READ/WATCH ‘EM IN ORDER #23
Ralph Byrd was the original screen Dick Tracy, playing the famous detective in four Republic serials from 1937 to 1941. In 1947, he returned to the role when he replaced Morgan Conway in the RKO B-movie series. And now he’d get to play
Tracy as Tracy was meant to be
played—as a big city homicide cop. The serials, though quite good for what they
were, “upgraded” Tracy
to a federal agent, taking him out of his proper milieu. The RKO films put him
back where he belonged.
In Dick Tracy’s Dilemma, there’s also a new Tess Trueheart (Kay Christopher) and a new director—a B-movie vet named John Rawlins. But there’s still a lot of continuity to link it to the
Conway films, including Lyle Lattel as Pat
Patton and Ian Keith earning some good laughs as Vitamin Flintheart.
The main link to the previous
Tracy films, though, is the visual style. The
directors of the first two films—William Berke and Gordon Douglass—had given
their Tracy films the sort of gritty noir style that the filmmakers at RKO used
to do so well. On this film, John Rawlins does the same thing, effectively
using light and shadow to give Dick
Tracy’s Dilemma a very hard-boiled
ambiance. Of particular note here is the finale, in which Tracy pursues the villain through a dark junk
The villain this time around is a thug called The Claw because because he has a hook in place of his right hand. John Lambert, who played many a thug in his career, gives the Claw an aura of brutality and violence that makes him an effective and downright creepy bad guy.
The story itself is yet another well-plotted procedural, with
logically following up clues after the Claw and a couple of other thugs steal
some fur coats and murder a night watchman. At one point, for instance, the
Claw is interrupted by the cops while trying to use a pay phone. He gets away,
notices the scratches on the phone dial from the Claw’s claw. This allows him
to deduce the phone number and eventually track down the mastermind behind the
It’s all good, solid storytelling, adding up to what many consider to be the best film in the RKO series.
Before long, we’ll take a look (actually, a return look) at the last film in the series, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome—one that many consider to be the weakest. But it’s my favorite and—since it’s a well-established fact that anyone who disagrees with me is wrong—then it simply MUST be the best of the series. I’ll concede, though, that Dick Tracy’s Dilemma comes in a close second.
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