Dick Tracy (1945)
Film review #387
Director: William A. Berke
SYNOPSIS: Police detective Dick Tracy is investigating a series of murders carried out by a man calling himself “Splitface”. With plenty of suspects around, Tracy has his hands full trying to apprehend the killer, protect the mayor, and keep his girlfriend Tess happy…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Dick Tracy is a 1945 film and the first feature film in the Dick Tracy franchise, after the four serials made between 1937 and 1941. The film starts out with a murder of a teacher, which Tracy learns has been carried out by a man calling himself ‘Splitface,’ thanks to a note left by the killer demanding a ransom payment. As the film progresses, a number of suspects emerge, and Tracy must use all of his detective skills to work out who the murderer is. The film fits very much in the crime-noir genre, with the high contrast lighting and dark plot. It also evokes the original comic book style with its dramatic perspectives. The story is certainly more of a faithful adaptation of the comic book than the serials with Tracy being a police detective rather than a G-man as he was in the serials. More of the characters from the comic also make an appearance, which will probably be welcome to readers of the comic (I assume a fair amount of people would have heard of the comics back when the film was released). With each new suspect that emerges, there’s a new element to the plot to be explored, and the pacing is quite consistent with allowing these plot points to keep things from becoming stale or dull. There are some unresolved elements that don’t really go anywhere though, such as Judith Owens being reluctant to discuss where her Father is. With a runtime of just over sixty minutes, the film is quite short, but I think it accomplishes what it wants to do.
As mentioned, a number of characters from the original comic make an appearance, creating a varied and interesting cast. A lot of them also have exuberant appearances or names (Deathridge for the undertaker, for example), which emphasises the comic style. despite the gritty film-noir story, there’s some light-hearted comedy moments which seem more comic-esque, and it feels like the film is trying to pull off both at once, with mixed results. One thing I think the serials did better is the use of science-fiction elements which added something unique, and I think was more in-line with the comics. This film has much more realism, but not so much that it is able to stand out in the film-noir genre. One bizarre scene involves a scientist gleaming into a crystal ball and seemingly hypnotising Tess, but that seems completely out of place, and it was never explored if he really did have the power to hypnotise someone.
This film marks the first time that Dick Tracy is not played by Ralph Byrd, instead by Morgan Conway. The tow look and act very differently, and if you’ve seen the serial you might not like the change. Whereas Byrd’s performance was widely praised as a smooth, charming, action man, Conway is clearly older and lacks that charm, instead seeming a bit goofy at times (although Conway probably looks closer to the character as depicted in the comics). This seems to be a largely held consensus, and led to Byrd reprising the role of Tracy for the third and fourth feature films, as well as the television show. Overall, Dick Tracy is a decent enough crime film, with a mix of action, mystery and some comedy, with a film-noir feel that makes things a little more dramatic, alongside incorporating some more elements of the comics. There’s a clash in tone between a gritty murder drama and the more silly comical aspects, and some plot points which aren’t fully resolved, but it’s an easy and quick watch that holds most of its elements together well.