aka Dick Tracy, Detective
Director – William Berke, Screenplay – Eric Taylor, Based on the Comic Book Created by Chester Gould, Producer – Herman Schlom, Photography (b&w) – Frank Redman, Music – Roy Webb, Music Director – C. Bakaleinikoff, Art Direction – Albert S. D’Agostino. Production Company – RKO
Morgan Conway (Dick Tracy), Anne Jeffreys (Tess Trueheart), Trevor Bardette (Professor Linwood Starling), Mike Mazurki (Alexis ‘Splitface’ Banning), Mickey Kuehn (Junior), Lyle Latell (Pat Patton), Milton Parsons (Deathridge), Morgan Wallace (Steven Owens), Jane Greer (Judith Owens)
Police detective Dick Tracy must deal with a new criminal known as Splitface. Splitface has a list of fourteen victims and is demanding sums of money off each victim before he kills them.
Created in 1931 by Chester Gould and appearing in the Detroit Mirror, Dick Tracy was the first and most popular newspaper (and later comic-book) detective and is a character that still appears today despite Gould’s death in 1986. With its distinctive colours and assertive line-drawn stolidity, the strip prefigured Batman with its gaggle of uniquely bizarre villains known only by their nicknames. The character was adapted into a radio show between 1935 and 1948. There was also a series of four serials starring Ralph Byrd as Tracy – Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939) and Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc (1941) – and then a series of feature films beginning with this.
There were many comic-book characters adapted to the screen during the 1940s but it was not until the 1960s and in particular from Batman (1989) onwards that filmed comic-books developed a uniquely cinematic style based on the look of the comic-book. The world that serial comic-book superheroes and characters inhabited prior to this was a prosaically realistic one. The serials were not films blown up with stylistic poses – in the Batman (1943) serial, for instance, Batman’s cape hangs with realistic limpness rather than puffs up on invisible winds or casts bat shadows on the wall behind him. There is no shadowy grimness or fantastically stylised cities, the surroundings here are documentary-like and unimaginatively lit. If you don’t understand this, there might be some disappointment to seeing Dick Tracy on screen. There is none of the comic-strip’s square-jawed stylism and Spliftace’s split face is reduced to merely a makeup scar. Without the form of the modern comic-book film established at this point, the nearest model Dick Tracy has to draw on is the crime thriller. That said, when you place all of this in perspective, Dick Tracy is quite an effective film.
The film starts out as a crime drama plot but soon takes a number of interesting turns, throwing in all manner of mysterious hypnotists, crystal ball prophecies and a very weird scene with an unnervingly intense mortician. By the end, William Berke, previously a director of B Westerns, has developed some striking and stylised film noir poses – the exactingly directed killing of the professor being one notable set piece. The gaunt and balding Morgan Conway comes nowhere near resembling the square-jawed Dick Tracy of the comic book, nevertheless he presents a certain and assured hero. It is a performance that stands out, where in most crime dramas and especially serials of the day the stock heroes tended to blandness. There is also a likable sense of humour to the film, especially a running gag about Tracy perpetually standing up Tess Truehart. The result is, amid the routine proliferation of 30s and 40s comic-book adaptations, one rare entry that crafts a good film out of the material.
The subsequent Dick Tracy feature films were:– Dick Tracy vs Cueball (1946), Dick Tracy’s Dilemma (1947) and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). Morgan Conway appeared again in Cueball but was replaced by Ralph Byrd, the serial Dick Tracy, in the next two entries. Ralph Byrd also played the part in a short-lived half-hour tv series Dick Tracy (1950-1). There was a brief attempt to revive the series amid the 1960s Batman camp fad but this went no further than a 1967 pilot starring Ray McDonnell. Dick Tracy (1990) was a big-budget remake directed by and starring Warren Beatty.