Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"Dick Tracy Vs. Crime Inc."; Republic, 1941

Another Christmas is upon us and I thought I would highlight one of the most popular serials as a Christmas present for everybody. Most fans agree that the fourth and final serial in Republic's Dick Tracy series, "Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc." (1941), is one of the best serials ever made. So here goes.

G-Man Dick Tracy (Ralph Byrd) is called in to investigate a series of murders among the Council of Eight, an organization made up of prominent citizens working to wipe out crime in their city. A clue left at the first two murders is the fingerprint of executed criminal "Rackets" Reagan. The murderer is a master criminal called The Ghost (voiced by Ralph Morgan), who is secretly a member of the Council and Reagan's brother. He wears a head covering mask of rubber so that even his men don't know who he really is.

The Ghost sends a death threat to Council member Chandler (Howard Hickman). The Ghost's chief lieutenant, Lucifer (John Davidson), has invented a machine that centers on a disc around The Ghost's neck and turns him invisible. Using this devise, The Ghost easily slips past Chandler's guards and kills the Council member. Dick arrives too late to save the man but does notice a strange whining noise that the invisibility disc gives off. Chandler's daughter June (Jan Wiley) wants to help Dick catch her father's murderer and he has her become the secretary for the Council of Eight in order to keep tabs on the group, one of whom Dick is positive is The Ghost.

Dick has the police monitor the airwaves to pick up the peculiar whining noise the next time it appears so that is can be triangulated and The Ghost tracked down. When the whine is detected, it leads to a naval base where Dick and his partner Bill Carr (Michael Owen) come upon the gang in the middle of kidnapping Dr. Martin (C. Montague Shaw), a noted geologist. After a brief fight Dick and Bill are over come and the gang gets away.

The next day the Council; made up of Morton (Ralph Morgan), Weldon (John Dilson), Brewster (Robert Frazer), Cabot (Robert Fiske), and Trent (Hooper Atchley); receive a threat from The Ghost. He demands one hundred million dollars or New York City will be destroyed. The Council refuses to give in to such a preposterous idea, believing the threat is a bluff.

The threat is very real, The Ghost has tortured the necessary information on how to destroy New York from Dr. Martin. Martin is held under guard at a rooming house, but he manages to send out a Morse code message over a telephone wire. Dick and the police show up and engage the hoodlums in a shoot out. After rescuing Martin, the geologist explains how The Ghost will drops bombs along the Amsterdam Fault Line which will cause an earthquake that will manifest a tidal wave large enough to wipe out New York.

Dick and Bill fly to the Big Apple and see Lucifer in a plane already dropping bombs along the fault line. Dick strafes the other plane with a machine gun, causing Lucifer to bail out before all of the bombs can be dropped. If the unmanned plane crashes into the ocean it will cause the massive tidal wave anyway. Dick sets his plane on a collision course with the other plane, then he and Bill bail out. The two planes collide and explode in midair. The already dropped bombs cause a smaller tidal wave that only wrecks the water front area, but the rest of the city is saved.

Dick and Bill manage to swim ashore where they capture Lucifer. After taking him to jail, Dick informs the council that he has called a famed psychiatrist to interview Lucifer at police headquarters. The psychiatrist (Ralph Morgan again) shows up at the city jail and is shown to Lucifer's cell. Once alone, the psychiatrist hands Lucifer The Ghost's rubber mask and the invisibility disc.

Meanwhile Dick has shown up at the doctor's house to drive him to the jail. He is told to wait by the butler (Forrest Taylor), and stands in the hall to make a call to Bill. Seeing the butler sneak up behind him in the hall mirror, Dick avoids the attack and battles the butler all over the room and up and down a stair case. After defeating the butler, Dick discovers the real psychiatrist (Morgan, of course) tied up in a closet. Calling the jail he discovers that the fake doctor had already left. Telling the guard to make sure Lucifer is in his cell, Dick then races for the jail.

Lucifer disappears from his cell, which causes the guards to turn on the alarm bell, effectively covering up the disc's noise. Lucifer then calmly waits until each door is left unwatched and simply walks out. Once outside, the machine's tube's burn out and Lucifer becomes visible. Dick arrives in time to see Lucifer getting away in a car with the fake doctor.

Dick heads out after them and exchanges gunfire with The Ghost. Seeing that Dick can not be lost, The Ghost has Corey (Anthony Warde) hit a switch that dumps oil behind the getaway car. Dick hits the oil patch and skids off a cliff. Luckily he is able to jump to safety in the nick of time.

At the next council meeting Trent says that he has received a threat from The Ghost that he is be the next victim. Trent has a large shipment of tool and die machinery being sent to Canada, and is afraid that it will be attacked. If the shipment doesn't get through Trent will be financially ruined. Dick says he will make arrangements to have the train it is on to be guarded. After mentioning that he will need to see the shipping schedule for the train, all of the Council members regard each other suspiciously.

The Ghost sneaks into Trent's office and steals the schedule. The Ghost looks it over and then has his men head for Red Mountain Junction as the best place to waylay the train. Dick finds that the schedule is missing and learns from Trent's secretary which rail line Trent is using. One call to the rail road company gives Dick the necessary information to head for Red Mountain Junction too.

He and Bill arrive in time to see the gang hijacking the train. Bill jumps aboard and starts to fight the gang, but is knocked unconscious. He is handcuffed to the train with his own handcuffs while a bomb is set up to destroy the unmanned train, then the gang jumps off as the train slows down on an upgrade.

Back at the junction depot, Dick spots an old tank that is being sent to be decommissioned. Jumping in, he races after the runaway train. Pulling up along side the train, Dick transfers from the tank to the train. After freeing Bill he gets the bomb and tosses it away to explode harmlessly along the countryside. He and Bill make their way to the engine and stop the train.

After getting the train back on the way to Canada, Dick and Bill fly on ahead to Lake View Harbor, where the shipment will be transferred to a ship for the rest of its journey. After the shipment has been transferred Dick discovers that the harbor patrol boat has been stolen and the guards killed. Having Bill fly him out over the harbor, they spot the patrol boat loaded with explosives and piloted by remote control to ram the ship. Dick drops from the plane to the boat, smashes the remote control, turns the boat to hit an abandoned part of the harbor and then transfers back to the low flying plane. The boat explodes but harms no one.

Searching the debris, Dick comes upon a worker's badge from Trent's steel mill. Realizing that someone at the mill is working for The Ghost, Dick and Bill go undercover at the mill to watch the man who lost the badge. Their cover is blown almost immediately and Dick is attacked. Bill comes to help him, but is knocked out and falls on a conveyor belt headed for a smelter. Letting the hoodlums escape, Dick jumps on a chain dangling from a crane and swings to Bill's rescue.

Though Trent's shipment has gotten through, the man still isn't safe. He is visited by The Ghost, invisible, and a visible henchman. The Ghost demands the plans for Trent's new precision machinery he has spent a lifetime perfecting. Faced with death, Trent gives the henchman the combination to the vault. After it is open, the henchman walks in and falls through a trap door to his death. Trent thinks that The Ghost has fallen to his death as well, but changes his mind when confronted with a floating gun. He gives the plans to The Ghost, who then guns down Trent.

Hearing a car approaching up, The Ghost resets the trap door, then leaves. Dick and Bill arrive to question Trent and see his dead body lying in the vault. Dick enters and falls through the trap door. He manages to grab the edge of the pit and hang on till Bill can pull him to safety. Searching the vault and discovering the missing plans, Dick sees his only chance to catch The Ghost is when he tries to sell the plans to a foreign power, and has a watch put on all known foreign agents. All Dick can do now is wait for the Ghost to make his next move.

This serial will always have a special meaning for me, my wife and I saw it at a film convention, and seeing one on a large screen helped make her finally understand what it was I saw in these films. Not to say became a fan but she could see what it was that drew me. She almost got us in trouble during that screening too.

We are both big fans of "Mystery Science Theater 3000", and at one point she leaned over to me and whispered a joke based on what was happening in the film. I tried to unsuccessfully stifle a giggle. After the second time she cracked one, I fired back and we were off and running. By the time the third chapter was over we were getting stern looks from the other people in the room and decided to leave the rest of the screening, still firing jokes back and forth at each other.

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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