Classic Comics Cinema: “Dick Tracy, Detective”

Long before Warren Beatty brought Dick Tracy to movie screens in the summer of 1990, the classic comic strip gumshoe was already a film veteran. Chester Gould’s crimefighter made his big screen debut in a 15-chapter serial for Republic Pictures starring Ralph Byrd. (A feature version of the serial, Dick Tracy and the Spider Gang, was released later that year). Three sequel serials followed, and then Tracy truly hit the big time on December 20, 1945 when RKO Pictures brought the full-length film Dick Tracy, Detective to movie palaces across the country.

At the time, the character was arguably at the peak of his popularity, with nearly 30,000,000 readers checking in on his courageous exploits everyday in the newspaper. So it made sense that he would again make the leap to the silver screen. Dick Tracy, Detective skillfully mixed action with noir elements to follow Tracy (played wonderfully by Morgan Conway) as he attempted to solve the case of a group of particularly brutal murders. The problem was that the victims seemed to have no apparent link between them, meaning that Tracy’s work was cut out for him. Yet thanks to his impressive detective skills, he learned that the nefarious Splitface (Mike Mazurki) was the killer, and Tracy wouldn’t rest until he brought his foe to justice. This lead to a climactic showdown with Splitface (who was accurately named due to his disfiguring scar).

Although released as a B-movie with a limited budget, Dick Tracy, Detective was an instant smash for RKO Pictures. The studio followed it up with Dick Tracy vs. Cueball in 1946, Dick Tracy’s Dilemma in 1947 (with Ralph Byrd reclaiming his role as the title character), and the same year’s Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, which co-starred Boris Karloff. Several other Dick Tracy TV projects — including a 1950s series, several cartoons and even a failed television pilot from the producers of Batman — followed before Beatty’s film brought the character back to motion pictures. Your mileage may vary on what adaptation of the character you feel is best, but we have a soft spot for Tracy vs. Splitface in Dick Tracy, Detective — a film that remains an early and important example of the wonderful escape that comic-based movies can offer.