Thursday, September 13, 2012

He's Back!


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 yard.

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 Tracy 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, but Tracy 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 Claw’s crimes.

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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