Jim Henry (Richard Conte) is an ex-Marine sergeant just demobilised after the Korean War. He’s headed for Vegas. He meets a blonde in a bar. There’s some mild flirtation but she’s seriously drunk and they have a very minor altercation. No big deal. Except that the blonde winds up dead and the cops arrest Henry. There’s some circumstantial evidence against him but luckily he has an alibi. He was at the Sunset Hotel with a buddy, an ex-Army captain. Except it isn’t lucky after all. The buddy is on some hush-hush government security job and was staying at the hotel under a different name, and Jim Henry doesn’t know what name the buddy was using. So when the cops check his alibi it looks like he hasn’t got one. Which makes the cops think Henry must be guilty. And they don’t seem interested in hearing his side of the story.
Of course we don’t actually know what transpired after the meeting in the bar so we can’t entirely discount the possibility that Jim is guilty.
Jim Henry figures he’s in pretty big trouble so when he sees a chance of escape he takes it.
Now you might think that’s a bit of a sucker move but look at it from Henry’s point of view. He’s just minding his own business when suddenly out of nowhere he’s picked up on a murder charge, the circumstantial evidence is of a type that could be made to sound fairly damning and it looks like he’s tried to give a phoney alibi. And the cops give the very strong impression that they don’t much care if he’s innocent or not, they’re going to pin the murder on him anyway. Maybe that’s an unfair view of the cops but Jim doesn’t have the luxury of having time to think about what he should do.
He steals a police car but has to ditch that quickly and then he has some luck. Photographer Mrs Cummings (Joan Bennett) and her young model Susan (Wanda Hendrix) have broken down. Henry gets their car started so they give him a ride.
Of course there’s a huge manhunt in progress and Jim has two women in tow who aren’t exactly thrilled by the situation when they find out they’re sharing a car with a murder suspect. The odds are stacked against Jim but he’s resourceful and determined and he’s desperate and he proves surprisingly difficult to catch. In fact almost impossible to catch as he evades one trap after another.
The odds are heavily stacked against Jim but he does one chance and that’s what he’s relying on. He just needs to buy some time.
The weakness of the plot is that it relies on one very big coincidence but aside from that the script is solid. While there’s plenty of interest in Jim’s attempts to stay one step ahead of the law there’s even more interest in the uneasy three-way relationship between Jim and the two women. Mrs Cummings figures he’s guilty. Susan isn’t so sure, but that may be because she thinks Jim is kinda cute and kinda nice and could a guy who’s cute and nice really be a murderer?
The very strong performances by the three leads are a major asset. Richard Conte could play heroes or villains, winners or losers, and could make them seem human. Jim Henry at times seems to fit into all four categories. He’s basically a decent guy but he’s a cornered animal determined to survive at all costs and that makes him ruthless and dangerous. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone but he has no intention of being captured. It’s the sort of complex nuanced performance that Conte always seemed to be able to produce.
Joan Bennett as Mrs Cummings isn’t overly sympathetic but she’s a woman with valid reasons to be prickly and difficult.
Wanda Hendrix manages to make Susan seem a bit more than just a naïve young woman. Susan is genuinely confused about her loyalties and rally doesn’t know which way to jump. The movie also doesn’t disguise the fact that Susan’s initial attraction to Jim is very much sexual. It’s a fine performance.
Nathan Juran was a competent journeyman director and does a fine job here, skilfully maintaining the tension levels.
Jim Henry’s flight from Nevada to California takes him into the desert and the desert setting is used effectively. The location shooting is terrific and and I loved the slightly offbeat climax on the Salton Sea.
Reel Vault’s DVD release offers an acceptable anamorphic transfer (slightly surprisingly for a 1954 B-feature the film was shot in widescreen black-and-white).
Is this film noir? I‘d say only marginally. Jim Henry has some character flaws (he’s impulsive and suspicious of authority figures) but they’re not enough to qualify him as a true noir protagonist and neither of the women could be said to be a classic femme fatale. The police are not corrupt, just a bit over-zealous.
Highway Dragnet is an entertaining unpretentious B-picture. You can criticise the plot for being just a tad contrived but the movie moves along so quickly and entertainingly that a few minor weaknesses can be overlooked.
The acting performances are what earns it a highly recommended rating.