Nov 4, 2014

Noirvember: Jack Webb On the Wrong Side of the Law in APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1951)

Jack Webb in Appointment With Danger (1951)
We're used to seeing Jack Webb as the no nonsense Sergeant Joe Friday, keeping the streets of Los Angeles free from the criminal element that threatened its safety in the various versions of Dragnet  (1954 feature film, original Dragnet series, Dragnet 1966 pilot movie and Dragnet 1967 series)*. However in the 1951 Film Noir Appointment With Danger, Webb sided with the criminal element as a ruthless killer terrorizing the streets of Gary, Indiana (oh you have no idea the energy is taking right now not to break into that song from The Music Man).

There are no 'just the facts Ma'am' here as Webb's Joe Regas is as bad as they get. He has no remorse in killing anybody and has a vibe of being gleefully trigger happy. Here's a guy who thinks he has to - no, I believe he WANTS to - kill a Nun who no longer has any way of identifying him for a past crime. He is so obsessed about it that he deviates from a heist in progress to nab her. He even tries to drop a scaffolding on her head at one point. He is NOT a nice guy.

Webb obsesses about killing a Nun played by Phyllis Calvert
His nemesis in this picture is undercover Postal Inspector Alan Ladd. That's right, Ladd is not a G-man or a cop but an armed, overzealous Postal Inspector in a picture that treats the position with the same gravitas as those others mentioned. He even dresses down the cops verbally as if they were boy scouts in several instances. He doesn't trust anyone at all until he meets the Nun (Phyllis Calvert) who witnesses a crime. This makes him the perfect mirror to Webb's character who is also suspicious of everyone - even the nun. Both are relentless in their pursuits although Ladd eventually softens on the Sister while Webb just wants her dead and obsesses about it. Webb's cohorts do everything they can to let her off the hook but he just wants to plug her with lead while Ladd toes the line of keeping her alive while not revealing who he really is. Can you get any more psychotic than wanting to kill a Nun for no real reason? I don't think so.

Before they protected Los Angeles, they terrorized Gary, Indiana - future 'Dragnet 1967' partners Harry Morgan and Jack Webb
Webb teams up with his future Dragnet partner Harry Morgan (Officer Bill Gannon as well as Colonel Potter from M*A*S*H) but their partnership in crime isn't as happy as their law abiding TV one. Morgan is a weak link and Webb has no problem bashing him over the head with a bronzed baby bootie.

Webb committing the murder that sets Postal Inspector Ladd on his trail
As stoic and straight-laced as Webb was on Dragnet, here he's the complete opposite - perpetually restless and on edge. Ricard Breen and Warren Duff's screenplay provides him the lion's share of best snarky, Noir lines like when he tells a woman to go "suck on a germ" or how about this exchange with Ladd:

Webb: "You look as though you lost your best friend."
Ladd: "I'm my best friend"
Webb: "That's what I said."

Or how about this line...

Webb: "You're going to take Maxie's word? If somebody gave him a Bible to swear on, he'd steal it."

No love between Alan Ladd and Jack Webb in this picture
Webb and Ladd play off each other spectacularly thanks to their character's mutual, world-weary distrust of everything, and for me, Webb's killer is the highlight of this picture. I think I prefer him tapping into his criminal side and would have loved to see more of it before he permanently went on the straight-and-narrow.

*for the record, I am not old enough to have watch Dragnet during its original release, but did watch the show regularly on Nick at Night. I was inspired to watch the show thanks to the 1987 Universal comedy-action remake with Dan Aykroyd in the Sgt. Friday role.