Thursday, June 23, 2011

Just Say The Words

I was recently thinking about what to write about for my Thursday posts. (And, by the way, if any regular readers want to make suggestions about what old-timey pop culture subjects you’d like to read about, feel free to leave a comment to make a suggestion.)

I had a brilliant idea. (Not unusual for me, of course.) I took four reference works off my shelves—The Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, by William L. DeAndrea; The Encyclopedia of Monsters, by Jeff Rogin; The Atlas of Fantasy, by J.B. Frost; and the 101 Greatest Films of Mystery & Suspense, by Otto Penzler.

I noted the number of pages in each one, then used my computer to generate random numbers and pick a page out of each volume. I then picked an entry from the chosen page in each work. That determined what I would write about for the next four Thursdays.

The Encyclpdia Mysteriosa come first. And page 369 of that work includes an entry on Jack Webb.

Webb made his name in radio as an actor, though he eventually started up his own studio that produced a number of successful television series. As an actor, he starred in several hard-boiled detective shows, the best of which was Pat Novak for Hire. Webb had a talent for rapid-fire delivery of tough guy one-liners. (My personal favorite is in a Novak episode in which he expresses disappointment: “It was like washing your kid’s face and finding out he’s ugly anyways.”) He also did fine work in shows such as Escape, Suspense and the Whisperer.

In 1948, Webb played a small part as a crime lab technician in a well-made procedural/film noir titled He Walks By Night. Conversations with the police advisor to the film planted the seeds for Dragnet—perhaps the purest form of the police procedural.

A hit on radio, Dragnet came to television in 1952. Webb was responsible for the show’s look and feel in both mediums. He kept the stories focused on criminal investigations, with only rare peeks at the personal lives of the detectives. He kept the dialogue straightforward and prosaic. And he made it interesting, proving his idea that a realistic portrayal of police work was inherently dramatic. Production values on radio were very high, with the sound effects being especially good.

On TV, Webb organized a production schedule that allowed an episode to be filmed in just two or three days. Small tricks—such as the detectives always wearing the same clothes to avoid continuity problems—were used to save time.

As a director, Webb’s instructions to his actors were simply: “Just say the words.” The great director Frank Capra once noted that Webb was the only director besides himself that seemed to realize you could make a mundane scene seem exciting by simply having the actors talk fast. This also meant squeezing in more dialogue into each episode, allowing Webb to tell an effectively “longer” story than his time slot would normally allow. 

Webb knew what he was doing and he did it well. He was a wonderful storyteller. My only regret about Dragnet is that it took Webb away from playing sort of the smart-mouthed private eyes he had portrayed so brilliantly on radio. But what the hey—good police procedurals are as hard to find as good hard-boiled stories.

 Here's a bonus OTR episode for this week: Enjoy Webb as Pat Novak for Hire.

That’s it for this week. Next week, we’ll see what The Atlas of Fantasy has decided to tell us.

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