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No list of great movie detectives would be complete without Dick Tracy, the sharp-nosed, square-jawed, tough-boiled crime fighter created by comic-strip writer Chester Gould as America's answer to Sherlock Holmes. After submitting several different ideas for a strip to Joseph Medill Patterson of the Chicago Tribune syndicate, Gould finally won acceptance with a detective he originally dubbed Plainclothes Tracy. After Patterson suggested changing the first name to the common slang word for "detective," Dick Tracy made his initial appearance for the syndicate on October 4, 1931.
In an era when law enforcement agencies seemed ineffective in dealing with organized crime, the no-nonsense Tracy's success in corraling criminals quickly earned him a huge public following. As his popularity grew, he was carried in more than 800 newspapers and had an estimated readership of 100 million. Republic Pictures jumped on the bandwagon with four multi-chapter serials beginning with Dick Tracy in 1937 and continuing with Dick Tracy Returns in 1938, Dick Tracy's G-Men in 1939 and Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. in 1941. All of these serials starred Ralph Byrd as Tracy.
Then came RKO's Dick Tracy (1945), the first of four RKO Radio feature-length "B" pictures centered around the character. Morgan Conway takes over as Tracy, who does battle with Splitface (Mike Mazurki), a vicious criminal who has escaped from jail and vows to murder the jurors who found him guilty. In addition to making good on that threat, Splitface abducts Tracy's girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (Anne Jeffreys), and his adopted son, Junior (Mickey Kuhn). Tracy and his partner Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) are soon in hot pursuit.
Director William Berke and cameraman Frank Redman lend the fast-moving Dick Tracy an atmospheric film-noir flavor. The movie employs sets from earlier RKO films including the riverboat from Man Alive (1945) and the famous brownstone from The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Cat People (1945). Splitface, although created by RKO's screenwriters, fits the classic mold of Gould's villains, who were often named for their physical attributes or deformities.
Gould himself was asked to review the film for the Tribune. "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," he wrote. "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."
RKO made three follow-ups to the film: Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946); Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947); and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947), in which Boris Karloff was given top billing as Gruesome. Although Conway's Tracy was praised by critics as the closest to Gould's original concept, the public seemed to prefer Byrd, who returned in the role for the final two RKO features. Tracy's history, which also included a radio show, continued with live-action and cartoon TV series and a resumption of the Republic serials with Dick Tracy vs. the Phantom Empire (1953). Warren Beatty's flashy take on the character, Dick Tracy (1990), also featured Madonna as Breathless Mahoney, Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice and Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles.
Producer: Herman Schlom, Sid Rogell (Executive Producer)
Director: William A. Berke
Screenplay: Eric Taylor, from comic strip by Chester Gould
Cinematography: Frank Redman
Art Direction: Ralph Berger, Albert S. D'Agostino
Original Music: Roy Webb
Editing: Ernie Leadlay
Cast: Morgan Conway (Dick Tracy), Anne Jeffreys (Tess Trueheart, Tracy's Girlfriend), Mike Mazurki (Alexis "Splitface" Banning), Jane Greer (Judith Owens), Lyle Latell (Pat Patton), Joseph Crehan (Chief Brandon).
by Roger Fristoe