Just the Facts

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Jack Webb’s TV show Dragnet, which he wrote (?), directed, produced and starred in for something like 300 episodes, is a good teaching tool. The cutting demonstrates a common error, whereby dialogue is snipped up into piece of film showing a series of people speaking: “My turn” — “My turn now” — “Me again.” Overlaps and reaction shots are banished, and the result is a deadening of affect so that even the most showboating of guest stars are crammed into compartments along with the rigid, robotic Webb himself as Detective Joe Friday.

But this is no beginner’s error — the choice is deliberate and it creates not only a distinct staccato style but a helpful effect. Since the show is a procedural, the cutting emphasizes the question-and-answer nature of police work. Psychology is denied. “Just the facts, ma’am.” What Hitchcock might have disparaged as “photographs of people talking” becomes an expressive tool in itself to depict what police work might actually be like — emotions tamped down, conclusions postponed until certitude is arrived at, just the assemblage or raw data gleaned from laborious legwork and mouthwork.

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Question.

Answer.

Question.

Answer.

Repeat ad infinitum.

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18 Responses to “Just the Facts”

  1. Jerry Lewis, in his book on filmmaking, thought Jack Webb was one of the great directors. It’s a position I’m still trying to comprehend.

  2. I agree with Jerry Lewis.

  3. I always assumed Webb had to be OCD–or just plain loony. Everything he did was obsessive in its style. Look at this trailer for The D I.

  4. Robert Keser Says:

    Re THE DI trailer: how awkward to make Webb walk backwards as the camera advances on him! Also odd is the appearance of only the two women in the cast, lest prospective female moviegoers shun the film as completely devoid of women characters.

  5. La Faustin Says:

    I have to refocus every time to confirm that Webb’s hat is NOT the giant DETOUR coffee cup.

  6. I agree with Lewis too — Webb’s peculiar genius is to make minimalism seem huge, and create expressive effects from inexpressive stylistic choices. He can also get kind of operatic at times. Seeing him as a genius is no harder to me than appreciating Lewis, who is both counter-intuitive and highly intuitive, reckless and perfectionist, focussed yet confused, smart but dumb.

    The Dragnet music has some amazing dialogue too: alcholic lady drops her glass. “Is it broken?” Webb, holding intact glass: “Yes. There’s a hole in the top.”

  7. The Internet Archive has some of Webb’s comedy radio shows from 1946 here and here. They’re odd in some unexpected ways…

  8. I remember the line from one of them “and she had a voice like warm stew…”

  9. Actually really like PETE KELLY’S BLUES, Webb as director and star playing a jazz musician with some great stars like Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee thrown in. Good use of early Cinemascope and stereo sound.

    As to the editing of DRAGNET, I read somewhere recently that as a budget measure, they shot things on the same sets for every episode at the same time. So that way if there was an actor who would only be in the police station, they would only hire that actor long enough to shoot his scenes. It also explains why essentially Webb wore the same outfit throughout the show. I guess he must have spent a week doing his lines and reaction shots. It must have required a lot of planning… but it would also explain why was edited the way it was. I also wonder if that means he could reuse some of the same reaction shots and responses in different episodes.

    As for Lewis, I think visually he was incredible when he was on top of his game… it is just dialog and situations were not always on the same level. This might also explain why he is (or was) revered by the French and largely dismissed in the U.S.

  10. Fascinating! It would be great if in fact Joe Friday only said “Just the facts, ma’am” once and they simply reused the bit of film forever. I doubt even Webb would go THAT far though.

    I was very impressed by Pete Kelly’s Blues, which has camera movement and romance and jazz and stuff. Some people find him stiff and dislikable, Fiona and I just thought he was the coolest guy on earth.

    Lewis goes into such strange places, milking scenes until they stop being funny and then milking them some more until they become funny again… I haven’t written much about him because I can’t conceive of anything better than friend B Kite’s Jerryad piece in The Believer. He really nails the peculiarity.

  11. Webb often suggests Bresson with OCD. But there’s a world of difference between the religiously (and sexually) ambivalent French master and the American right-wing hysteric just as there’s a world of difference between the Jack Webb who appears in Sunset Boulevard and the person of the same name who stars/directs The D.I.

  12. I’ll go ahead and say it, Webb was almost certainly a right-wing psychotic, a wannabe-policeman whose deep, religious affinity for the LAPD and the US Marine Corps had a poisonous flipside, a contempt for suspects, wayward youths, POCs*, longhairs, freaks and fairies that would likely have resulted in a photo finish with Travis Bickle, if such a race could be conceived.

    And, while comparisons can be highly instructive, he’s no Bresson.

    HOWEVER.

    These qualities aren’t insignificant to his directing & editing style, in fact often producing fascinating subsurface or surface eruptions all across his body of work. When the ugly bubbles up and stains the fastidiously cleaned and arranged surface, it can be amazing.

    I’ve watched almost every readily available episode of the original DRAGNET run, and I’m muddling my way through the 2nd year of DRAGNET 1967, the LBJ-era reboot of the same. Films I’ve seen include DRAGNET (1954), THE D.I., –30–, and THE LAST TIME I SAW ARCHIE.

    Some notes:

    – The original DRAGNET, for the first few seasons at least, remain the heart of his work, with incredible, late-Lang minimalism and potency. It starts to run out of gas during the later years, but that’s the price you pay for 26-minute procedurals every other week for eight years.

    – The DRAGNET 1967 reboot, well, the jury’s out. The first season is mostly strong stuff, the high points being THE INTERROGATION and THE BIG KIDNAPPING. The second season, which I’m presently struggling with, hits its high-water mark with THE SHOOTING BOARD, which puts Friday himself at the focus of the investigation, not just its agent. After that, it goes a bit nutty, and (more distressingly) the filmmaking starts to get loose and shaggy.

    Right from the first, with the brilliantly unhinged LSD episode, DRAGNET 1967 makes absolutely no bones about Webb’s contempt for the American counterculture. This is the series that also has an episode where a middle-class white couple get weeded up on the marijuana cigarettes and let their baby drown in the bathtub. Yeah.

    A fascinating artifact here is THE MISSING REALTOR. For reasons which go unstated, Webb casts every last non-policeman (i.e. all but himself and Harry Morgan) role with black actors and actresses – including an appearance by Scatman Crothers in an absurd toupee.

    – I think THE D.I. is a very good film, and my favorite feature of his. And Webb in the title role is great. Gets a bit icky in places, but not enough to sink it.

    – On the other hand, the good parts of –30– are very good indeed, while on the whole the picture is compromised whenever it steers into maudlin territory: some sentimental bunk about Webb’s hard-case editor not wanting to raise a child in this sick world, until he meets a l’il tyke and it melts his heart and your brain…

    – THE LAST TIME I SAW ARCHIE is an incredible disaster. You know those later DRAGNETs, THE D.I., and in –30– and whatnot, when Webb wants to let the audience know his character is hearing/witnessing something stupid, and he puts his hand over his brow, or rubs his eyes with his fingers? Well, that’s the whole film. Non-stop mugging without zero jokes. Oh and it co-stars Robert Mitchum.

  13. I have to see those features, and you have to see Pete Kelly’s Blues. Webb’s love of jazz is a surprising and redemptive quality in his persona.

  14. Randy Cook Says:

    He was also married to Julie London, another redemptive quality.

  15. This is pretty redemptive, too…

  16. Ha! Not as good as Mitchum’s calypso album, but the lack of effort is appreciated.

  17. Randy Cook Says:

    Webb’s hard-boiled monotone’s such a perfect compliment to the material. Did I say hard-boiled? I meant ossified.

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