Monday, December 3, 2007

B-Movie Detectives: Part 3

Well, we've looked at a couple of reformed thieves, so now let's turn to one of the more famous of the B-movie law enforcement officers.

Chester Gould's briliant comic strip Dick Tracy first came to the big screen in 1937, as a 15-chapter serial starring Ralph Byrd as the heroic cop. Well, actually, in the serial, he's an heroic G-man, rather than the city cop he is in the original strip. But it's a well-made serial, as were the 2 serials that followed over the next few years.

But even though those the serials are fun, I prefer the four feature films made by RKO during the 1940s, in which Tracy was returned to his proper role as a big-city detective. The first two star Morgan Conway as Tracy. Conway gives a strong, understated performance--but for many fans, Ralph Byrd WAS Dick Tracy. Public demand brought Byrd back to the role for the last two films.

All four films are well-plotted, faithful to Gould's strip in that they contained the elements of a straightforward police procedural, but the villains were cartoonishly monsterous.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, one of the Byrd films, is the best example of this. Boris Karloff plays the bad guy--the movie plays this just a little tiny bit tongue-in-cheek. But Karloff is still legitimately threatening, making him effective from a dramatic point-of-view as well.

There's another element to these movies I took note of when I watched a couple of them again recently. Gruesome ends with a gun fight between Tracy and the villain in the villain's hideout, where he has a conveyor belt/furnace set up for dispossing of bodies. Dick Tracy, Detective (one of the Conway films) ends with the square-jawed cop and the bad guy slugging it out with their fists aboard a dilapitated old riverboat.

In both cases, these action sequences were just plain fun to watch. The camera remained steady and everything was choreographed in such a way that we could follow the action. We understand the geography of the situation and we know where all the participants are in relation to each other at any one time.

In these days of split-second edits and endlessly jiggling cameras (what has been justifiably called the "vomit-cam"), it is more and more of a pleasure to watch a good 0ld-fashioned action scene. I am increasingly of the opinion that many otherwise talented contemporary directors simply don't know how to choreograph and photograph a fight scene and thus use the vomit-cam to cover up their shortcomings.

This is not the case in with the Dick Tracy movies--or just about any of the B-movies from that era. They knew how to film a fight scene, by golly.

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