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Tag Archives: John Rawlins

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.

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