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Posts Tagged ‘Herbert L. Strock’

Just the Facts, Man: the Complicated Genesis of Television’s Dragnet

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

I have a new piece out in Film International on the genesis of the classic 1950s television series Dragnet.

Here’s the part of what I have to say on the subject: The 1950s version of Dragnet was in many ways an “outlier” in the contemporary televisual landscape; easily burlesqued and imitated, there was still nothing else like it in terms of hard-nosed stylization, grimly procedural story lines, and, for the period, grimy authenticity. Just a look at some of the plot lines demonstrates just how out of sync Dragnet was in a world populated by the likes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and other enormously popular, family-oriented series of the era. Dragnet, in contrast, concentrated almost entirely on the downside of 1950s American existence; the misfits, psychos, drifters, conmen, and ne’er do wells who collectively comprised the series’ world. Dragnet’s world was the netherworld of American society; and every episode made it clear that only the LAPD was holding back the tide of scum that threatened to engulf Los Angeles, and by extension, the entire nation.

In “The Big Death” (January 17, 1952), an unsuspecting husband hires Joe Friday as a hit man to kill his wife; in “The Big Mother” (January 31, 1952), a newborn infant is abducted from a hospital by an unstable young woman, who is unable to have children herself; in “The Big Speech” (February 28, 1952), Friday delivers a lecture warning on the evils of drug addiction at his former high school, even as he tracks down a teenage hoodlum, who, seeking his next fix, beats up and robs a friendly druggist; in “The Big Blast” (April 10, 1952), which Webb both wrote and directed, a young mother is killed in her bed by a shotgun blast, as her infant son slumbers next to her; in “The Big September Man” (May 8, 1952), an unbalanced sociopath feels divinely inspired to kill “a sinner,” and his former fiancée is his most recent victim; in the justly infamous “.22 Rifle for Christmas” (December 18, 1952, Dragnet’s first “Christmas episode”), co-written by [James] Moser and Webb, a young boy prematurely opens a Christmas gift – a .22 rifle – and accidentally kills one of his friends while playing with the rifle, subsequently hiding the young victim’s body in the brush on Christmas Eve.

In “The Big Lay Out” (April 16, 1953), a high school honor student becomes strung out on heroin; in “The Big Hands” (May 21, 1953), a young woman is found strangled to death in a cheap hotel room; in “The Big Nazi” (November 25, 1958), Friday uncovers a high school neo-Nazi ring; and on and on it goes, a parade of beatings, stabbings, murders, rapes, robberies, and wanton brutality that seems to have no end in sight, an unstoppable tidal wave of human greed, violence, and corruption. Compared to the 1960s version of the series, which kicked off with an unintentionally risible episode on the dangers of LSD – the “Blue Boy” episode, actually titled “The LSD Story,” first broadcast on January 12, 1967 – the 1950s version of Dragnet bristles with menace, energy, and simmering social disruption; no one even thinks of “Mirandizing” suspects, because, of course, no such law existed.

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Herbert L. Strock’s Gog (1954)

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the original trailer for Gog.

Shot in fifteen days for a bit less than $250,000 in widescreen, color, and 3-D, Gog centers on a series of brutal murders at a scientific outpost somewhere in the American desert — but who, or what, is behind the killings? Reeking of Cold War paranoia, and directed and edited with the cold detachment that Herbert L. Strock displayed in all his work, Gog is really, for all its pseudo-scientific trappings, more or less a killing machine, in which characters are introduced and then summarily executed, presumably because their research will lead to the conquest of space.

Strock was the original director and visual designer of Jack Webb’s famously downbeat detective series Dragnet, though Webb pushed Strock out of the way after Strock had directed the first episode, and took over the helm himself. But Strock left an indelible imprint on the series; as a director and editor, it was Strock who devised the tight close-ups and robotic cutting and dialogue delivery, as well as creating the trademark flat visual style that made Dragnet emblematic of 1950s television drama.

Both Dragnet and Gog are resolutely dystopian visions of 1950s America. Every scene in Gog is shot through with a sense of menace and fatalism; time and again, the characters comment of some new scientific advance that in the “wrong hands, it would be a terrible weapon of mass destruction,” and indeed, this turns out to be the case.

While the equipment used in the film is now woefully outdated, Gog nevertheless accurately predicts a future in which computers will run everything, and nobody really knows who’s running the computers. In Gog, technology has outstripped humanity, and at the film’s conclusion, it seems that only the creation and implementation of still more instrumentalities will allow mankind to stay one step ahead of the machines, which seem destined to take over whether we like it or not. They’re just smarter than we are, they can think faster, they’re not troubled by emotions — it’s all much too close to reality.

As a film, Gog has been missing in action for more than half a century, so to speak, surviving only in cheap bootlegs; MGM has now finally released the film in a serviceable color transfer  — not in the correct aspect ratio, but close enough, and without the benefit of 3-D, but that doesn’t really bother me, either. In any event, the MGM DVD is a revelation; the first time I’d seen the film in color, with a sharp, clear picture and excellent sound.

The MGM transfer is not a Criterion edition, of course, nor does Gog deserve one; it’s a Cold War artifact more than anything else. But for all its faults, which are considerable — the cast walks through the film with cardboard conviction, and only Lubitsch alumnus Herbert Marshall brings any real human dimension to his role — Gog remains valuable in its depiction of a society ruled by technology, which in turn is answerable only to itself. Or so it seems –

There are numerous bootlegs of Gog circulating, but they really don’t do the film justice. Just watch the first ten minutes — a coldly calculated, utterly impersonal double “murder by machine” in a deep freeze chamber, and you’ll be both hooked and somewhat shocked; this isn’t the 50s we’re supposed to remember, the Dick Clark version of post-war America. There’s naked fear on display here, and distrust of what the future might bring. Strock’s film is an authentic talisman of the way things really were in the Red Scare era, not the way we wish to remember them, and for that, Gog’s value is real, and tangible.

There’s no doubt about it; Gog is one creepy movie.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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