Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Dojo Classics - RKO's Dick Tracy!
I just finished watching all four of RKO's Dick Tracy movies. These are solid little movies, with stlyish noir details and brisk compelling plots. I frankly was surprised how good they were.
Dick Tracy, Detective stars Morgan Conway as the eponymous detective and he's terrific. Conway has a deep voice and a presence that really sell the notion he's a tough as nails detective; when he leans into a baddie you buy it. And while he might not necessarily look like the classic Tracy we know today, I think he resembles the original Tracy in the earliest strips quite a bit. The first movie involves a villain named Splitface who at first appears to be a wild serial slasher, but with investigation it turns out there is a method to his murders. There is a slick balance between the investigations on the shadowy streets and an oddly warm home life for Dick and Tess Trueheart played by Anne Jeffreys. There's even a sub-plot with Junior who is just on screen long enough to not get annoying. Lyle Latell is Pat Patton. Mike Mazurki as Splitface is outstanding, and he offers up a really frightening and merciless killer. The balance between humor and suspense is nearly perfect in this one.
Dick Tracey Vs. Cueball again stars Morgan Conway as Tracy, and Jeffreys plays Tess again. Cueball is played by Dick Wessel and he's a strangler involved with diamond thieves. His murderous tendencies run afoul of the plot the others wish to pursue to glean profit from the theft, but he doesn't seem to care. This is not quite as tight as the first movie, but it's still got plenty of noirish action to satisfy those cravings. Ian Keith turns up as Vitamin Flintheart and he's outstanding in the role. Lyle Latell is back as Pat Patton and he's pretty entertaining. The characters are a bit broader in this one, more in the style of the comic strip, but mildly less effective on the big screen.
Dick Tracy's Dilemma sees Ralph Byrd take on the lead role, one he was familiar with from the serials. He is a handsome enough fellow and looks the role well enough but alas he is too affable to be as effective as Conway. The story involves fur thieves and a rough customer named The Claw played by Jack Lambert who uses his hook hand to commit his murders. There are a lot of twists in this one, and again a bit more humor. Junior who had been the previous two movies is absent from this one and the next. Kay Christopher is Tess and she's lovely. Ian Keith as Vitamin Flintheart plays a big role in this one, and there's a charming character called Sightless. Lyle Latell returns as Pat Patton and his set pieces of comedy seem to be larger and more frequent. The action in this is shootouts and missing is the car chase which was a key set piece of each of the previous two movies.
Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome is doubtless the most famous of these movies, and that's because of Boris Karloff who plays the murderous Gruesome a thug just out of prison who immediately is looking for action and finds it with his pal Melody using suspended animation gas to rob banks. Ralph Byrd is back as well as Ian Keith and Lyle Latell. Anne Gwynne takes on the Tess role. The plot is wilder than any of the previous movies and the noir details while visually present are undercut a bit by the quasi-science fiction feel of the story. The movie is pretty interested in maximizing the star power of Karloff, even referencing his name at one point. But a number of scenes reminded me of the classic Frankenstein, especially with Gruesome rising from the dead in the morgue and the climax where he is chasing Tracy around a car. The humor is much bigger in this one and centers around Lyle Latell as Pat Patton, and while it's still an entertaining movie for sure, not really the suspense thriller the first few were.
Overall, these are terrific little movies, helped immensely by running times of just over an hour. The stories are brisk and the action is pretty darn good. My wife who walked in on one showing commented on the speed of the dialogue and that's another detail that helps keep these movies running along neatly.
When Ian Keith pops those vitamins into his mouth he's right out of the comic strip.
UPDATE: Still have a high regard for these flicks. They are wonderful little pulp adventures with some nifty atmosphere and more than a mote of adventure. These are widely available and highly recommended.