Saturday, May 6, 2023

Stubs - Dick Tracy (1945)

Dick Tracy (1945) Starring: Morgan Conway, Anne Jeffreys, Mike Mazurki, Jane Greer. Directed by William Berke. Screenplay by Eric Taylor. Based on the comic strip "Dick Tracy" created by Chester Gould, distributed by Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate (Oct 4, 1931--). Produced by Herman Schlom. Run time: 61 minutes. Black and White. USA. Drama, Police, Film Noir

While Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1995) big budget adaptation might be the best-known film bearing the name of Chester Gould’s famous police detective, it is not the first film version. In 1937, Republic Pictures made the first of four serials based on the comic strip, starring Ralph Byrd.

In 1945, after paying $10,000 for the rights, RKO Pictures hired Broadway actor Morgan Conway to play the character in the first of four films, this one called, Dick Tracy. The film is not based on an existing Dick Tracy story and was made on a low budget.

The film opens late one night. Schoolteacher Dorothy Stafford (Mary Currier) is murdered on a city sidewalk on her way home, her throat apparently slit with a knife. Despite dinner plans with his girlfriend, Tess Truehart (Anne Jeffreys), police detective Dick Tracy (Morgan Conway) and his right-hand man, Pat Patton (Lyle Latell), are assigned to the case.

Back at headquarters, when they go through the dead woman's purse, Dick finds a note signed "Splitface," demanding that Dorothy deposit $500 in a trash can located at a street corner near the murder scene.

Dick tries to make good with Tess but it is too late to go to a restaurant, so they go back to his house and raid the refrigerator. In the morning, Mrs. Caraway (Edythe Elliott) answers the phone with Pat calls for Tracy. The mayor is anxious to see Dick and Pat.

Dick Tracy (Morgan Conway) and his adopted son Tracy Jr. (Mickey Kuhn).

Before Pat comes by to pick him up, Dick goes upstairs to Junior’s bedroom. It’s a little unclear as to the relationship between the two, as Junior calls him Dick, but this is apparently his adopted son, Tracy Jr. (Mickey Kuhn). Junior is a bit of a detective himself, and, using Dick’s fingerprint, determines he was the one who ate all of the food.

The Mayor (William Halligan) is nervous, having received his own note asking for $10,000, which is to be deposited in a trash can the next evening.

Puzzled by the disparity in the amount of the extortion demands, Dick examines Dorothy's records and finds the name Wilbur Thomas. Unable to get Thomas on the phone, Dick and Pat decide to drive out to his address where they discover Thomas' body, his throat slit in the same manner as Dorothy's.

Dick in the home of Steven Owens (Morgan Wallace).

Dick follows the murderer's footprints and sees a man enter the backyard of Thomas' neighbor, Steven Owens (Morgan Wallace). While Dick talks to him, Pat slips into the house through an unlocked rear window and discovers bloodstains on the carpet but no other evidence.

Dick is somewhat suspicious about Owens, who acknowledges that he isn’t normally home at night, as he is the owner of the Paradise Club. This is further driven home when Dick goes back to the Thomas murder scene and finds a business card for the Paradise Club in the front seat of his car.

The following evening, when no one appears to claim the mayor's extortion money, Dick begins to suspect that the victims are targets of a killer and must share some common thread.

Dick takes Tess Truehart (Anne Jeffreys) to the Paradise Club
where they meet Owen's daughter, Judith (Jane Greer).

Trying to be inconspicuous, Dick invites Tess to dinner and takes her to the Paradise Club. While he’s made no reservations, Dick is recognized by everyone at the club and escorted to a table. He asks about Owens but instead is introduced to Owen’s daughter, Judith (Jane Greer).

She hasn’t seen her father lately but does tell Dick that she saw a strange man in the garden at her house before coming to the club. After obtaining the key to the house from Judith, Tracy decides to search the house. However, Tess is tired of being dismissed and insists on going with him.

At the house, they discover that the electricity has been turned off and while Dick goes to look for the fuse box, Tess is nearly attacked by a man with a hideous scar across his face, before the attacker speeds away in his car. Trailing the man to a brownstone, Dick climbs to the roof and finds Professor Linwood J. Starling (Trevor Bardette) peering at the stars through a telescope.

Linwood J. Starling (Trevor Bardette) looks into a crystal ball.

When the mystical Starling denies seeing Splitface (Mike Mazurki), Dick insists on searching his room. There, Dick finds a knife under Starling's mattress. When questioned about the weapon, the professor tells Tracy that if the police had a crystal ball, like he has, there would be no crime. While he gazes into his crystal ball, the professor foretells that twelve more people will die. Just then, the police break down the door to the professor's room and take him to headquarters for further questioning. Their departure is watched by a man with a hideous scar on his face.

Thinking that Splitface's scar may just be a disguise, Dick takes Tess back to the Paradise Club to see if she can identify Owens as Splitface. But he’s not there and Judith informs them that her father has disappeared. She hints that he owes some large gambling debts, which may be why he’s vanished.

Dick is suspicious of Judith's jittery behavior, so he takes her into protective custody. The plan is to take him back to his place. Tess only goes along with the idea only if she, too, goes to Dick’s with them.

Meanwhile, Pat traces the knife found in Starling's room to a surgical supply store and reports that an undertaker named Deathridge purchased three such knives. When Dick goes to question Deathridge, he arouses suspicions when he claims that the knives have disappeared and asks about Starling.

Believing there is a connection between Deathridge and Starling, Dick returns to headquarters and tricks Starling into revealing what he knows about Deathridge.

Dick then plans to bring Starling and Deathridge face to face but when he goes to Deathridge’s funeral home, he finds that he has been murdered, his throat slit like the others.

When Dick returns to headquarters, he’s told that Starling has been released on a writ of habeas corpus.

Starling meets Splitface (Mike Mazurki) on the roof.

Starling, meanwhile, hurries home and packs up his clothes. However, he hears Splitface rap on the skylight and telling him they need to talk. Splitface knows about the extortion demands that have nothing to do with his killings. Starling, who saw no issue with getting extra monies from the victims, offers to give Splitface half but that doesn’t placate Splitface. Splitface pulls out a knife and rather brutally murders Starling before throwing his body through the skylight.

Dick is not too far behind but doesn’t arrive until after the murder. While searching the apartment, he does find the extortion monies in the same denominations as required in the notes. Dick deduces that Starling has been extorting money from Splitface's intended victims and that Deathridge was the latest in the list.

Remembering Starling's prediction about fourteen victims, and that there will be women, men, rich and poor victims, Dick realizes that the only place where there would be such a mix would be a jury.

The Mayor (William Halligan) is questioned by Dick about his jury service.

The mayor is brought in and questioned about his jury experience. He remembers being a juror at the trial of Alexis Banning, who swore revenge on all those who convicted him.

With the murderer finally identified, Judith decides to leave the Tracy house, even though her father is still missing. Tess calls Dick to inform him of Judith's departure, and as she speaks into the phone, Splitface breaks into the house and takes Tess hostage. Getting on the phone himself, Splitface warns Dick to call off the police.

Splitface carries Tess out to his car but before he can speed away, Tracy Jr. jumps onto the back bumper. 

As Splitface speeds away in his car with Tess, Tracy Jr. jumps onto the back of the car. To get the police’s attention and to leave a trail, Tracy Jr. throws off pieces of his clothing: his hat, his jacket and his shoes. However, when they get to Splitface’s hideout, an old abandoned boat, Splitface hears and captures Tracy Jr. Like Tess, Tracy Jr. is tied up by Splitface.

Splitface gags Tess.

Following Junior's trail to the docks, Dick breaks into the boat and after a rather brutal and prolonged fistfight, Splitface is captured.

Back at headquarters, Dick is planning to take Tess and Tracy Jr. out for dinner, but Pat informs him of another murder that requires his attention and he gets called away. Tess, resigned to the fact, gives Tracy Jr. a ride home.

The film went into wide release on December 21, 1945 after opening in New York the day before. While I don’t know how contemporary critics felt about the film, but the creator of Dick Tracy was pleased. When asked to review the film for the Tribune, Gould wrote, "The gentleman with whom I had shared sweat, blood and tears for almost 15 years -- Dick Tracy in the flesh -- Morgan Conway's flesh, to be exact -- [is] right on the screen at the Palace. And for once he did the talking and I listened. I felt pretty helpless, too, because I couldn't use a piece of art gum to change his face or hat, and what he said came from a script and not from a stubby old lead pencil held by yours truly."

Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy.

This was not Morgan Conway’s first appearance in films. He had come to Hollywood in 1933, after his New York City brokerage business closed after 11 years. He made his first appearance in films in Looking for Trouble (1934). After only a couple of film roles, he returned to New York City and began acting on Broadway. He would act in films later in the decade and freelanced working at various studios mostly in small roles.

In the mid-1940s he became a contract player at RKO and was chosen for the Dick Tracy roles in the studios first two films. However, Conway did not resemble Dick Tracy and some exhibitors petitioned the studio to replace Conway with the screen’s original Dick Tracy, Ralph Byrd. The studio listened and replaced Conway, relegating him to B-movies and then cancelled their B-movie products in 1947, thus putting an end to Conway’s career.

In 1948, author Gould proposed that RKO should continue the series, stipulating that Morgan Conway should play the lead, but RKO declined. The studio by that time was in turmoil following the purchase by Howard Hughes.

I’ll have to agree with the studio on Conway’s performance. He didn’t seem right to me as Dick Tracy. That’s not based on Warren Beattys performance but with how the character looked in the comic strip and in the animated TV series I watched as a kid; the less said about that the better. It’s not that Conway is particularly bad in the role but that his appearance doesn’t seem to fit.

Anne Jeffreys as Tess Truehart.

Anne Jeffreys was also somewhat near the end of her Hollywood film career when the first two Dick Tracy films were released. An accomplished soprano, she became a member of the New York Municipal Opera Company on a scholarship and sang the lead at Carnegie Hall in such presentations as La bohème, Traviata, and Pagliacci. However, her desire to be an operatic singer as sidelined when she was cast in the stage musical revue, Fun for the Money, which led to her being cast in her first movie role in I Married an Angel (1942), starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

She was signed to contracts with both RKO and Republic Studios during the 1940s, but by 1946 her career had faltered, leading her back to the stage. She would appear in the occasional film, including Boys' Night Out (1962) and Panic in the City (1968). She did have a career on television, including the lead role in the Topper television series, which ran from 1953–1955, as well as guesting on Battlestar Galactica, Vega$, Falcon Crest, General Hospital, L.A. Law, and Baywatch. Her turn at Tesss didn’t provide for much acting opportunities for Jeffreys, despite her second billing.

Mike Mazurki began his career as a wrestler and turned to acting after serving as Mae West’s bodyguard. His first film was in Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941), which led to a long film and television career, including more than 142 films. While later in his career, Mazurki would play comedic roles, such as on It’s About Time, a short-lived TV sitcom. However, when he began, Mazurki was typecast as brainless athletes, tough guys, thugs, and gangsters. I had never seen him play a killer before. Even though the character Splitface is a bit cartoonish, Mazurki gives him a real brutal quality.

Jane Greer as Judith Owen.

Jane Greer was just starting out in film in 1945 when she appeared in Dick Tracy. Discovered by Howard Hughes, Greer would end up signed to a contract at RKO. She was several years away from her best role in Out of the Past (1947) opposite Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. Her role as the daughter of a character who disappears without resolution seems a little forced and perhaps superfluous to the plot.

That is one of the problems with Dick Tracy, the plot. Dick Tracy’s private life plays a part in the story but is never really explained. Tracy is not married but has a son who calls him by his first name. There is no explanation that Tracy Jr. is adopted. Likewise, there is no exploration of Dick's relationship with Tess. Perhaps there is an over-reliance on people being familiar with the comic strip, so this wasn’t considered crucial background to develop, sort of the way that most people are familiar with Batman’s origin story.

Things seem to happen sometimes because they need to, rather than having been worked out. Case in point, Splitface shows up at Dick’s house and kidnaps Tess. For a murderer, you would expect her to be killed but instead she’s only taken hostage. And while she’s being kidnapped, Tess makes no outward effort to escape, even when Splitface leaves her alone and unbound when he goes to investigate noises that prove to made by Junior.

The film is surprisingly brutal at times. While most of the murders take place off camera, Splitface does kill Starling during the film and you get a real sense of how brutal it was. Further, the fight scene with Dick goes on longer and is more visceral than most such scenes.

A lot of the action takes place off camera and very little is explained, which was probably a result of the film's low-budget. Overall, Dick Tracy is more a novelty, a look back at how Hollywood treated films based on comic strips and comic books at the time. Ultimately, the film is unsatisfying.

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