B-movies get a bad rap. Yeah, they were made on the cheap to fill
out a double feature, but that doesn't mean that they lacked artistic merit
or were bad. Though some certainly were horrid, in the hey-day of
the studio system B's were the training ground for up and coming talent
as well as the place where falling stars found themselves working.
Even though the cast and crew didn't rate the A-movies there was still
a wealth of talent involved and the films often turned out very well, especially
if they were made for a big studio. Unfortunately they are often
over looked due to their meager beginnings. The Dick Tracy
features fall into that category: a quartet of well made films that
are classic Noirs but unfortunately largely ignored. VCI has now
released all four of theses B-films in one set with a very nice image and
informative introductions by Max Allen Collins.
Dick Tracy started off as a newspaper comic strip in 1931 and was soon
in papers around the country. The iconic police officer was optioned
for films, being read by an estimated 350 million people at one point,
but Hollywood didn't really know how to tap into comic characters at that
time. Instead of giving a popular character a big budget and top
talent as they are today, back in the depression comics were regulated
to B features and serials. Such was the case with Dick Tracy.
In 1937 the first of four Republic serials, aptly entitled Dick Tracy,
premiered. Ralph Byrd played Tracy, as did in the three sequels,
and while he looked the part none of these chapter-plays were very close
in tone to the comic strip.
In 1945 RKO bought the rights to the strip and started on their own
series of films. These were b-movie programmers, much to the chagrin
of Tracy creator Chester Gould. Done on the cheap and not publicized
very well, these films were closer to the comic strip however. With
a lot of violence, some nasty villains, and darkly lit sets these films
are noir thrillers that deserve more attention than they get.
Dick Tracy, Detective (1945):
In this first film, Morgan Conway plays the square-jawed detective.
It's a dark and sinister film that is actually much better (and more violent)
than one would assume. Dick Tracy, a homicide detective, finds a
series of murder victims who were all viciously butchered with a long,
shape knife. The victims come from different social and economic
backgrounds, and there seems to be nothing connecting them, although it
seems clear that they aren't random crimes. When a psychic tells
Dick that there will be 14 murders in all (the only part of the film that's
a bit contrived) the master detective has to use all of his resources to
track down the murderer, a disfigured maniac who goes by the name Splitface.
The villain, created for the movie and not part of the comic strip,
could have been a Gould creation. With an eerie look and a vicious
streak, Splitface is a cruel but entertaining villain, just the sort to
test Tracy's mettle.
A good part of why this film succeeds so well is that it's an adaptation
of the comic, but it doesn't try to recreate a comic panel on the screen
the way Warren Beatty's big-budget version did. This movie is grim
and gritty, like the best of Tracy's newspaper adventures, but tries to
be realistic. While many of the comic's supporting cast is present,
like Tracy's girlfriend Tess Trueheart (the wonderful Anne Jeffreys) and
his partner Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) as well as the orphan Junior (Mickey
Kuhn), the two-way wrist radio and other fanciful scientific devices that
appeared in the strip were thankfully lost. This grounded the film
in the real world and made it a police procedural with action elements.
This film is rather violent, in the tradition of the great noirs.
In one scene a man's throat is cut, he's thrown through a glass sky light
and then tumbles down the flight of stairs that he lands on. Pretty
gruesome stuff for the 40's.
The acting was good all around. Kuhn was great as junior, with
a lot of pluck and the ability to think on his feet. Anne Jeffreys
didn't have much to do as Tess but look pretty, and she did that with style
and class. Morgan Conway didn't look like Tracy the way Ralph Byrd
did, but he was a better actor. Conway has an intensity that fits
the role well and he makes a good hard boiled detective. He didn't
do so well in the softer moments of the film however. At one point
he grabs Junior by the shoulders and smiles, and it looks like he's going
to eat the poor boy. His rough Bogart-like face just didn't play
well in the few comic scenes in the film.
An excellent film, this is a true noir that's exciting and a lot of
Dick Tracy Meets Cueball (1946):
Conway returns for his second, and last, portrayal of Dick Tracy in the
best film of the series. This time a small time crook, Cueball (Dick
Wessel), is hired to steal some diamonds, which he does, but kills the
courier in the process. With Tracy on their trail the people who
came up with the plan are no longer interested in taking the diamonds and
don't want to pay Cueball. The thug doesn't take that well, and starts
killing everyone who he thinks is trying to double-cross him. With
the bodies piling up and Cueball no closer to getting his money, Tracy
has to act fast.
Another great noir, this film has a fantastic villain. Cueball
is a dim-witted thug who is different from many b-movie baddies.
Large, strong and of less than average intelligence, he's confused and
uncertain of what to do most of the time. He knows he's being cheated
by his partners, but he can't figure out what to do aside from threatening
and killing them. You almost feel sorry for the guy especially at
the end when he stoically meets a violent and unpleasant end. He's
obviously out of his depth, not the criminal mastermind that Tracy usually
runs up against.
This film also introduces another comic strip character to the series,
Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith). Intended as comic relief, Vitamin
was patterned after John Barrymore and is played with enthusiastic vim
by Keith. His over the top and effeminate portrayal is amusing and
fun but doesn't make the film silly or campy.
Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947):
Ralph Byrd returns to the role that he first played in four serials for
RKO. This time Tracy is after a group of fur thieves who empty a
dealer's vault and leave a dead night guard in their place. The owner
seems helpful, but could this be an insurance scam? Tracy's not sure
but his investigation reveals that the crimes were committed by an ex-con
with a bum leg who is also missing a hand and goes by the name of...The Claw!
Byrd certainly looked the part of Dick Tracy. His jaw was pronounced
and his smile was disarming. Compared to Conway however, his characterization
wasn't quite solid. Byrd always seems to play this like this was
a serial, where it's hard to take the situations seriously. Even
in the more serious scenes, Byrd isn't as grim and determined as Conway
was. He doesn't have much personality in this film either, playing
the character by the numbers rather than trying to bring him to life.
With this movie they also change the actress playing Tess to Kay Christopher
who is attractive but doesn't have the screen presence of Jefferys.
This film is a definite come down from the preceding pair. For
some reason Pat Patton, Tracy's bumbling side kick, is given much more
screen time and an actual role in the movie. In the previous films
his part was limited to getting knocked out and apologizing to Tracy.
Here he's given a few tasks to help with the investigation, which he naturally
messes up. While in the previous installments Patton came across
as just a warm body, in this film he's an idiot. It's surprising
that Tracy doesn't shoot him.
The action is a bit toned down too. Dick Tracy is investigating
an insurance scam? Come on, that's so beneath him! While the
Claw is a nice villain, he wasn't nearly as menacing as Cueball or Splitface
and therefore less interesting.
This film isn't without its merits however. The direction was
very good and there were a few nice flourishes that made the movie more
exciting. In one scene the camera takes the POV of the villain as
he kills a man. The ending fight between Tracy and The Claw was filmed
well too, with shadows of the characters being emphasized in a very stylized
way. When all was said and done however, this is the weakest entry
in the series.
Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947):
The last entry in the series features Byrd once again filling the detective's
shoes and pitting his wits against none other than Boris Karloff.
When an recently released convict, Gruesome (Boris Karloff), starts
looking for work of the not-quite-legal kind, he stumbles upon a knockout
gas in a scientists lab. The scientist thinks it's useless, but Gruesome
knows better: He'll use it to knock everyone out in a bank and then
rob it. His plan works well except for the fact that Tess Trueheart
(this time played by Anne Gwynne) is in the bank and avoids breathing the
gas. Her account of the robbery sets Tracy on Gruesome's trail.
This was a step up from the previous entry in the series and not a bad
film at all. Karloff, at a lull in his career, was still a great
actor and made a magnificent villain. The worst part of the film
was the secret paralyzing gas which would cause people to instantly freeze,
even in mid step. This outlandish device made the film unbelievable
and because of that it lost the edge that the other films have.
This film also features a lot of the silly names that Gould liked to
use in his comic strip. There's a taxidermist named Y. Stuffem, a
scientist with the moniker Dr. A Tomic, his assistant I. M. Learned, and
a thug Lee Thal. While these are funny on paper, in a would-be film
noir they just ruin the mood. This is the only one of the four that
really isn't a noir, but it's still entertaining and worth a watch.
These four movies, which average a little over an hour each, come on
two single-sided DVDs, two movies on each disc. They are housed in
a single width keepcase with a page in the middle for the second DVD.
These four films all come with a mono soundtrack that sounds like it
has been cleaned up. There isn't any hiss or background noise at
normal listening levels and I didn't notice any dropouts. The range
is naturally limited and the bass particularly anemic, but the dialog was
easy to discern and all the movies were easy to listen to.
All four of these films are presented with their original 1.33:1 aspect
ratio, in glorious black and white, and they all look really good.
The image is very clear and the lines fairly tight and the contrast is
above average for a film of this age. Whites don't bloom and the
blacks are solid. Some fine details are lost in dark areas, but this
isn't a huge problem.
I have the previous Roan release of these films, which also look good,
but I have to give the edge to this VCI release. The Roan prints
have a bit of dirt and a few random spots, something that is very rare
on these discs. In a side-by-side comparison the transfer on this
set also looks just a little bit tighter, with some extra detail, if only
a small amount. While there's not such a big difference to make it
worth while upgrading, this is a nice looking set.
All four of these films have intro's by Max Allen Collins, the author
who took over the Tracy strip when Gould retired. These aren't very
long but they are informative. He talks about the popularity of the
Tracy strip, what Tracy's creator thought of the actors who played Dick,
and talks about what he enjoys about the films.
Disc one also has a photo gallery, the first chapter of Dick Tracy
Returns, a Republic serial, and trailers for The Vigilante (the
DC comics hero) and The Master Key, a Universal serial.
On the second disc, there's also the first chapter to Dick Tracy's
G-Men, a photo gallery, as well as trailers for the feature version
of Dick Tracy's G-Men and FBI Girl. The later looks
like a great film. As the preview proclaims it features "a man cruel
enough to abuse a woman, a man clever enough to use a young girl's love
to gain his ends." It stars Raymond Burr, Cesar Romero, and George
These are a great set of film noir movies that are underappreciated.
The first two are especially entertaining and would be discussed more with
other noir films if it wasn't for its comic strip origins. This collection
is boasts a good image and nice sound as well as some fun extras and a
reasonable price. With some suspenseful moments and filled with noir
elements, these movies are sure to appeal to fans of old-school crime films.