Certain things tend to improve with age, wine, certain cheeses and the appreciation of fine art. Although it might seem unlikely, this observation can also apply to older films. Understandably, there are numerous caveats applicable particularly regarding vintage cinema. With the pervasive use Home entertainment sources including Blu-ray, cable television and streaming video services, it is easier than ever to revisit movies and television we originally experienced a significant number of years ago; certain distributors have gained reputations for providing the discerning aficionados of nostalgia. Among their most recent releases is a satirical comedy from the late eighties, ‘Dragnet.’ Loosely based on the police procedural of the same name popular program dating back to before the dawn of television as the dominant means of home entertainment. The radio show was immensely popular in the late forties and was among the first radio shows to make the transition to television. Its popularity held sufficiently strong in the fifties to warrant a revival in the mid-sixties. The star and executive producer, Jack Webb, became an iconic figure in the burgeoning television industry. He was best known for his unique clipped manner of speaking. Mr. Webb also became a substantial force for other series including ‘Emergency’ and Adam-12’. His influence extended to the state and federal legislation passing laws regarding drug enforcement and making it possible for EMTs to be included among first responders. Admittedly little of this directly pertains to the movie under consideration, it relevant to establish the cultural importance of the source material. Such an iconic series deserves the very best creative talents to craft its parody. Fortunately, for both those of us with cherished memories of its theatrical release and younger viewers discovering it anew. Both sides of the camera are staffed with performers and filmmakers with exceptional resumes.
The most important aspect of the original series is to capture the trademark mannerisms that Mr. Webb infused in the creation of his most famous character, Sargent Joe Friday of the Los Angles Police Department. His shift affected, terse in speech and devoted to getting "just the facts." In some respects, he utilized several of the affectations he employed in his other iconic portrayal, Elwood Blues from ‘The Blues Brothers.’ Those of us of enough years to fondly remember the original will find the interpretation crafted by Mr. Aykroyd is spot on, played within the context of the story, this Joe Friday is the nephew of the original. A brief pan reinforces this to Joe’s desk featuring a photo of his family hero. Another direct connects introduced in the form of stunt casting. It is traditional for a reboot or reimagining to bring back a former cast member, ideally reprising their original role. This was nicely accomplished with the return of Officer Bill Gannon, Joe’s partner back on ‘Dragnet ’67. Twenty years ago, Gannon rode out on cases with the unflappable Sgt. Friday but throughout that time he worked his way up to the rank of Captain, the commanding officer of his former partner’s nephew. A cameo or ancillary role of this type always adds validation to the current movie by providing continuity.
The greatest source of humor in this movie is unfortunately also its most significant drawback. A substantial portion of the comedy is derived from the near perfection in its ability to emulate the original television series. What contributed most to the general public acceptance, longevity and iconic status is the distinctive, tone, pacing and stylistic design. This is made evident from the opening sequence of the film. The opening monologue delivered in voice-over by Friday gives a brief weather report followed by noting the benefits of the city of Los Angles. It concludes in the same fashion made famous by noting that in the City of Angels, occasionally a halo can slip. When that happens, the LAPD is there. The greatest danger in this approach to a film based on such a highly formulaic and beloved show it to take parody over the line to the ridiculous. To the uninitiated, those of insufficient years to fully appreciate the source material, they lack the requisite foundation to differentiate between the two experiences.
Even for us of vintage age, a subsequent viewing can substantially enhance our understanding providing a deeper level of enjoyment. In any case, the movie can readily stand on its own merits. This movie is one of only two helmed by director Tom Mankiewicz. As a screenwriter, Mr. Mankiewicz was uncredited for his script for both Superman (1978) but did receive proper billing for his two contributions to the most famous spy franchise in history, James Bond. His involvement was during Roger Moore’s tenure with ‘Live and Let Die and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun.’ Mr. Mankiewicz had several other scripts demonstrating an eclectic range encompassing fantasy to comedy. This background allowed him to infuse the right degree of seriousness to ground the movie as a fitting heir to the original.
To make two genres as different as seen here work synergistically, the specific set of talents and the inherent chemistry between the principal actors is exceptionally crucial. What ensured the lasting success of this movie was in teaming two of the most versatile performers of their generation, Dan Aykroyd was one of the original cast members for the most successful, long-running sketch comedy show in television history, ‘Saturday Night Live.’ His experience in improvisation has given him a perspective on the human condition allowing him to inhabit a broad range of characters infusing them with unique, relatable quirks. Partnered with Tom Hanks placed him next to one of the most talented actors of his generation. A statement that Mr. Hanks has a vast range is a woeful underestimation. Twice he was honored with Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role, with an additional three nominations. The juxtaposition of his freewheeling Detective Pep Streebek provided the audience with the ideal counterpoint to the hidebound Detective Sargent Friday. Superficially the film can be categorized as a buddy cop flick, but the use of the classic ‘’Dragnet’ tropes and archetypes takes the story far beyond the de rigueur examples of the genre. This viewpoint permits an explanation tion for why Bab Boomers can discover more to the movie with this recent high definition release. From a personal vantage point, my initial viewing was trying to consider the production solely on its own merits; I made a concerted effort to separate it from the source material. The new release allowed me to immerse myself in the nostalgia, reveling in fond memories. This approach was greatly enhanced by the amazing clarity, greater detail and enriched color palette.
While Joe is doing his best to force Pep to adhere to the proper guideline that foster behavior and appearance are befitting a detective on the Los Angles Police Department, his new partner is diligently attempting Friday to loosen up. The interaction between the pair emulated the original working relationship from the series that a deeper layer of the dynamic may be overlooked, the changes are bidirectional. Both men are drawing each other towards a mutuality agreeable center ground. This is typically the case in a buddy cop flick but requires a more involved case to be properly developed. The mismatched detectives are pulled into an imaginatively rich criminal enterprise. Initially, the investigation involved a series of bizarre, seemingly unrelated crimes. A break-in at the Zoo is resulting in a lion having his mane shorn leaving the majestic king of the jungle with an embarrassing Mohawk. Within a brief period, a giant anaconda was stolen and perhaps most bizarrely, the entire run of the soft-core pornographic marine. BAIT absconded with from the printers. Our erstwhile detectives head off to the lavish mansion of the magazine’s publisher, Jerry Caesar (Dabney Coleman). The grounds of the estate that emulates the Bacchanalian carnal excess of the ancient Roman emperors at a depth of their depravity. While Friday is openly revolted by the submission to base pleasure, Streebek is aroused particularly when several of the scantily clad young women aggressively flit with him. This setting is a thinly disguised parody of the famous Playboy mansion owned by Huge Hefner. His extremely opulent lifestyle of the decadent founder of a sex driven media empire.
The case begins to gather political ramifications when the city’s mayor, Peter Parvin (Bruce Gray), responds to the public outcry by ordering the Police Commissioner Jane Kirkpatrick (Elizabeth Ashley), to consider the investigation as the top priority. This puts Friday and Streebek on the case. The only clue connecting the crime is business cards reading, P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness and Normalcy). The main suspect is Emil Muzz (Jack O'Halloran), who also works as Caesar's limousine driver. He was found when he was found involved in the thief of industrial chemicals that could potentially be used to manufacture a substantial quantity of toxic gas. The detectives uncover a massive meeting of P.A.G.A.N., opting to go undercover to infiltrate the event. Dressed in outlandish disguise, the outfits are pushed to the even more ridiculous with the addition furry chaps referred to as ‘goat leggings needed for the ritualistic ‘goat Dance.’ The culmination of the proceedings is the ritual sacrifice of a virgin, in this case, a young woman continually referred to as ‘the Virgin Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul). This running gag provides the setup that pays off in the last line of dialogue of the movie. There is an immediate, mutual attraction between the virgin and Sgt. Friday. This opened the narrative to include several jokes including several inside bits relying on the original series.
On a personal note, I was extremely glad when I received the advanced screener of the film. I have always considered the movie funny, cleaver and one of the better classic television paradise, but the release of this high definition edition afforded me more than the opportunity to revisit a movie I first watched with my late wife in a favorite movie theater on Manhattan’s Upper Side. Certainly, the video was significantly sharper and the audio more robust, but the most important aspect of revisiting the movie was to revitalize my love of the series and enjoyment of the actors. This Blu-ray has earned a special position in a very large, eclectic collection.