When last we left Young Jack, he was out of wartime service, and tooling around California looking for work to support his family. Down San Francisco way around 1946, he begins to break into radio – first, surprisingly enough, as a disc jockey and comedian, with The Jack Webb Show. But soon, given his fast and hard-boiled vocal abilities, he gravitates toward the radio crime drama with a fairly popular regional series called Pat Novak for Hire – with many scripts written by himself and his SF roommate, Richard Breen. The Mutual Network then persuades Webb and Breen to leave the show and move back to LA to work on another fast-talking private eye program, Johnny Madero, Pier 23.
Webb begins picking up film roles at the same time, as well — and it’s a supporting part as a lab technician in 1947’s He Walked By Night that leads him to begin the work he would be best known for.
Before we get into that, though, let’s take a look at the Big Picture:
The post-World War II period in America – into the 50’s – is one of the most studied by scholars, obviously, as it’s so directly reflective of our wildly fluctuating socio-political development and, to be brutal, misbehavior of the time. The nation had pulled together during the war to vanquish some of the worst threats ever faced by humankind – and in the process, become the biggest military-industrial kid on the worldwide block. You’d think we would’ve been in a better place, longer. But we had also, if you recall, invented the power by which we could, very easily, destroy any enemy – any thing, hell, ourselves and the world – should our leaders (who, frankly, following the death of FDR, were looking a little shifty) choose to do so. And that capability came with an unsettling price of the mind and heart that we did not – nor ever would, really – completely grasp. And once the Russians acquired that same capability in 1949 – via Homeland treason and espionage, horror of horrors – we were in for some bad national behavior of Shakespearean proportions: cue HUAC, cue McCarthy, cue that big ol’ Red Scare and a hunt for the Enemy Within – cue me up some Moral Ambiguity.
But most film students and laymen know Hollywood in the Blacklist Era backwards and forwards by now. It is, however, the short period before that – say, from 1945 to 1948 – when filmmakers who were also returning veterans – or European refugees of the war – begin to push our entertainment toward a much darker, more poetically “realistic” model, that should be taken into account more than it is. Young men and women had been forced to grow up very quickly during the war. Unforgettable things had been seen overseas – and the tentative thread of life was understood a bit more comprehensively. So, naturally, on returning to civilian life, they would expect a wide slice their entertainment to be more adult – more thought-provoking – in nature. Having sorted out some rather large foreign difficulties, we had a few nagging social problems of our own going on. Could they be solved by the Greatest Generation? Before the subsequent paranoia hit, many thought we could take on anything.
So, sure, the top-grossing ten pictures of 1945 include Anchors Aweigh, The Bells Of St. Mary’s, and Week-End at the Waldorf with Betty Grable. But that list also sports the genuinely disturbing Leave Her to Heaven (newlywed homicidal maniac – in color), Hitchcock’s Spellbound (psychiatry and murder), Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford (single motherhood and murder), and Billy Wilder’s searing follow-up to Double Indemnity (murder for sex and fun) the year before: The Lost Weekend (rampaging alcoholism). These stack up to some grim, adventurous viewing with a social conscience, folks – not a whole lot of Mickey and Judy going on, if you know what I mean. And the term realism – as a very positive attribute – is being bandied about much more readily than before or during the war years.
In Italy, Roberto Rossellini’s incredibly influential Rome, Open City is released – establishing what would come to be called neorealism by his contemporaries. Oscar’s Best Picture of 1946 was Willie Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives – still one of the most effective films regarding the real impact of war on returning veterans and their families. On the top ten list for that year is The Razor’s Edge, Notorious, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Howard Hawks’ film of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep opens, as does The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Killers with Burt Lancaster, Deception, Wanted for Murder, and Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia. Japan is beginning to crawl its way out of the rubble, too – Kurosawa releases No Regrets for Our Youth. And so it goes – for a couple of years, anyway. Two important films in 1947 even take on anti-Semitism: one high-toned prestige drama, Gentleman’s Agreement (Best Picture) and a tough-as-nails police mystery, Crossfire.
But the political handwriting is going up on the wall, here, gang: the House Committee on Un-American Activities becomes a standing body in 1945, we’ve turned the corner on the Russians and All Things Communist (or even remotely Socialist), the so-called Hollywood Ten are held in Contempt of Congress in November 1947 – and at a meeting the next day in the Los Angeles Waldorf, the major American film studio executives agree to install the Blacklist – more to avoid government intervention than anything, really. A great wave of Anti-Intellectualism is about to begin dumbing down all this dark creativity and healthy critique of the American Experience – thematically, anyway. All the trappings: the tough guys, the big blondes, the cigarettes and Hammett/Chandler-speak, the smoky, sexy, high-impact look and feel of black and white pictures, then – sans the challenging content, naturally – were very healthy, and being well-exercised up, and most noticeably, down the food chain.
Then, as now, what succeeds in the Majors is exploited on the cheap by the Minors; by 1947, B-picture units and the studios of Poverty Row take those exploitable elements of this darker wave of A-pictures, and start grinding out bleak crime melodramas by the fistful. Many on budgets so small, Robert Mitchum used to say they were “lit by cigarette.” These would establish a proving ground for many young, talented directors and performers – and many, again, European refugees who had immigrated to Hollywood – to get their start. The French, denied American pictures during the war years, finally open a package of all the ones they’d missed over the decade, and label this category of crime picture as film noir. In ‘45, there were 20 such pictures that could be characterized under that heading. In ‘46, there were 40. In ‘47, there were over 50. But all of these, spring from this immediate post-war push toward realism – or, at least comparatively, what people 65 years ago interpreted as realistic screen drama.
One very interesting film in this time period – a precursor to both Dragnet, and to a long-running TV series of its own – is The Naked City, produced and narrated by former New York Daily News columnist Mark Hellinger, and directed by the soon-to-be-Blacklisted Jules Dassin. Described as a “semi-documentary,” but actually an A-picture masquerading as a B-programmer, Naked City’s characters and personal storylines are as hokey as anything the studios were putting out in the Hays Office-regulated 1930s. But the step-by-step, realistic police procedural plot, and most importantly, the way Dassin shot on location (inspired by the Italian Neorealists, no less), was strikingly unique for its time. Shooting “on location” is something we don’t spend three seconds in consideration of now —but the stark full-daylight portrait of Weegee’s New York streets presented in wide swaths throughout Naked City is still breathtaking to behold — and the main selling point of the picture in its time.
Meanwhile, that same year, the folks out at the miniscule Eagle-Lion studio in Hollywood have a similar idea — but with a spin. On a much smaller budget, their semi-documentary police procedural picture, too, will visually encompass the streets of LA in all its busted glory — but it will also be based on an actual crime spree by an actual cop killer. And, for the first time to such an intense degree, members of the Los Angeles Police Department will be on hand throughout production to advise on all aspects of their methodology — especially in the area of forensics.
The picture is He Walked By Night starring Richard Basehart – and the guy they get to play the forensics lab technician is a little-known radio actor – completely captivated by police officers he meets on-set, and forever impressed by the importance of the job that they do.
Indeed, within two years, Jack Webb — ready, willing and able to embrace the new wave of reactionary politics sweeping the nation — will become famous the world over as Sergeant Joe Friday: the best public relations man the LAPD ever had.
To be continued …
See Steve Pickering play the role of Officer Paul Landy in A Girl With Sun In Her Eyes this weekend. Preview performances on Saturday, June 25 at 5 pm and 8 pm and Sunday, June 26, at 7 pm. You can purchase tickets here.