Classic Dragnet: The Most Messed Up Episode
Warning: This post contains spoilers for a 65 year old TV episode. You've been warned.
Who is in the mood for a really messed up police story? The kind of story where there is absolutely no happy ending for anybody to be found. It's a 1953 episode of Dragnet titled "The Big Hate". Already just by the title you know we're sinking into negative territory.
The show starts out with the regular Dragnet opening. You're a police officer. It's a rainy night in Los Angeles as you work in the homicide department. A 25 year old man is found hiding in a freight car holding a dead woman whose identity is unknown. The suspect is uncooperative. It's your job to find out what happened.
What happened to the dead woman. Not what happened that caused Sgt. Joe Friday (jack Webb) to work homicide when he was working burglary two weeks ago and juvenile the week before that. We must focus on this woman's death and solve the case before Sgt. Friday works vice next week.
We're just barely one minute into this episode and we're not at the bottom yet of this messed up story.
By the six minute mark the suspect still hasn't said anything. Everything we know so far is what is said by officer Joe Friday while interrogating the suspect. The dead woman was middle-aged, roughly twice the age of the suspect. A security guard saw both of them from a distance in a freight yard. The woman appeared to be sick or drunk and the suspect was dragging her body through the freight yard. The security guard went to confront the two but lost track of them. He called for the police and a squad car arrived. The officers found the suspect hiding in the corner of a freight car holding the dead body of the woman. The officers couldn't find any marks on the body to explain how the woman died. The suspect told the officers his name was Gordon Miller (Sam Edwards) and that he no longer wants to live and doesn't care what happens to him.
Still going down into a really messed up story.
Within the next minute and a half the suspect still hasn't said anything but more information is revealed. The suspect has several items that were found in his possession. An address book, a handkerchief with a lipstick mark on it and a woman's ring with the name "Elizabeth" engraved on the inside of the ring. The dead woman was identified as Elizabeth Hoffmann (unseen character), a music teacher 52 years old.
At around the nine minute mark the suspect finally talked. Sgt. Friday got the suspect's address from his driver license and called information for a phone listing of the address. As Sgt. Friday begins to dial the number the suspect protests, "You can't call them!". Things get a little physical and the suspect is handcuffed to the chair while Sgt. Friday talks to the suspect's sister, Lillian (Lillian Buyeff).
At the ten and a half minute mark a crazy woman (unknown actress) is dragged into the police station. Nice random detail, except it's a police station where those kinds of things happen so it's more realistic than random.
At around the eleven minute mark the suspect admits to killing the dead woman. We're only half way through the episode so obviously it is not that plain and simple.
The suspect, Gordon Miller, reveals the dead woman was his piano teacher for the last ten years. Miller lauded Elizabeth Hoffmann as a brilliant artist and wonderful musician who believed Miller had a great future as a pianist.
Sgt. Friday counters the praise by calling the dead woman "a bad drunk" with six drunk arrests on her record over the previous fourteen months.
Miller reveals that he and Elizabeth Hoffmann, the now dead woman, were in love together. In modern terms the dead woman would probably be called a "cougar" with the 27 year difference between the two.
At around the fifteen minute mark Sgt. Friday's partner (Ben Alexander) showed up reporting that circumstantial evidence was found that suggests Miller poisoned the dead woman.
Don't worry though. Miller's sister, Lillian, and father (Herb Vigran) showed up and everything began to get straightened out. It turns out Elizabeth Hoffmann was more like an alcoholic pedophile than a modern day "cougar" and Gordon Miller had given a false confession to murder.
The episode ends with the traditional words, "The story you have just seen was true. The names were changed to protect the innocent.".
The closing announcer (Hal Gibney) revealed that an autopsy of Elizabeth Hoffmann proved that she had suffered from a heart condition aggravated by excessive drinking. The cause of her death was listed as inflammation of the heart muscle.
As traditionaly done Dragnet ended with a message about what happened to the suspect of the episode.
GORDON MILLER - Exonerated by a five point ten report and released from custody. Eighteen months later, Miller took his own life.
As Gordon Miller said to Sgt. Joe Friday: Only two women ever loved him in his life, his mother and Elizabeth Hoffmann. His mother died when he was twelve. Now Elizabeth Hoffmann was dead. Gordon Miller said he loved Elizabeth Hoffmann because he couldn't live alone.
That's 1950s television for you.