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Tag Archives: Phil Warren

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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The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Feb. 20, 1947)

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride has acquired a fearsome reputation over the years, so I wasn’t prepared for how weird and funny it ended up being.

This film has more oddball characters than you can shake a stick at. The protagonist, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North), is a bra and panties salesman driving a 1941 gray convertible who has a bad case of the hiccups and a wine bottle on the seat next to him with a rubber nipple attached to it. It was a gag gift from his buddies, and he swears he only smells like booze. He hasn’t had a nip since before dinner. But he sure seems drunk, especially at the beginning of the movie.

There’s also a detective who keeps his dog in his car and belts his trench coat around his chest, a young gas station attendant who has a funny-looking daughter, an alcoholic night watchman who takes a $1 bet that he can’t drink an entire glass of whiskey like it’s water, and a wrongfully arrested wedding party who prove they’re not the people the cops are looking for by having the groom remove his toupee.

The one character who doesn’t come off like a caricature — and the major reason for the film’s enduring legacy — is Steve Morgan, a sociopathic robber, forger, and killer. He’s played by Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose notorious offscreen exploits — arrests for drunken brawling and driving under the influence — often overshadow his talents as an actor.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Rick McKay, Tierney said that he didn’t enjoy making The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He said, “I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.”

Assuming Tierney wasn’t rewriting history, and he really did hate playing Steve Morgan, none of his discomfort is visible onscreen. Cruelty and duplicity are as natural for Steve as breathing, and despite this, he’s the most likable person in the film. The hapless salesman who gives Steve a lift is too goofy-acting and stiff to elicit much audience sympathy. And the cops who pursue Steve following his robbery of an old man outside of a San Diego bank are too incompetent and obsessed with playing poker to really root for.

Steve controls and manipulates people effortlessly. Within minutes of getting in Ferguson’s car, he’s renamed Ferguson “Fergie” and has picked up a couple of passengers of his own at a gas station — a bottle-blonde party girl named Agnes (Betty Lawford) and her prim, dark-haired friend Carol (Nan Leslie).

The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an hour-long paean to bad behavior. It moves too quickly for the viewer to stop and consider all the contrivances that lead Steve, Fergie, Agnes, and Carol to Fergie’s boss’s beach house in Newport. Along the way, there’s more boozing, lying, property destruction, and running from the cops than you’ll find in most movies twice as long.

It’s not quite a “lost classic” of film noir, like Detour (1945), and its humorous moments outweigh its chilling moments, but The Devil Thumbs a Ride is still well worth seeking out.

Code of the West (Feb. 20, 1947)

Code of the West, a programmer from RKO Radio Pictures, has the same pedigree as Sunset Pass (1946). Both films are based on novels by Zane Grey, the screenplays for both films were written by Norman Houston, both are directed by William Berke, both star James Warren and John Laurenz, and both feature Robert Clarke, Harry Woods, Steve Brodie, and Harry Harvey in supporting roles.

In Sunset Pass, the tall, lean, blond-haired, scowling Warren played a cowboy named “Rocky.” Here, he plays a cowboy named “Bob Wade.” John Laurenz plays the same character, Chito Rafferty, a comical, musically inclined Irish-Mexican. (Incidentally, “Chito Rafferty” was a sidekick character made famous by Richard Martin, who played the character in 33 different westerns from 1943 to 1952. Laurenz was the only other actor to play the character, and he only did so in Sunset Pass and Code of the West.)

While I won’t be able to tell you the plot of either of these films at this time next month, I thought Code of the West was the better picture, largely due to the presence of a young Raymond Burr, who is a smoother and more malevolent villain than Harry Woods was in Sunset Pass.

In Code of the West, Burr plays a land baron (what else?) named Boyd Carter. Carter and his henchmen know that the railroad is coming through town, but they’re keeping the information to themselves as they buy up all the land they can get their hands on. When a young banker named Harry Stockton (Robert Clarke) lends Bob and Chito money to stake a claim of their own, Carter’s men go into action.

If you were drawn to this film by the poster above, be forewarned that Carter’s arson-murder gang that blasts the frontier is mostly a collection of stock footage. But if you squint your eyes, suspend your disbelief, and take another sip of bourbon, you’ll be fine.