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In Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, a 1946 B-movie programmer of Chester Gould's iconic comic strip crime-fighter Dick Tracy, the yellow-clad do-gooder (portrayed for the second and last time by sharp-featured Morgan Conway) squares off against bald-pate menace Cueball (Dick Wessel), a vindictive criminal out to literally strangle his former, back-stabbing gang members to death. Along with sidekick Little (Byron K. Foulger), the follically-challenged fiend has also absconded with a cache of diamonds and is trying to proffer them off around a criminal hideout, the Dripping Dagger, run by the colorful Filthy Flora (Esther Howard).
First presented to the public in the Chicago Tribune on October 4, 1931, the square-jawed detective was first played in a quartet of successful Republic serials by Ralph Byrd (Dick Tracy, Dick Tracy Returns, Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc., Dick Tracy's G-Men) from 1937 to 1939; Byrd then assumed screen duties after Conway and carried the role over to television into the 1950s. From the Depression era through the Atomic Age and beyond, the character continued to resonate with the American public despite -and perhaps because of- its often gritty and stylized violence, much of it lifted from Gould's own personal experiences and research. With its simple good vs. evil dichotomy, the character proved easy to digest for readers and viewers of all ages; as Jon Tuska's The Detective in Hollywood observes, "The primary convention in Dick Tracy is the repeated ultimate success of law and order... Dick Tracy is a champion of ancient values and tradition who exists in a modernly contextualized old gothic wilderness. His story, at least on the levels of myth and tradition, is not wholly different from that of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown who goes into the forest and meets the devil."
Running a tight 62 minutes, this second of four RKO Dick Tracy adventures revels in its colorful atmosphere (following the first film, simply titled Dick Tracy) and paves the way for future installments including the most well-known, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). The switch from Republic to RKO for these feature renditions ensured higher production values and tighter storytelling, of which Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is a prime example; there's scarcely a second wasted as Tracy hurtles through a rogues' gallery of characters (including viewer favorite Vitamin Flintheart) towards the memorable, strikingly gruesome finale with Cueball squaring off against a fast-moving train.
Dick Tracy vs. Cueball also marks the sole series directorial effort for busy director Gordon Douglas, a former child actor and seasoned "Our Gang" shorts director, who had just completed the bizarre Bela Lugosi comedy, Zombies on Broadway (1945). A reliable craftsman if never a real auteur, he went on to a lengthy career filled with several peaks (1954's Them! and Young at Heart, 1967's In Like Flint) and a few valleys (1955's ill-fated Liberace vehicle Sincerely Yours and 1977's Viva Knievel!), while his thriller expertise already shown here served him well later with a series of Frank Sinatra vehicles including 1968's The Detective and two Tony Rome films (Tony Rome  and Lady in Cement, 1968), 1970's They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! with Sidney Poitier, and even a stop-off in blaxploitation with 1973's Slaughter's Big Rip-Off.
Also carried over from Zombies on Broadway was leading lady Anne Jeffreys, making her second and last appearance as Tracy's long-time girlfriend (and eventual wife), Tess Trueheart. A frequent stage and nightclub performer and singer, she appeared intermittently onscreen as the "good girl" in a string of thrillers and westerns. However, she found her most enduring success as the sprightly ghost Marion Kerby on the popular 1950s TV sitcom adaptation of Topper. Even in her eighties, she continued to return to popular crime-fighting series-- by appearing regularly as David Hasselhoff's mother on Baywatch!.
Producer: Sig Rogell, Herman Schlom
Director: Gordon Douglas
Screenplay: Luci Ward (story), Dane Lussier, Robert E. Kent
Based on the comic strip by Chester GouldCinematography: George E. Diskant
Film Editing: Philip Martin
Art Direction: Lucius O. Croxton, Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Phil Ohman
Cast: Morgan Conway (Dick Tracy), Anne Jeffreys (Tess Trueheart), Lyle Latell (Pat Patton), Rita Corday (Mona Clyde), Ian Keith (Vitamin Flintheat), Dick Wessel (Harry 'Cueball' Lake).
by Nathaniel Thompson