1941-1950ActionCrimeJohn EnglishUSA

John English – Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941)

Reviewing the serial it is still one of Republic’s best efforts, made at the peak of their creativity. Jim Harmon and Donald Glut have referred to “Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.” as “The Best of Dick Tracy” since a lot of the action and cliffhanger footage is made up from the three previous serials. In essence, Republic took what they considered the most exciting scenes from earlier serials, and strung them together with a strong storyline. Unlike most of the post war serials that were constructed out of earlier serials, this one is not hampered by all of the reused footage.

One of the reasons for this is that the story is put together in such a way that it doesn’t look like a few dialogue scenes slapped in between the older footage. Some reused stock, like the tank chase with the train, are redone from the original so that it isn’t a cliffhanger but an exciting piece of action in the middle of the chapter. A lot of the stock footage is used in this way to make every episode full of action and giving it a feeling of swiftness.

The storyline is also one of Republic’s best. It travels the well worn path of a mystery villain attacking a group of people and also being one of the group. This is the kind of story that the Republic writers were great at. All of the suspects act suspiciously at times and are made up of recognizable villains like Frazier and Fiske.

The casting also gives an added bit of contemplation to the mystery elements. Having Ralph Morgan play both a suspect and the voice of the villain is a canny move on the part of the film makers. Morgan is the obvious choice for the villain; he is made out to look like the most innocent of the group, always a dead giveaway in serials. Yet the villain never has the voice of one of the actual suspects, so it can’t be him. Unless that’s what they want you to think, in which case it must be him. Of course that may be what the film makers want you figure on, in which case Morgan isn’t the villain. Never has a mystery serial had so much thinking involved on the part of the audience.

The acting is all top notch, Ralph Byrd has settled comfortably into the personae of the tough, no nonsense Tracy. An actor of strong screen presence and affability, he easily handles the job of carrying the serial on his shoulders. Being the hero, he is on the screen the most, and is never boring. Jan Wiley as the heroine is given little to do, besides hang around the Council’s meeting room and Tracy’s lab occasionally. She is put in danger a few times but for the most part fades into the back ground. Owens as the sidekick is adequate in a role that doesn’t call for much else.

On the villain side Morgan is letter perfect in using just his voice to convey a sense of menace coupled with a slight loosening grip on sanity. He’s crazy, but not too. He also gets to be a little menacing in his scenes where he passes himself off as the fake psychiatrist. We can tell its Morgan, but as he also plays the bearded real shrink, it passes the little bit of credibility it needs to make the scene work. And it allows him glance around occasionally, looking sinister. John Davidson has one of his best serial roles in this film. Though not the main villain as he had been in the early thirties, he is given a character rich in eccentric quirks and subtle menace. His dialogue exchanges with Morgan are some of the best scenes in the serial. Popping up for the occasional times when muscle is needed is that top drawer of tough guy henchman, Anthony Warde, who is as nervy as ever.

The list of suspects are mainly used for being familiar to serial fans for their earlier efforts at playing villains, and they all act accordingly. Until proved innocent, they all give occasional sinister glances at the camera, when they aren’t glaring at each other suspiciously. They all do a good job of helping to keep the water’s muddy until the reveal at the end.

As a lot of the action is made up of earlier footage, there is little in the way of special effects to really judge that is original to the film, but the footage that is used contains excellent work by the Lydecker Brothers. No one else made explosions of models look like it was the real thing being destroyed in huge gouts of flame. Unless of course you consider the invisible man effects. While there are times when you can see the wires, most of the time when something is floating it looks good. The showing of turning invisible is done a little different from most such effects. Not having the expense to do what Universal did, Republic simply switched from one camera to another so that the actor looked to disappear from toes on up instead of fading out all at once. The other great effect was also accomplished with simple economy. In the final chapter a special light was needed to make the invisible man visible. Republic simply reversed the negative. An old film trick, but it looks great on screen and really adds to the climactic fight between the hero and villain.

Which brings us to the stunt work. Again a lot of the stunts are from earlier efforts, and still impressive, until you get to the fight scenes, something that was always original to a serial no matter how much cost cutting went into the use of stock footage. Republic serials were usually filled with tons of scenes where entire sets are reduced to splinters by combatants. Not so here. Not every chapter contains a fight. Sometimes you can go three or more before a fist is swung. But when they do fight, it is something to see. Spacing out the fights actually makes them stand out more than usual, and contain some of the most inventive work done by both the stunt men and the film makers. The fight in Chapter Two is a real stand out involving a running fight that goes up and down a staircase several times, using a couch to block an opponent’s escape, and finishing with a swing on a chandelier.

While I have said on the message boards of serial web sites that I generally prefer the more plot heavy first Dick Tracy serial, this is still one of the best serials made by Republic, and it’s popularity among serial fans is easy to see. If you have been putting off viewing this serial, don’t. It is simply a great thrill ride of a film.



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