dr_hermes (dr_hermes) wrote,
dr_hermes
dr_hermes

It's going to be all right, Dick Tracy is here

DICK TRACY RETURNS (1938)



This sequel to DICK TRACY has a lot of good things going for it, including a memorable villain and his gang, plenty of action and novel chapter endings. I enjoyed it much more than I expected. Of course, I always like serials to have a touch of the outrageous in them, either the Flying Wing or a sonic disintegrator or a hero with a masked secret identity. So this straightforward tale of a determined FBI agent warring on a family of gangsters didn't seem like something I would like but what a pleasant surprise.

Ralph Byrd is at it again, in his signature role he would be playing in two more serials and feature films the rest of his life. (In fact, the actor died of an untimely heart attack while working on the Dick Tracy TV series in 1952.) I half expected someone to wisecrack to him, "Hey, Dick, anyone ever mention you've got the same name as that Chicago cop that was in the papers for shooting Flattop?" Aside from the name, Byrd's Tracy is an entirely different character.) This time around, he's after the Stark gang. Based loosely on the real-life Ma Barker and her bloodthirsty kids, Pa Stark has raised his five sons to lead a life of crime. They have nicknames like Slasher, Dude, Champ, the Kid and Trigger, and they're about as hardened as you can get since they were born and raised to be bad.

Capping it off, Pa Stark is played by Charles Middleton. Him again! You know we're in for a rough ride with this guy onboard. Whether threatening the Earth as the tyrant Ming or scheming as 39013 in DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE, Middleton is a scowling delight with his sunken face and terrific speaking voice. Byrd and Middleton really steal the show between them; there's a sense of real tension in scenes where they confront each other and the big showdown is completely rewarding.

Getting things off on the wrong foot, the Stark gang murders Tracy's new assistant Ron in a particularly heartless way. (Ron is helpless in an iron lug and Pa Stark sneaks into the hospital room and yanks the plug. Talk about cold, that's cold.) Sheesh, Pa -- Dick Tracy is relentless enough as he is, do you really want to give him a personal grudge against you? The son who did the actual shooting goes to the chair in the very next chapter and the war is on. I like the motif having the gang be all brothers gives the serial. They have personalities and rivalries, and aren't the vague assortment of hired goons who don't make much of an impression. Tracy sets out to whittle the gang down to size and (although he'd be happy to just arrest the whole lot of them), it ends up being a war of attrition as he takes one brother down at a time. (One of the boys gets a smokestack dropped on him, not a normal law-enforcement technique.)

Byrd plays Tracy almost as if he were re-enacting a drama based on an historical figure. Tracy shows worry and alarm when appropriate, but mostly he's a clenched-teeth jaw-jutting bulldog chasing his prey, believable and formidable. There's also a nice emphasis on forensic science (although I don't know if that term was used back then), and Tracy is frequently examining hairs under microscopes and so forth. He's one of the few serial heroes who doesn't just have the next move handed to him, he has to do some thinking and work for results.

Dir: William Witney and John English
Tags: cliffhangers, dick tracy
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