts of intense music (not unlike the score of “Dragnet”), and tightly staged shots of the actors in various locations, with special attention to composition in the more dramatic sites, such as the abandoned warehouse used by the robbers as their hideout. Cinematographer Joseph Biroc was a master at working fast and making the best possible use of locations on a pared-down budget. (He later became Robert Aldrich’s favorite cinematographer.)

The one action setpiece in the film is the attempted bank heist, filmed at an actual bank, which runs smack dab into a police stakeout, and is cleanly and economically shot, staged and edited:

One of the reasons this film works so well is the casting of a wide array of great, mostly unsung character actors in the varied roles. There are those who play the law enforcement personnel and have to convey not only maturity and authority but hard-earned experience and a certain level of cynicism and then there are the criminals, suspects, witnesses and doubtful everyday people whom the police must contend with, all with wary, hardened, lived-in faces and all played by accomplished, dependable performers who could be trusted to deliver the goods when “Action!” is called on a scene that has to shoot quickly.

Let’s start with the antagonists–the culprits, suspects, witnesses, defense attorneys and dubious complainants.

Edward Binns, normally an authority figure in films and TV episodes, here plays effectively against type as the cold-blooded murderous head of the band of robbers. (He was later one of the jurors in TWELVE ANGRY MEN):

Lee Van Cleef, as the icily efficient getaway driver:

Adam Williams, as a reluctant gang member who tries to back out of the caper when he realizes that the heat is on after the death of the policeman:

Charles Tannen, as another gang member who gets rousted in a police round-up after the shooting of the cop and is released just before the caper, but is not as sensible as Williams:

Robert Karnes as another gang member:

Jay Adler, as Frankie Pierce, the hapless parolee who pleads with Barnaby to promise leniency before he gives up the tip which breaks the case, only to get browbeaten for his trouble:

Percy Helton, as the man who sees “shadows”:

Joan Vohs, as the gorgeous blonde mistress of the undertaker witness:

John Verros, as the fake Italian count being investigated for “marriage bunco”:

Barry Kelley, as the conniving lawyer who keeps getting the harried undertaker released, only to keep returning to the station after Barnaby’s men bring the witness back repeatedly on trumped-up charges:

And then there’s Porter Hall, as the undertaker who doesn’t want his wife and community to find out about his involvement with the blonde (a very odd coupling, if you ask me):

(Hall played a much more cooperative witness opposite Robinson in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, 1944.)

On the police side:

Harlan Warde, as Detective Lacey, Barnaby’s right-hand man, usually played police detectives, military officers, sheriffs, and officials of various kinds and was also on many episodes of “Dragnet” and “Perry Mason.” He had a long, tireless career in film and television, but never got the showy parts that would have brought him attention and fame nor did he seem to want them. He just kept plugging along, doing what he did best and always making it interesting to the viewer. This is probably the biggest role I’ve ever seen him do. (He also served as Dialogue Director on the film.)

There’s also Dan Riss, as the detective who has the enviable job of tracking down the undertaker’s mistress:

Lewis Martin, as the veteran Lieutenant in charge of the bank stakeout:

K.T. Stevens, as Robinson’s no-nonsense policewoman secretary:

Christine White, as the young woman trying to keep the “Count” from marrying her mother:

Mary Ellen Kay, as a bank teller taken hostage by the robbers, who shows extraordinary bravery:

Byron Kane as a language expert called on to question the fake Count:

Leonard Bremen as the Desk Sergeant who gleefully follows repeated orders by Captain Barnaby to stall the undertaker’s release:

Finally, there’s the film’s female co-star, none other than second-billed Paulette Goddard, who was also experiencing a career slump here after her heyday as a top Paramount star in the 1940s, but manages to light up the screen in her every scene. She plays Mona Ross, the proprietor of an “escort” service, the implications of which are quite clear and somehow sailed past the censors. It’s obvious from her suggestive interplay with Barnaby that the two have some history and that he’s willing to look the other way on the activities of her and her “girls” as long as she provides needed help when requested.

They have a cute exchange in Goddard’s final scene after she’s been picked up by the police and brought to Barnaby’s office to share urgently needed information about one of her girls who might be connected to the robbers. As she leaves his office…

Barnaby: “Sorry I had to pick you up that way.”

Mona: “Don’t be sorry about it, I may have to pick you up sometime.”

(That’s the only time Barnaby smiles in the film.)

For the record, I counted 20 actors in the cast of VICE SQUAD who also appeared in episodes of “Perry Mason” and five who also appeared in “Dragnet,” both in the 1950s and 1960s versions.

This was Lawrence Roman’s first screenplay (based on a novel by Leslie T. White) and was written when he was about 31 (he had one prior TV writing credit). This was Arnold Laven’s second movie as a director and he was about 30 when he made this. Co-producer Jules V. Levy was also about 30. His producing partner, Arthur Gardner, was about ten years older. Here’s what it says about Laven, Levy and Gardner on IMDB, in a mini-biography of Laven written by Tom Weaver:

Laven, Jules V. Levy and Arthur Gardner met in 1943 in the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Force. They were stationed at the Hal Roach Studio in Culver City, California (with other notables such as Capt. Ronald Reagan, Capt. Clark Gable and Lt. William Holden), making training films. Levy, Gardner and Laven resolved that they would start their own independent motion picture company after they got out of the Air Force; all were discharged in 1945, but their company wasn’t formed until 1951 (in the interim, Levy and Laven worked as script supervisors and Gardner as an assistant director and production manager). The first Levy-Gardner-Laven film was Without Warning! (1952). In the decades since they have produced dozens of additional features and several TV series (including The Rifleman (1958), Law of the Plainsman (1959), The Detectives (1959) and The Big Valley (1965).

So there seemed to be a youthful sense of opening up the possibilities of the genre, something akin to the way Stanley Kubrick, also a young director at the time, would approach his first major feature success, THE KILLING (1956), pictured here.

I had initially thought VICE SQUAD was shot entirely on location, even in the police department offices, but I found an interview with director Laven from the Noir City Sentinel at the Film Noir Foundation website that indicates some interior scenes at the police station were shot on soundstages. Laven also talks about what it was like directing Robinson and Goddard:

The Laven interview makes no mention of “Dragnet,” so I don’t know if the TV series had any influence on the direction the film took.

I should add that Leslie T. White, the author of the novel, “Harness Bull,” on which this film was based, had a background with the LAPD, per IMDB:

He had a career in law enforcement as described in his autobiography “Me, Detective.” He was a ranger, worked in a sheriff’s department and police department and was an investigator in the Los Angeles County (CA) District Attorney’s office.

I wonder what White thought of “Dragnet.”

One of the things that bothered me about Curtis Hanson’s L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997), based on James Ellroy’s novel about LAPD detectives in 1953, the year of VICE SQUAD’s release, is that I never believed that any of the actors in the cast, including the three stars (Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey), ever looked, sounded or dressed like actual L.A. police detectives from that era—and it even includes a character, played by Spacey, who was based on Marty Wynn, the L.A. police sergeant who helped Jack Webb shape the “Dragnet” TV series and served as Technical Advisor on the series. I even sought out DRAGNET, Webb’s 1954 color movie spin-off of his series after seeing L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, in the hopes that it would offer a corrective to Hanson’s movie, but, alas, it was as stylized as the 1997 movie in its own peculiar way.

VICE SQUAD strikes me as much closer to the real thing. However, I wonder how much cooperation the producers of the film actually got from the LAPD. The filmmakers were allowed to shoot the exteriors and hallways of  police headquarters and Laven and his screenwriter did indeed interview a vice captain from the department prior the film, as described in the Laven interview linked above, but there is no credit in either the opening or closing acknowledging any such collaboration or technical advice.

I referenced L.A. CONFIDENTIAL in my piece here on another great crime film from the 1950s, CRIME WAVE (1954): The Real L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. Citing the film’s influence on Kubrick’s THE KILLING in their audio commentary on the DVD, Ellroy and film noir expert Eddie Muller, to quote my piece, “agree that Sterling Hayden would have made a perfect Bud White in the film adaptation of Ellroy’s novel, L.A. Confidential (a role played in the 1997 movie by Russell Crowe). They also allow that L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, the film, should have looked like this movie [CRIME WAVE] and been shot on these kinds of locations in black-and-white.”

I’d love to hear Ellroy and Muller do a commentary on VICE SQUAD.


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