The fourth and last Republic serial to feature Chester Gould's granite-jawed crime-stopper, Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941) was made during the zenith of chapter-play production. Republic's serials had the best stunt work and special effects in the business, and 1941 was just about the peak year for such things; that same year Republic released Adventures of Captain Marvel, Jungle Girl, and King of the Texas Rangers, two of which are ranked among the greatest serials ever made.
Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. adopts a formula common to a vast many serials, and like a lot of serials recycles footage from earlier cliffhangers and other movies, though not to the degree that late-'40s and '50s serials would. For fans then there are few surprises, but this 15-chapter adventure (favorite episode title: "Chapter Nine: Beheaded") still delivers a lot of comic strip excitement, and Warren Beatty aside, for many star Ralph Byrd remains the definitive screen Tracy.
This DVD release sources decent film elements that are let down by the transfer. More on this below.
Common to an awful lot of serials, a member of the crime-fighting committee working alongside the hero is in fact the bad guy, the master criminal of the piece, here called The Ghost. When he's The Ghost, the traitorous council member walks around in a form-fitting black mask, similar to what Boris Karloff looked like at the end of Die, Monster, Die! (or was it The Sorcerers?). The Ghost - who gets second billing after Ralph Byrd - is killing off members of the Council of Eight one-by-one to avenge the death of his executed brother, Rackets Reagan, whom they convicted. (What would happen if he succeeded and was the last man standing? Wouldn't that pretty much give the game away?)
Not one to do things half-measure, in the opening chapter he creates a huge tidal wave that pummels New York City (footage from Deluge), and later tries to derail a train and commit other acts of mayhem. The Ghost can make himself invisible; his henchmen work a device with a glowing, spinning dial while he shines a mirror at the camera. There are few optical effects a la John P. Fulton's Invisible Man movies, but the invisibility effects are pretty good for a serial.
The Ghost's identity is its central mystery, though the voice of the ghost quite obviously is provided by one specific suspect, an actor who played surprise villains in other movies. However, serials aren't exactly known for their honesty, and I can think of at least one that blatantly cheated in this regard, so in a sense you'll never know for sure who The Ghost is until the end.
Another facet of '40s serial formulae is how the action is divided: resolution of cliffhanger ending, regroup and recap at hero's headquarters, new plan from the villain at his hideout, mid-point action set-piece, another scene at the hero's headquarters where a plan to stop the villain is hatched and put into action, plan goes awry and cliffhanger ending. All in 16 breathless minutes.
Ralph Byrd makes a swell Dick Tracy. His somewhat unusual features hinted at Gould's strip character, but in spite of this, Byrd was reasonably handsome. He also had an everyman quality about him, while his affable demeanor ingratiated his screen persona to audiences. When RKO began a series of very modest B-features in 1945, the public rejected Morgan Conway: to them, Ralph Byrd was the one and only Dick Tracy, and so Byrd was brought back for the last two films. After appearing in low budget features for several years, Byrd again played Tracy in a no-budget television series, but died prematurely at 43 of a heart attack after just one season of shows had been filmed.
One of the members of the Council of Eight is played by Ralph Morgan, the older brother of Frank, famous as The Wizard of Oz. While Frank enjoyed a career at MGM in big-budget movies, Ralph languished in B-movies and in Poverty Row for most of his later career, memorably in such films as The Monster Maker (1944).
Actors like Kenneth Harlan, Robert Fiske, Jack Mulhall, and Anthony Warde are well-known to serial and B-movie buffs; they all get billing, but Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. is stuffed with familiar faces like Selmer Jackson, Joe Kirk, Eddie Parker, C. Montague Shaw (former Clay King of Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars), Dave Sharpe, and Bob Wilke.
I saw Dick Tracy (1937) years ago, but have yet to see Dick Tracy Returns and Dick Tracy's G-Men. Reportedly Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. features many of the same cliffhanger endings from those earlier films. Maybe so, but they were new to this reviewer, and I was grateful not to have to see the same five or six miniature effects recycled endlessly as in Republic's later chapter plays. (One low angle shot of a big sedan shooting through a guardrail off a cliff seems to be in every Republic serial ever made, like the exploding helicopter shot appearing in every New World trailer.)
Still, you get a lot of bang for your buck when you consider that, despite a total length of 4 hours and 23 minutes, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. cost just $175,919 to produce. (John Huston's 101-minute The Maltese Falcon, produced that same year and regarded as a modest A-picture production, cost around $381,000.)
Video & Audio
This is where things get complicated. VCI is a great, almost irreplaceable label for B-movie and serial fans, sporting a treasure trove of titles too minor for the major studios to be bothered with. Unfortunately, their products are wildly inconsistent. Some of their releases appear to be public domain titles where they've had to rely on inferior film sources, apparently 16mm in many cases. At the other end of the spectrum are films released in conjunction with Kit Parker Films, which owns the Robert Lippert library, and which draws on original negatives from Great Britain and elsewhere. The Kit Parker titles almost always look at least pretty good, but everything else is hit-and-miss - especially VCI's serials, which run the gamut from superb (Jungle Girl) to pretty bad (most of their Western chapter plays). Even when the source material is okay, as was the case with 1951 Captain Video, there's sometimes an attempt to fix problems via digital restoration (in this case to hide what appears to be a reels-long scratch running through the film) but they're not really up to the task, and the digital meddling only drew attention to itself.
In the case of Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. the film elements look pretty good, but the transfer is rife with artifacting and what looks like extremely bad DNR. The effect is that whenever there's any movement within the frame, such as a character suddenly turning his head or getting up from a chair, it's like putting one's hand in front of a TV monitor and waving. In other words, blurry, multiple ghost-like images appear.
At first, I thought I'd never be able to get through the serial at all, but then decided to switch from my 45-inch plasma to a 9-inch portable DVD player. Though hardly ideal, the imperfections were much less noticeable, but then again I was watching it on a screen the size of a checkbook.
However, after a few chapters I tried switching back to the plasma and, while there was still a fair amount of artifacting, the weird, hand-in-front-of-the-TV effect had strangely dissipated. I went back to the first chapter and what bothered me was still there, but for whatever reason this particular problem seems to gradually go away after the first couple of chapters. (Another problem: in one chapter the audio is about six frames out of synch, and in another the audio is notably weak, suggesting it was culled from a different source.) Any clarification VCI might want to offer about this title would be most welcome.
The disc itself offers no clues. Indeed, there's a cryptic preface stating, "This Special Edition motion picture (sic?) has been digitally restored to its present condition." And if we caught our own fish whoever we sold it to wouldn't have to pay for it and the profits would go to the fish.
The Dolby Digital mono is fine, except for the issues discussed above. There are no subtitle or alternate audio options. The disc is region-free, on two single-sided discs.
The lone extra is a pretty good one: Max Allan Collins, who drew the Dick Tracy strip from 1977-93, provides an introduction that puts the serial into context with Gould's original and early '40s trends.
Despite some major concerns about the transfer of first chapter or two and to a lesser degree after that, Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. is a typically fun Republic serial made during the genre's peak. Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.