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Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947) John Rawlins

Ralph Byrd returns as Dick Tracy after two films played by Morgan Conway. Byrd knew the character well having played him in Republic serials as the 30s became the 40s. He'd return again for Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome against Boris Karloff and then for the live action TV series in the early fifties. Here he's up against the Claw, a tough villain with a longshoreman's hook for a right hand. The Claw and his cohorts empty a warehouse of expensive furs and take out a night watchman in the process. Tracy does some solid detective work but the bad guys aren't stupid either, contrary to most short detective movies of the era.

There are some great characters here with wild names, as you'd expect from an official entry in the series based on Chester Gould's strip creation. The Claw doesn't just have a claw, he also has a clubfoot, eyes too close together and a dedication that's as admirable as it is deadly. Dick Tracy's eyes on the street are those of a fake blind peddler called Sightless who sells pencils. There's even enthusiastic yet not particularly helpful thespian called Vitamin Flintheart that Ian Keith plays like a cross between Karloff and Vincent Price. Much more helpful is Longshot Lillie the Fence, played by an excellent Bernadene Hayes who reminds very much of a younger Thelma Ritter. A check on her filmography shows that I've seen her in a few movies like Great Guy and The Emperor's Candlesticks but never as a leading lady.

What surprised me most is how tight this one is. Sure, there are highly convenient clues like the Claw leaving scratch marks on the phone dial for Tracy to cut down the possibilities of the number he's calling, but there's also plenty that's far more realistic. It feels a few notches more intelligent than the Charlie Chan I saw last night, however much it's still a flight of fancy. Ralph Byrd is a fine Dick Tracy, though I was never that drawn to what always seemed to be a notably vanilla character, whoever was playing him. Jack Lambert has fun as the Claw but he's no Karloff. This is therefore not up to the next film but works well as a warmup.

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