Dick Tracy starts reasonably strong, which one forgets as the serial plods through the near five hours of its fifteen chapters. The first chapter’s a decent enough pilot, with lead Ralph Byrd actually solving a crime, something he doesn’t really do later on. It doesn’t even open with him, instead there’s a creepy introduction to the master–mystery–villain, The Spider. Or the Lame One. Because he’s got a club foot. And is hideously ugly. Only the bad guys in the Spider Gang know to call him the Lame One though. The good guys all call him the Spider. Maybe screenwriters Barry Shipman and Winston Miller had some logic to that one. Maybe it’s just bad. By the end of Dick Tracy, the latter seems more likely.
Byrd’s a G-Man in San Francisco. But he spends most of his time in his home, where he’s got his crime lab. Because the FBI doesn’t have one. He’s got two FBI agent subordinates, capable Fred Hamilton and inept moron Smiley Burnette. They all work for Francis X. Bushman. Byrd employs Kay Hughes as a lab assistant and she seems to have some kind of possible romance with his brother, Richard Beach. In the first chapter, Byrd takes in young Lee Van Atta as his ward; Van Atta has witnessed a crime or something. It involves the Spider Gang. It doesn’t matter. Van Atta’s just around to give Burnette someone to be stupid around. At some point in the serial, Van Atta starts making fun of Burnette for being a bungling idiot too. Everyone does. It’s very hard to have any respect for the Western FBI when they’ve got Burnette in their employ.
And once their competency in that hiring decision is raised… well, then it becomes more and more clear, Byrd isn’t very good at his job. Even before the serial hits the repeat button in the last few chapters–after the recap chapter (because it takes Byrd until chapter twelve to actually try to figure out the Spider’s identity)–and Byrd ends up in the same gang clubhouse they’d raided four or five chapters before. One could chalk it up to Tracy being a serial and the filmmakers assuming the audience might have missed a chapter here or there and not remember. But the whole thing hinges on details from the first chapter, which get visual refreshers throughout, but not expository ones. It’s really badly written. Shipman and Miller are awful with neccesary exposition.
Instead they’ve got Burnette goofing things up. Including him going on the radio and making a fool of himself, which everyone thinks is hilarious. Except the poor guy in charge of the broadcast. That single performance–the mortified radio announcer–is the most honest thing in Dick Tracy after the first chapter. Because it’s not like the serial ever redeems itself once it goes off the rails. The last chapter, despite having a modicum of potential, is a fail. A cheap fail. Dick Tracy’s production values peak around the halfway point in the serial, then plummet for the last four chapters.
Since it’s an unknown evil mastermind, the main villain is Carleton Young. Young is playing Byrd’s brother, only after he’s been in a car accident and had brain surgery to make him evil. And plastic surgery to make him unrecognizable. Initially, it seems like the Spider and his mad scientist (an underutilized John Picorri) want Young to be some kind of foil for Byrd because he’s his brother, but then it turns out no. They just can’t get good criminal help without doing brain surgery to make people evil. Even though Young’s name is Gordon Tracy and his mission is to kill Dick Tracy, apparently he never wonders why they’ve got the same last name.
Again, Shipman and Miller’s script is dumb.
Young easily gives the serial’s best performance. He’s arguably the only good performance. Hamilton’s affable as all heck, but his material is so bad–second-fiddle either to Byrd or, worse, Burnette–it’s hard to say if he’s good or not. Picorri’s all right too, even if he’s literally saddled with an unfortunate hunchback. Dick Tracy doesn’t borrow much from the comic strip outside using physical disabilites as signs of evil. You’d think all the bad guys were left-handed.
They aren’t obviously, it’d be too much work for directors James and Taylor, who–outside some of the special effects sequences (the bad guys have, for a while, a giant aircraft and there’s some great miniature work)–are either mediocre or bad. And the stunt work. When Dick Tracy can afford stunt work, which is basically until chapter three, they do all right.
Anyway. Hughes is bad, but in an amateurish sense. If she was the best person they screentested for the part–the only female role in most of the serial–well, the casting director clearly did Dick no favors but Hughes mostly just embarrasses herself. She’s got scenes where Burnette talks down to her. It’s humiliating.
Ann Ainslee shows up for a chapter as a female pilot–who Burnette mocks as well, which is messed up–and she’s actually good. It’s a shock and a too brief one, since she’s then gone.
Van Atta is more appealing at the start, when he’s Byrd’s proto-sidekick and not Burnette’s babysitter. Who knew the FBI frequently put minors in perilous situations. Again, it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes towards the end when Bushman raves about the capable G-Men he commands. They’re idiots. Off track, sorry. Once Van Atta teams up with Burnette, he’s no longer appealing. He’s something else to try to endure.
In the lead, Ralph Byrd is ineffective. He’s better, like everything else, at the start, but the more Young is in the serial, the more obvious Byrd’s not measuring up. The part’s thin, sure, but Byrd’s got no presence.
Technically, Dick Tracy usually disappoints. Outside the first chapter, there’s rarely any good photography. The editing is either middling or bad. The production values suggest an unsteady budget–the same shot of three sailors going up to deck to fight the good guys is reused every couple chapters, usually not when they’re supposed to be on a ship, starting either in chapter one or two.
There’s a decent fight sequence at one point, but the rest of the fistfights are terrible. Byrd can’t just not investigate or solve crimes or remember he’s been to a gang clubhouse before, he can’t fight. He also can’t tie knots.
Oh. And the cliffhanger resolutions are all lousy. There are occasionally some good setups, but then their resolutions are always as inventive as… Byrd turns the wheel of the car or rolls out of the way. Nothing is dangerous.
Outside the occasional miniature effects, which are gone by chapter ten, and Young’s performance, which amounts to zip, Dick Tracy is an utterly misspent five hours.
Directed by Ray Taylor and Alan James; screenplay by Barry Shipman and Winston Miller, based on a story by Morgan Cox and George Morgan and the comic strip by Chester Gould; directors of photography, Edgar Lyons and William Nobles; edited by Edward Todd, Helene Turner, and William Witney; produced by Nat Levine; released by Republic Pictures.
Starring Ralph Byrd (Dick Tracy), Kay Hughes (Gwen Andrews), Smiley Burnette (Mike McGurk), Lee Van Atta (Junior), John Picorri (Moloch), Carleton Young (Gordon), Fred Hamilton (Steve Lockwood), Francis X. Bushman (Chief Clive Anderson), Wedgwood Nowell (H.T. Clayton), Louis Morrell (Walter Potter), Edwin Stanley (Walter Odette), Ann Ainslee (Betty Clayton), and Milburn Morante (Death Valley Johnny).