Dick Tracy, directed by William Berke and starring Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy, wasn’t the first filmed adaptation of the most famous detective in the funny pages. There had been four serials prior to it, all of which starred Ralph Byrd; Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941). The first one was also re-edited into a feature in 1937, which was a fairly common practice. These were B pictures, after all. If you had the footage, why not repackage it?
This film, however, took the character in a new direction. Played by Morgan Conway, Tracy is more believable as a real person than the way Byrd played him. Both embody aspects of the character, but they look nothing like each other. Byrd literally looked like a cartoon character. He had small, perfect features and intense eyes. But for me, his voice was too high and his nose too small to really convey the toughness of the character. Conway, on the other hand, is ugly and tough as nails. He looks like what I imagine Tracy might look like if he were a real person, although his nose is more of a “schnoz” than Tracy’s “beak.” He’s decent and brave, but still not above underhanded tricks to get his man. When we’re introduced to him, he’s interrogating a sweaty suspect named Johnny (Tommy Noonan). Tracy makes Johnny believe his mother has been killed so he’ll agree to roll over on someone. After Johnny spills the beans, Tracy admits to having tricked him. “It was the only way I could get you to talk and clear yourself at the same time,” he says. “All right boys, clean up Johnny and send him home.”
This film also features the full supporting cast of characters from Chester Gould’s daily newspaper strip, many of whom had been missing from earlier adaptations; Tracy’s sidekick Pat Patton (Lyle Latell), his best girl Tess Trueheart (Anne Jeffreys), his adopted son Junior (Mickey Kuhn), and Chief Brandon (Joseph Crehan). Gould’s violent, gruesome world is handled well in this film. Its opening may be the darkest of any film based on a comic strip character made before 1970. A high-angle shot shows a man with his back to the camera, leaning against a light pole in a quiet, suburban neighborhood at night, smoking a cigarette. When a bus stops and a single, female passenger (Mary Currier) disembarks, he moves into the shadows. A tracking shot follows her as she walks across the street, then cuts to a static shot of the man’s shadow on a wall, and the viewer can see from the movement of his shadow that he is reaching into his breast pocket for something. This is followed by a tracking shot of the woman with the camera directly behind her, presumably showing his point of view. The woman walks down the sidewalk, her heels clacking. She looks nervous. She turns around. There is no one behind her. She keeps walking. Suddenly, a shadow falls across her and she screams. The man attacks her. There is a cut to a long shot of the street, which shows her body lying on the sidewalk and the man running away.
Dick Tracy discovers a note on the woman’s viciously mutilated body, demanding that $500 in small bills be left in a street sweeper’s trash can on the corner of Lakeview and Ash. The note is signed “Splitface.” The next morning, the mayor of the city (William Halligan) receives a similar note, demanding that $10,000 be paid out or the mayor will be “slashed to pieces.”
The murdered schoolteacher, the mayor, and another man who was killed by Splitface seemingly have nothing to connect them. Tracy and Patton investigate, and Tracy comes to the conclusion that Splitface is motivated by something other than money, since the murdered woman didn’t pay, but the murdered man did.
Dick Tracy has plenty of action, with Dick and Pat chasing down suspects on foot and in cars, but it doesn’t skimp on the investigations that lead them there. It’s not rigorous enough to qualify as a police procedural, but it doesn’t gloss over any details, and Conway’s acting style and line delivery are not unlike Jack Webb’s on Dragnet.
Devotees of the daily strip will probably quibble with details, but I thought this picture did a nice job of balancing the violence with over-the-top characters. There is a loony astronomer and fortune teller named Professor Starling (Trevor Bardette), a ghoulish undertaker named Deathridge (Milton Parsons), and of course the great character actor Mike Mazurki as the villain.
Dick Tracy is a one-hour programmer, and there’s no question that it’s a B movie, but it’s an expertly directed, fast-paced, and thoroughly enjoyable one.