Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.

Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.--titles
Republic, 15 Chapters, 1941. Starring Ralph Byrd, Michael Owen, John Davidson, Jan Wiley, Ralph Morgan, John Dilson, Robert Frazer, Robert Fiske, Hooper Atchley, Anthony Warde, and ? as the Ghost.

The fourth and final Dick Tracy chapterplay pits our fearless G-man (Ralph Byrd once again) against a ruthless master criminal known as the Ghost, who has marked for destruction a civic crime-fighting group of prominent New York businessmen called the Council of Eight. It seems that the Council, with Tracy’s help, was instrumental in sending the Ghost’s brother, gangster Rackets Reagan, to the electric chair; the Ghost now plans to take his revenge on both the Council members’ businesses and their lives. Tracy does his best to combat the Ghost’s terrorism, but is handicapped by the incredible invisibility ray developed by the Ghost’s partner Lucifer (John Davidson), which allows the master villain to pull off daring crimes under the noses of the law. Things are further complicated by the fact that one of the Council members is actually the Ghost himself, and is operating with prior knowledge of Tracy’s plans. Will Tracy, his assistant Bill Carr (Michael Owen), and June Chandler (Jan Wiley)–the daughter of a murdered Council member–be able to defeat this invisible madman?

Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. winds up Republic’s Dick Tracy tetralogy in grand style. This conclusion to the series features less location shooting at actual factories, gas works, dams, etc., and also draws on stock footage from the preceding three Tracy serials from time to time–but, despite the comparative lack of on-location chases and the use of repeated footage, directors William Witney and John English and their writers, stuntmen, and actors manage to turn out the most memorable of all the Tracy serials.

The pace of Crime Inc., like that of its predecessor Dick Tracy’s G-Men, is exceptionally swift and smooth, with a continuous sense of urgency that persists all the way to the climactic chapter; the Ghost’s attacks on the Council of Eight’s business enterprises still fits the Tracy serials’ episodic format, but furnishes a more suspenseful plot engine than the storylines of the previous three outings. The heroes’ ignorance of the Ghost’s invisibility machine and their several frustrating near-discoveries of the villain’s hidden power creates additional suspense, and helps to make the serial’s concluding chapters–when Tracy finally discovers the secret–exceptionally satisfying. The invisibility ray, incidentally, is handled well by the writers and prop department; it sounds and looks plausible, but is not so cumbersomely believable as to limit the villain’s activities, unlike the invisibility device in Republic’s later Invisible Monster.

Interestingly, this serial manages to be exceptionally fast-moving without an excess of fistfight sequences; as in King of the Texas Rangers, directed by Witney and English the same year, entire chapters go by without a single furniture-busting battle, but lose nothing in interest. The serial really benefits from this abstinence, since it allows for much more variety of action in individual chapters and avoids the cut-and-dried feel of Republic’s post-1943 serials, which follow a three-fights-per-chapter rule with almost monotonous regularity. In addition, this rationing of fisticuffs saves the audience from a feeling of overkill and increases appreciation of the fight scenes’ incredible energy and creativity when they do show up. One such highlight is an acrobatic battle between Ralph Byrd (doubled by Bud Wolfe) and crooked butler Forrest Taylor (doubled by Dave Sharpe) in Chapter Two, which takes them around a plush mansion house’s entry hall, up a double flight of stairs, and over the landing’s balustrade. Then there’s a series of cleverly staged double fight sequences, with Tracy and Bill Carr (or in one chapter, Tracy and Jack Mulhall as G-Man Wilson) taking on antagonists simultaneously. The fight in Chapter Five, which has Byrd (doubled by Sharpe) and Mulhall (also doubled by Sharpe) taking on henchmen Duke Taylor and Fred Kohler Jr. on the fore and after decks of a small yacht, is particularly memorable, but the later two-for-one fight sequence in the factory in Chapter Eleven is also good and even more elaborate, with Sharpe doing double duty again (this time standing in for Byrd and Michael Owen).

Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.--yacht fight 1 Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.--yacht fight 2 Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.--yacht fight 3 Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.--yacht fight 4
Above: Tracy (doubled by Dave Sharpe) drops in on Chuck Morrison in spectacular fashion as a prelude to the Chapter 5 yacht fight.

The fight between Tracy and the Ghost on a hotel rooftop in Chapter Fourteen is also well-done, additionally exciting by virtue of being the first scene in the serial in which the hero and villain physically clash. In between the fistfights we’re treated to a variety of car, plane, and boat chases, along with some well-staged shootouts and spectacular stuntwork, especially in the hillside gun battle between Tracy and a gang of thugs in Chapter Eleven (climaxed by Tracy’s leap from a cliff into the back of a truck), and Tracy’s attempt to leap onto the top of henchman Anthony Warde’s car in Chapter Fourteen; this stunt, like the cliff-to-truck jump, is handled by Dave Sharpe.

The spacing of the fight sequences also allows directors Witney and English and cameraman Reggie Lanning to devote some time to setting up some genuinely suspenseful and atmospheric scenes. There’s the Ghost’s attempted murder of Tracy in a nightclub in Chapter Nine, with the eerie whine of the invisibility ray drowned out by a blaring radio, a sequence in Chapter Seven in which the Ghost attacks ship’s captain Edward Hearn in a darkened room, the Ghost’s murder of Chandler (Howard Hickman) in the first chapter, and his confrontations with different Council members in Chapters Nine and Twelve. The Chapter Twelve sequence, with a floating gun appearing suddenly in the back seat behind the unsuspecting victim, is followed by an equally spooky and well-shot scene in which the villain prepares to feed the Council member into an incinerator (which belches its menacing flames against a black night sky); in the ensuing fight, an intervening Tracy winds up unconscious on a conveyor belt that will drop him into the furnace at the chapter’s end.

Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.--Ghost strikes 1 Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.--Ghost strikes 2
Above: The invisible Ghost passes through a gate behind two unsuspecting policemen (left) to confront Howard Hickman’s Chandler at right, in the first of several suspenseful scenes centering around the invisibility device.

The conveyor belt cliffhanger is only one of many inventive chapter endings featured in Crime Inc.; despite the aforementioned use of borrowed footage, (particularly in Chapter Three), it has more than its share of original perils, including the Chapter Four ending, with Tracy plunging down a trapdoor, the Chapter Six ending, with Lucifer strafing Tracy and Bill Carr with hand grenades from an open plane, and the Chapter Fourteen ending, with Tracy clinging to a neon sign that breaks loose from a rooftop and plunges to the pavement far below.  The fire sequence in Chapter Ten is perhaps the most impressive of all the chapter endings, with Byrd (doubled by Sharpe) braving a veritable inferno to rescue heroine Jan Wiley (according to Sharpe and Witney, the fire in this scene nearly got out of hand and came close to burning down the soundstage). Speaking of chapter endings, Crime Inc. features one unique device I’ve never seen in any other serial; each episode’s chapter-title cards are different, featuring an image of something that will play a major part in the coming episode’s cliffhanger sequence. It’s an enjoyable touch which helps to immediately engage the viewer’s interest in each new episode.

Writers Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, William Lively, Joseph O’Donnell, and Joseph Poland not only build suspense nicely (as already mentioned), but also skillfully bounce suspicion around among the Council members–winning particular applause from me for the simple and refreshingly honest way in which they manage to cast suspicion on an innocent party in Chapter Nine; as Mascot’s serials particularly  illustrate, such intelligent “mystery” writing is not the norm in chapterplays. The writers also deserve credit for the excellent closing chapter, which features a visually startling fight in reversed-negative form (a result of Tracy’s counter-invisibility device), a hot pursuit of the Ghost, and a gruesome but satisfying demise for the villain.

Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.--negative fight
Above: The striking final fight between Tracy and the Ghost.

Ralph Byrd, in his final turn as Dick Tracy, handles the role with his old air of energetic competence, seeming a bit more tersely authoritative than in his previous serials but still making his character likably human. Only Byrd could convincingly appear to be processing the new information after a mere moment’s shock when Tracy finally witnesses one of the Ghost’s disappearances, and only Byrd could look so realistically panicked during Tracy’s near-plunge at the end of Chapter Fourteen.

Praising the villain in this serial is a bit difficult to do without giving his identity away, since the actor who dubs his voice is also the suspect who turns out to be the villain. This paragraph should be skipped by those who have not seen the serial, while those who have can continue with me as I give this devil his due. Ralph Morgan gives an impressively frightening performance as the master criminal, managing to convey rage (especially in his confrontation with a Council member in Chapter Nine), cunning, frustration, vengeful brooding, and evil delight, all through his voice alone. With the exception of Charles Middleton, Morgan (both here and in the Universal serial Gang Busters) is probably the only serial player able to make his villains sound completely insane and yet dangerously intelligent.

John Davidson has one of his best serial roles as Lucifer, the inventor of the invisibility ray and the Ghost’s scientific consultant; he comes off more as a co-villain than a henchman, discussing plans with his boss in the fashion of an equal. Davidson plays this meaty part with flair, giving full rein to his smooth, deep-voiced dialogue delivery and his slyly serpentine facial expressions.

Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.--the Ghost and Lucifer
Above: The Ghost and a smirking John Davidson question C. Montague Shaw.

Michael Owen, as Tracy’s new partner Bill Carr, is pleasantly chipper and eager, showing more personality than either Ted Pearson in G-Men or Michael Kent in Dick Tracy Returns–but still not measuring up to the best of Tracy’s serial sidekicks,  Fred Hamilton in Dick Tracy. Lovely Jan Wiley, a talented actress who was used to good effect in the 1945 serials Secret Agent X-9 and The Master Key, is pretty much wasted here, serving almost entirely as a background lab assistant to Tracy and only occasionally getting a chance to display any of her poised vivacity (one wonders why the writers bothered to introduce a new heroine in this cliffhanger, considering Wiley’s June simply fills the same function as Gwen Andrews in the three preceding Tracy serials).

The Council of Eight is made up of five stellar character actors (two Council members are already dead as the serial begins and a third dies in the opening minutes of Chapter One); each suspect displays his full repertoire of scene-stealing tricks. There’s the precise and slightly nervous Hooper Atchley, the shrewd and shifty Robert Fiske, the dignified yet sinister Robert Frazer, the scowling and aggressive John Dilson, and the pompous and mild-mannered Ralph Morgan. Howard Hickman, as Jan Wiley’s father, doesn’t get to do much before he’s killed, while Jack Mulhall has a much better role as a heroic and quick-witted G-man who discovers the Ghost’s secret and subsequently dies saving Tracy’s life.

Kenneth Harlan is rock-solid and commanding as the police lieutenant who aids Tracy throughout the serial, and Anthony Warde, although he has a less prominent role than usual, is a menacing background presence as the Ghost’s chief thug Corey–and is allowed at least one memorable moment of villainy, when he shuts off the oxygen mask of a hospitalized Council member. Chuck Morrison, as Warde’s subordinate, has even less to do, but manages to come off as noticeably nasty in his few bits. C. Montague Shaw appears in the first chapter as a distinguished scientist kidnapped by the Ghost, while Bud Geary, Stanley Price, John Merton, Dave Sharpe, Ray Bennett, John Bagni, and Eddie Parker pop up as henchmen at various points in the serial. Edmund Cobb has a bit as a policeman in the first chapter, and Terry Frost (in his first serial) plays a military sentinel in the same episode; John James is a canal guard in a later chapter, and Frank Alten plays a foreign agent who makes an ill-fated deal with the Ghost.

Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. is also blessed with one of the best opening and closing credit sequences of any serial—a first-person view from the wheel of a car careening through brightly-lit nighttime city streets, accompanied by a rousing theme by Cy Feuer. These credit sequences serve as perfect bookends to a first-class serial, the final entry in one of the best series of serials ever made. Each entry in that series manages to beat the moviemaking law of Diminishing Sequel Returns and improve on its predecessor, and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. thus represents not only the conclusion but also the culmination of Republic’s Dick Tracy saga.

Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.--last
Above: Ralph Byrd sums up the case for the surviving Council member in the last scene, bringing his and Dick Tracy’s Republic adventures to a close.

2 thoughts on “Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.

  1. I’ve been watching all 4 serials in sequence for the first time (having only seen the 1st one some years back). I have to agree they get better as they go, though I’m baffled by the change in actors of the supporting cast each time. (My favorite Steve & Gwen & were in the 1st one.) Would you believe, just before this, I watched “ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL”, also with John Davison, where he played the “eastern” character who was under suspicion of being the bad guy for the entire story. He reminds me somewhat of Kelsey Grammer, who has a recurring role as a sinister baddie on “THE SIMPSONS”.

    When RKO picked up the ball after the war, it was a completely different Tracy they did– one actually based on the comics! I much prefer Morgan Conway’s 2 films to the latter 2 with Byrd, though I can now see why Byrd was so popular.

    Thanks for the detailed write-up.

  2. “G-Men” remains my favorite of the four Tracy serials, but after watching this one again recently, “Crime Inc” certainly has much to recommend it and is arguably every bit as good as “G-Men”. My only real complaint is that Jan Wiley was given so little to do. Given her talent, she could have added much to the serial in a more substantial role.

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