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Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (Sept. 26, 1947)

The last of RKO’s four Dick Tracy pictures employs horror icon Boris Karloff to tell a hard-boiled crime story with a sci-fi twist.

Directed by John Rawlins and produced by Herman Schlom, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome gives top billing to Karloff, not Ralph Byrd, but it hits a lot of the same notes as the first three films.

I was sad to see the last of the Dick Tracy pictures. I thought they were some of the best programmers from the ’40s, second only to Columbia’s Whistler series. I preferred Morgan Conway — who starred in the first two movies — to Byrd, but all the films were action-packed, fast-paced police procedurals with lots of humor. In short, they were great adaptions of Chester Gould’s comic strip.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome begins with a dramatic shot of a noose silhouetted on a wall. But then the camera pans to the left and we see that it’s just part of the outdoor decor of a dive bar called “Hangman’s Knot.” (Not to be confused with “The Dripping Dagger,” the waterfront dive in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball.)

The hulking Karloff shambles into the bar, takes a shot without paying, and asks to talk to the disreputable-looking piano player, “Melody” Fiske (Tony Barrett).

Yes, Karloff’s character is really named “Gruesome,” and together with Melody and a Coke bottle glasses-wearing character named “X-Ray” (Skelton Knaggs), he robs banks using a unique nerve gas developed by Dr. A. Tomic (Milton Parsons) and his assistant, I.M. Learned (June Clayworth).

Gruesome learns about the nerve gas firsthand, when he accidentally doses himself and winds up with rigor mortis for about an hour. Gruesome’s “dead” body provides plenty of laughs, especially when Dick Tracy’s partner Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) tries pushing his stiff leg down, and the rest of his body rises up like a corpse rising from the grave.

“I tell you, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff,” Pat says.

“Looks that way,” Dick Tracy responds.

Even though the gas causes temporary rigor mortis in anyone who breathes it, the scenes in which Gruesome and his crew release the gas into banks are more like one of those “stopping time” bits than anything else, since the body-freezing effect of the gas is achieved by slowing down and then stopping the film.

It’s silly, but so is a taxidermist named “Y. Stuffum” (a throwaway gag in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome). Chester Gould always delighted in punctuating the violent goings-on in his strips with puns and silly humor, and the RKO Dick Tracy series did the same. While the series never used any of Gould’s original villains, they got the tone of the strip just right.

Dick Tracy’s Dilemma (May 20, 1947)

Dick Tracy’s Dilemma, directed by John Rawlins, marked Ralph Byrd’s triumphant return to playing Chester Gould’s famous police detective. Byrd played the hawk-nosed, square-jawed hero in four serials, Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941).

In William Berke’s excellent programmer Dick Tracy (1945), Morgan Conway stepped into the role. I really liked Conway as Tracy. His facial features were as big and ugly as Byrd’s were small and perfect, but he imbued the character with a humanity lacking in Byrd’s one-note performance, and I would have liked to see him in more Dick Tracy movies than just Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

On the other hand, I’m sure a lot of people who grew up watching Byrd in the Dick Tracy cliffhangers on Saturday afternoons were thrilled to see him return to the role. And besides, everything that made Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball standout pieces of bottom-of-the-bill entertainment from RKO Radio Pictures is still present in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma — tight pacing, good writing, solid direction, dramatic lighting, and nicely staged action — so I enjoyed it in spite of Byrd’s somewhat wooden performance.

The plot of Dick Tracy’s Dilemma is pretty similar to the plot of Dick Tracy vs. Cueball. Instead of a chrome-domed thug with a leather garrote, the villain of the piece is a hulking Neanderthal with a club foot and a hook for a hand. He’s a 39-year-old career criminal named Steve Michel, but he’s better known in the underworld as “The Claw.” Michel was a bootlegger and hijacker during Prohibition. He lost his right hand and crippled his right leg when he was rammed by a Coast Guard cutter, and he’s looking to score some dough now that he’s back on the street. (The Claw is played by character actor Jack Lambert, who’s outfitted with bushy fake eyebrows and a glower that just won’t quit.)

The Claw is part of a crew that takes down a big score at the Flawless Fur warehouse. After the night watchman (Jason Robards Sr.) wakes up from the knockout blow The Claw gave him, he comes after the crew with a gun, and The Claw rips him up with his “hangnail” (as another member of his crew calls his hook). The murder brings in homicide detectives Dick Tracy and his partner, Pat Patton (Lyle Latell).

The Claw waits nervously with his partners for the big payoff. Tracy intercepts Longshot Lillie (Bernadene Hayes), a fence for stolen goods, with $20,000 in her purse. The crew also floats a proposal to Peter Premium (William B. Davidson), the vice president of Honesty Insurance, offering to sell him the furs for half their value before his company has to pay out on the policy.

While this is a solid police procedural with lots of violence, it’s also a Dick Tracy film, so there are plenty of comedic touches. Besides the ridiculous names of some of the characters (see above), there’s a bar called “The Blinking Skull” (not to be confused with “The Dripping Dagger,” which featured in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball), and a beggar named “Sightless” (Jimmy Conlin), who’s only pretending to be blind. Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) is back, too, and provide plenty of laughs — if you’re amused by pretentiousness and narcissism, that is.

John Rawlins directs the one-hour programmer with brisk efficiency. His style is straightforward, but he and his cinematographer Frank Redman throw in plenty of nice touches, such as a man who knocks a plug out of its socket as he is being murdered by The Claw. The next shot is of The Claw rising to stand. The unplugged desk fan is in the foreground, and its blades slowly stop rotating as The Claw leaves the room. It’s a great visual metaphor for a life ending. The film also features a fine score by noir favorite Paul Sawtell.

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (Dec. 18, 1946)

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball begins with a montage of Dick Tracy and his rogues’ gallery from the Sunday funnies — B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie, Vitamin Flintheart, Flattop, etc. — and ends with a face that Chester Gould never drew. He’s a chrome-domed, pug-nosed bruiser called Cueball, and his cartoon image eventually dissolves into the visage of the character actor who plays him, Dick Wessel, looking menacing as all get-out as the recently paroled thug.

In the opening scene of the film, Cueball sneaks onto an ocean liner that has just docked, forces his way into the compartment of a passenger named Lester Abbott (Trevor Bardette), and demands he hand over his diamonds. When Abbott fights back, Cueball wraps a braided leather strap around his neck and strangles him to death. It’s not as shocking as the murder that opens Dick Tracy (1945), but it’s still fairly gruesome by ’40s standards. (We see it in silhouette, and Cueball even drives his knee into the small of Abbott’s back as he garrotes him.)

Police detectives Dick Tracy (Morgan Conway) and Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) run down clues and question Abbott’s employer, jeweler Jules Sparkle (Harry Cheshire). Pat trails Sparkle’s diamond cutter, Simon Little (Byron Foulger), to a meeting with his hideous assistant Rudolph (Skelton Knaggs), while Tracy follows Sparkle’s secretary, Mona Clyde (Rita Corday), to a rendezvous with antiques dealer Percival Priceless (Douglas Walton).

Meanwhile, Cueball seeks help from Filthy Flora (Esther Howard), the proprietor of a waterfront dive bar called “The Dripping Dagger,” and it becomes clear that he is a pawn in a game he doesn’t fully understand. He’s a pawn who kills as easily as other men breathe, however, and before the film is over, he’ll have murdered three people in his quest to get $20,000 for a score of diamonds worth $300,000.

Like Morgan Conway’s previous outing as Dick Tracy, this picture is a solid, unpretentious police procedural that moves at a nice clip. Many of the characters never appeared in Chester Gould’s comic strip, but they’re crafted in the right spirit. Gould’s bad guys may have been grotesque caricatures with ridiculous names, but he treated them with dead seriousness. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball does the same thing. There’s plenty of comic relief whenever the pill-popping Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) is onscreen, but there’s nothing funny about Cueball slapping Filthy Flora across the face with his leather braid before he chokes her to death with it.

Gordon M. Douglas directs with energy and élan. His camera setups are utilitarian, but the angles and lighting create a dramatic noir atmosphere. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is a violent B mystery thriller with 0% body fat and a lot of muscle.

Dick Tracy (Dec. 1, 1945)

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.

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