“Twenty-one-fifty to headquarters…What’s your ten-twenty?....Ten-four…Twenty-one-fifty by…”
If that numeral sequence is all Greek to you, you’re probably not familiar with the most utilitarian cop-show of all time. By comparison, Dragnet was high style, its dialogue sculpted like stanzas of Milton, Jack Webb’s Joe Friday a commanding presence every bit as authorial as Orson Wells. If The Untouchables was noir, Dragnet the boiled-harder reduction of a Forties radio drama, then Highway Patrol (1955-59) was the crime series that dispensed with all pretense and got down, most expediently, to the genre’s basic hood-bull transactions.
It helps that Broderick Crawford’s Lt. Dan Matthews is a gruff superior whose barked orders, issued from flapping jowls, betray nothing but an impatient drive to wrap the case pronto. Invariably, this means a quick trip to the wall map and a plan to “Put roadblocks here, here and here! Tell Twenty-one-ten to meet us there! I’m off to Centerville!” Matthews then hops into Car Twenty-one-fifty (a giant Buick) and burns rubber down open roads leading to Centerville and Capital City—which are, in reality, the palm-dotted country lanes of an as yet unsprawled San Fernando Valley.
The show’s thugs are generally great types: uncaring gunsels who’d just as soon plug a human obstacle as park illegally outside the gas station they’re robbing, and a fair amount of them are tough, good-looking dames who’d easily make a Miriam Linna bad-girls compendium. All, of course, are brought to justice, thanks to the unbeatable combination of roadblocks and Matthews’ bulky pursuit; Crawford’s weight doesn’t permit long chases, but he’s light on his tiny feet and has no problem hacking through the brush of a chaparral canyon in his dark suit and hard shoes if it means a brief shootout and swift apprehension of the perp.
Time constraints make mercy a luxury Matthews can’t afford. Wounded baddies are left to lie in the dirt, clutching exit holes. Victims are consoled with “Sorry about the loss of your husband and son, Mrs. Johnson. Now let’s get back to headquarters!” Nor is empathy or imagination wasted on the episode titles of the half-hour series: “Car Theft,” “Plane Crash,” “Released Convict.” An obvious promo tie-in with some SoCal aeronautics firm explains such riveting installments as “Desert Copter,” “Mountain Copter” and “Blast Area Copter.”
We’re talking functional, get-it-over-and-done TV. No brooding detectives, no smart-ass junior dicks, no quirky Goths manning under-lit crime labs. And each show closes with Crawford, anxious to get to his favorite after-work watering-hole, delivering a terse public-service announcement couplet—“If you care to drive, drive with care” or “Leave your blood at the blood bank, not on the highway…” Ten-four.
Now playing: on MGM DVD’s and the Antenna TV channel. Sample show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2sA5hiI7ZI