Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Innocents With Dirty Hands (1975)

Innocents With Dirty Hands (Les innocents aux mains sales) is a 1975 Claude Chabrol thriller.

The setup is so conventional and chichéd that we never seriously doubt that this is deliberate and that Chabrol has some surprises up his sleeve.

Julie (Romy Schneider) is married to Louis Wormser (Rod Steiger). He’s much older than her, he’s a self-pitying drunk and he can’t perform in the bedroom any more. Julie meets Jeff Marlo (Paolo Giusti), a handsome young aspiring writer. Julie reveals her unhappiness and sexual frustration to Jeff. Jeff takes immediate steps to solve her sexual frustration problems. Julie tells Jeff how very unhappy she is. She has to remain married to Louis because he’s rich but she’s very tired of him. If only some solution could be found to her problems.

You know where this is leading, and indeed pretty soon Julie and Jeff are planning a little accident for Louis. It’s basically The Postman Always Rings Twice but set among the decadent bourgeoisie. And of course the basic story has been done countless other times.

The night set for Louis’ accident arrives. They have decided that it would be wise for Jeff to slip over the border to Italy for a few days.

The police think they have a pretty good murder case. There are however some odd gaps in the police case, and the viewer will certainly notice these odd gaps. Certain things are assumed to have happened, but there’s no real proof. We start to suspect that there’s quite a lot that we don’t know.

Julie also starts to realise that there were some very important things that she didn’t know. And still doesn’t know.

The big plot twist at the midway point isn’t going to surprise anybody and I don’t think it was intended to. It’s the only possible explanation for certain events. I don’t think Chabrol was overly interested in the plot twists anyway. He was more interested in the psychological consequences of the plot twists. It’s the emotional twists that matter, not the narrative twists.

And Chabrol is much more interested in what happens after that major plot twist - it’s the actions that the characters take in response to the revelation that makes the movie start to become much more engrossing.

There’s a certain detachment to this movie. Chabrol isn’t trying to present us with a hero or a heroine with whom we’re going to empathise. He views their actions dispassionately. Audience members will have to decide if the actions of the characters are justified, and whether justice ever gets done. The police and the examining magistrate and Julie’s lawyer aren’t really sure either how justice would best be served and the law doesn’t care much either way.

Julie’s lawyer doesn’t think it makes much difference if she’s telling the truth or not. She’s beautiful so she’ll be believed anyway. And truth is whatever people happen to believe.

Romy Schneider is perhaps the movie’s biggest asset. She gives a complex performance. Julie is a woman whose motivations tend to shift, depending on her emotions and her sexual desires.

Rod Steiger is less hammy than usual.

Sex is pretty important in this movie. Not just sex as sex, but sex as it affects the mind and the heart as well as the body. The two main characters struggle to deal with sexual desires with which they’re not always comfortable. Love and sex make us do things we don’t want to do.

This isn’t an action-packed thrill-a-minute kind of thriller. It’s much more cerebral. What keeps us interested is that we never know for sure what the two central characters will do next, probably because they also don’t know what they’re going to do next.

If this is the kind of thriller you enjoy then you’ll be happy with this psychological study of love, hate, sex, murder, revenge, forgiveness and jealousy. Innocents With Dirty Hands turns out to be not at all the movie that it initially promised to be. It turns out to be a lot more interesting and it’s recommended.

The old Pathfinder Pictures DVD (from 2003) is letterboxed. The transfer is not dazzling but it’s acceptable and if you want to see this movie then it seems to be the only English-friendly option.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Wildcat (1921)

The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze) is a 1921 Ernst Lubitsch silent comedy/romance. If you only know Lubitsch from his later Hollywood movies his early German movies will totally blow your mind. This is wild crazy stuff.

Lieutenant Alexis is an officer stationed in a large town located somewhere in a typical early Lubitsch fairy tale world. The lieutenant has been causing some disciplinary problems so as punishment he’s been sent to a remote fortress commanded by a crazy general with the most impressive moustache in movie history. It was considered necessary to remove Lieutenant Alexis from the temptations of town life.

This is devastating news for the female population of the town. When he departs hundreds and hundreds of women turn out to bid him farewell. They all have good reason to have fond remembrances of Lieutenant Alexis. Dozens of children turn out to bid farewell to him as well, waving as they say goodbye to Daddy. We now have some idea why all those women have such fond memories of Lieutenant Alexis. They are expressing their gratitude for the many services the lieutenant has performed for them. Services that he has performed cheerfully and with a great deal of diligence. He has clearly gone above and beyond the call of duty.

On his arrival at the remote fortress Lieutenant Alexis makes a favourable impression on the commanding general, who decides that the lieutenant would be a suitable husband for his daughter. The daughter is pleasant enough but Alexis is not keen on marriage.

The fortress is being menaced by a band of cut-throats and robbers. During his journey Lieutenant Alexis has already made the acquaintance of the daughter of the chief of the bandits. The young lady in question is Rischka (Pola Negri). She’s the wildcat referred to in the film’s title and wildcat is an apt description.

Rischka is wild but she is a woman and she is immediately rather smitten by the dashing woman-chasing lieutenant. She feels that he is the man she has been waiting for.

So in addition to several hundred women back in the town Lieutenant Alexis now has two women who have set their sights on him. He seems to be not unaware of Rischka’s wild charms.

Of course there is the question of whether any man can tame this female wildcat, but there’s another question. Can any woman tame the skirt-chasing lieutenant, and turn him into a one-woman man?

It’s all played for fun and there’s very much a farcical quality to the movie. It’s most definitely played for laughs. The humour is occasionally a little risqué, there are moments that approach slapstick and it’s always absurd and outrageous.

There’s a tendency to focus too much on Expressionism when discussing German movies of the silent era. The fact is that there was an extraordinary amount of visual inventiveness in these German movies and Expressionism in the strict sense was just one facet of this. Lubitsch’s early movies cannot be described as Expressionist, but there’s the same disdain for realism and the same amazing soaring feats of visual imagination.

Early Lubitsch (in movies such as The Doll as well as this one) have an uncompromising non-realist feel. They take part in a world that resembles a fairy tale world but it goes beyond this. Lubitsch’s early films are like storybooks with moving pictures and the artificiality is emphasised at every opportunity. There’s also the feel of having actually entered the artificial world of a storybook.

The sets are stunning, witty and exaggerated to an extreme degree. They look fabulous. The costumes are outrageous.

The performances are deliberately in a kind of pantomime style. These are not supposed to be real people. They’re storybook characters.

To describe Pola Negri’s performance as lively and energetic just doesn’t do her justice. She’s like a firecracker. She’s a delight.

Paul Heidemann is terrific as the vain womanising Lieutenant Alexis. He manages to make the lieutenant a loveable rogue.

Lubitsch really goes overboard with the masking of frames. Every frame seems to be a different shape. It adds to the playfulness.

There’s a battle scene between the soldiers and the robbers but of course no-one gets hurt. The worst that anyone is likely to suffer in this combat is being hit by a snowball.

This is a lighthearted candy-flavoured concoction which could easily have ended up being too sweet or too silly but its sheer exuberance carries it through.

The Eureka DVD provides a pretty decent transfer. This movie is part of their Lubitsch in Berlin boxed set (there’s now a Blu-Ray version as well). Most of the movies in this set are tinted but this one isn’t. English translations are provided for the intertitles.

These movies from so early in Lubitsch’s career have a totally unique feel. There have been plenty of fairy tale movies but none done with the same visual extravagance and style. The Wildcat is wild and crazy and very romantic. It’s a reminder of just how much visual style and flamboyance and imagination movies lost with the advent of sound. The Wildcat is highly recommended.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Medea (1969)

To describe Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969) as an adaptation of the 5th century BC play of Euripides would be a bit misleading. Pasolini uses the play as a jumping-off point. Pasolini was making a movie and movies being a visual medium he eliminated most of the dialogue, choosing to tell the story visually.

It’s the story of Jason (as in Jason and the Argonauts) and Medea. Jason’s kingdom was stolen from him. To retrieve his kingdom he has to bring back the Golden Fleece. It doesn’t enable him to regain his kingdom but he does acquire a wife, a princess (and sorceress) of Colchis named Medea.

The ambitious Jason heads for Corinth and his ambitions are about to be realised. He is to marry a second time, to the daughter of the king of Corinth. A very advantageous match from Jason’s point of view. At which point Medea takes her revenge.

This is not a story of a woman scorned. There is much more going on here.

Jason was raised by a centaur who told him that there is nothing natural in nature. This is the key to understanding the society from which both Jason and Medea come, and Pasolini spends much of the early part of the movie world-building, immersing us in an extraordinarily alien world. This is a world in which everything is understood in terms of myth and ritual and magic. There is not even the slightest hint of rationality in this world. In this world reason explains nothing; myth and ritual and magic explain everything.

If we do not understand just how alien this society is we cannot understand Medea’s later actions and we might make the mistake of regarding her as a madwoman. She is not mad. She simply views the whole of life in terms of her own culture and religion, and from her point of view her actions are not merely justified but necessary.

Medea has certainly suffered a grievous insult in being discarded in favour of a much younger woman but it is a double betrayal. By taking her to Corinth Jason tempted Medea to abandon her culture and religion and her thoroughly pre-modern pre-civilised view of the world.

There is an interesting scene that takes place shortly after Jason’s theft of the Golden Fleece. Jason’s sailors make camp for the night. Medea is terrified, horrified and bewildered when they fail to perform the necessary rituals (or what she considers to be the necessary rituals).

It’s possible that Pasolini is trying to make a point about the alienating nature of civilisation and the way it strips life of its magic and its meaning. Not every viewer is necessarily going to be in sympathy with this. It doesn’t really matter whether you agree with such a view or not. What matters is that there is a very real and profound clash of cultures and beliefs and that Medea certainly feels alienated from the more modern more civilised cultures and beliefs of Corinth. The movie still works whether you agree with the message or not.

Pasolini’s own views on culture, politics, religion and cinema seem to have been constantly changing and also seem to have been contradictory and confused. That’s not necessarily a fatal flaw in a film-maker. He can use the opportunity to work though his ideas.

Maria Callas was the world’s most famous soprano at the time but she had the reputation of being an opera singer who didn’t just sing her parts but acted them powerfully as well. She was an inspired choice to play Medea. No-one else in the movie can act at all, but that works in a way. This is not a realist movie. Pasolini’s cinematic roots may have been in realism but Medea makes no concessions to realism. The stiff artificial performances of the other cast members enhance the film’s artificiality, and also serve to focus our attention on Callas.

This is not a stagey film but that artificiality is constantly emphasised. Jason was raised by a centaur. The centaur does not look the slightest bit convincing. He looks like a stage centaur. In fact he probably looks the way a centaur would have looked in a fifth century BC theatrical performance.

The location shooting (in Turkey, Syria and Italy) is stunning. Pasolini uses locations and architecture to emphasise his points. In Colchis we do not see a single straight line. Every building, every habitations, looks like it grew out of the soil. In Corinth everything is ordered. Nothing looks organic. Everything is constructed according to perfect classical proportions.

Medea is a movie you’re either going to love or hate. It depends on whether you’re able to immerse yourself fully in its world. If you are able to do that then the film is a strange magic experience. I enjoyed it a great deal. Your mileage might well vary.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad, released in 1924, is the greatest of the 1920s Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers. It’s one of the greatest swashbuckling adventure movies of all time, and in my opinion it’s the greatest Hollywood movie of the silent era. Fairbanks considered it to be his best movie, and he was right.

It was not the huge box-office bonanza that had been hoped for. It’s an ambitious demanding movie and audiences looking for pure escapist entertainment found it a little bewildering. It has long provoked conflicting critical assessments, but then great works of art tend to do that.

There have been many movies since that have been inspired by the Arabian Nights but none have surpassed the Fairbanks film.

By 1924, in the wake of box office blockbusters such as The Mark of Zorro (1920) and Robin Hood (1922) Fairbanks was a huge star. He had a great deal of creative control. He conceived, produced and wrote his 1920s swashbucklers and had major input into every aspect of these films. For The Thief of Bagdad he was also lucky to have very talented collaborators. Raoul Walsh directed and William Cameron Menzies was the art director. But there is no question that this is Fairbanks’ movie. The idea was his and the movie is his vision. He supervised every aspect of the production. Fairbanks was very much an auteur, possibly the outstanding example of a producer-star as auteur.

Fairbanks plays a thief in Bagdad. The Caliph’s daughter is to be married but her husband has not yet been chosen. Three of the greatest princes in the known world have arrived as suitors. They are not merely keen to marry a beautiful princess. Marriage to the princess will make the successful suitor master of Bagdad one day. One of the suitors, the Prince of the Mongols, intends to take Bagdad by force if his suit is unsuccessful.

The princess is superstitious and believes that the man who first touches the rose-tree beneath her window is the man she should marry, and she knows that her father will accept her choice of husband.

The thief sees an opportunity to enrich himself. He steals expensive clothing and presents himself as a fourth suitor, the prince of an entirely mythical land. Of course when he meets the princess he genuinely falls in love with her. And of course his imposture is revealed and he is whipped for his presumption.

A holy man tells him that he must earn the right to the princess’s hand by undergoing a series of quests. If he succeeds then he will surely be enable to marry the princess.

The princess, in order to buy herself time (she dislikes the other three suitors intensely) proposes a quest for the suitors as well. She says she will marry the man who bings her the most fabulously valuable gift. The suitors set out to find suitable gifts which naturally must have magical properties.

The princess has a spy in her midst, a treacherous slave-girl (played by Anna May Wong) who serves the Prince of the Mongols.

It’s a fine story but it’s the way Fairbanks unfolds the story which is entrancing.

In 1924 techniques for moving the camera did not yet exist. F.W. Murnau and his cinematographer Karl Freund are usually given the credit for inventing these techniques in Germany at around this time although the truth is slightly more complicated. In the case of The Thief of Bagdad it doesn’t matter. There are many ways of bringing a sense of movement and dynamism into shots without moving the camera and both Fairbanks and Walsh were keenly aware of the importance of avoiding a static feel. With a star like Fairbanks that was easy. The man was a human dynamo who never stopped moving. If he did stop moving he had the ability to make you think he was about to burst into action again any second.

All the cast members are constantly in movement. Also utilised is the very effective technique of having things happening simultaneously in different parts of the frame. The editing is also lively and very modern. While Walsh must be given some credit it is clear that his job as director was simply to help Fairbanks realise his vision.

One of the most impressive things about this movie is the extraordinary sense of scale that it achieves. You know the sets cannot possibly be that big and yet you find yourself believing that you’re seeing enormous palaces and vast caverns. And in fact the sets really were enormous - the biggest ever built in Hollywood. The movie is extraordinarily successful in achieving a genuine sense of a fantastic world of unreality, a world in which you believe even while acknowledging its unreality. This really is the Arabian Nights brought to life.

The look of the film was heavily influenced by Léon Bakst’s designs for Diaghilev’s ballets, especially Scheherazade.

When watching movies from this period you have to remind yourself just how new was the technology of motion pictures. Motion pictures were being made in the late 1890s but in 1924 the feature film as we know it was only a decade old. Taking this into account the special effects in The Thief of Bagdad work pretty well. How well the special effects work is unimportant. It is the beauty and grandeur of the images and the soaring imagination required to create those images that is breathtaking.

It’s interesting to compare this movie to Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), made in Germany the same year. Fairbanks had been impressed by Lang’s films, especially Destiny. Fairbanks set out to surpass the German masters, and to a certain extent he succeeded.

Fairbanks brings power and manic energy to the rôle of the thief but also extraordinary grace. He is like an athlete and a dancer rolled into one. Julanne Johnston is both sweet and clever as the Princess. Most reviewers focus quite a bit on Anna May Wong but while she’s fine she has no more than a minor supporting rôle.

The Eureka Masters of Cinema release includes the movie on both Blu-Ray and DVD, with various extras. The transfer is excellent and most importantly it preserves the tinting. Tinting was an important technique is silent film and Fairbanks used it to perfection.

Fairbanks was one of the grand masters of cinema. The Thief of Bagdad is very highly recommended indeed.

Monday, November 20, 2023

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

The Bob Rafelson-directed 1981 The Postman Always Rings Twice is one of several screen adaptations of James M. Cain’s famous novel. There are those who think Luchino Visconti’s 1943 version, Ossessione, is the best. It’s certainly very very good. The most famous is the 1946 MGM version with Lana Turner and John Garfield, which was severely constrained by the Production Code and is a bit too clean and glossy to capture the essential James M. Cain spirit.

This movie can be considered a neo-noir but it needs to be pointed out that Cain’s greatest novels, this one and Double Indemnity, don’t strictly follow noir conventions. We don’t have a reasonably OK but slightly morally compromised protagonist led astray by a femme fatale. Both stories include a femme fatale (and Phyllis Dietrichson and Cora Papadakis are memorable femmes fatales) but in both cases Cain offers us two people, a man and a woman, who are both equally morally corrupt and rotten. They lead each other even further along the path of corruption but the moral corruption and rottenness are there from the beginning.

The 1981 version offered an opportunity to create the authentic James M,. Cain atmosphere of desperation, lust, greed, sleaze, sweatiness and general scuzziness. For the most part it succeeds in doing that. It certainly had the right leads in Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Jack Nicholson was born to play this role.

The decision was made to give the movie a 1930s setting. This was the correct decision. The novel was written in 1934 and it’s very much a Depression-Era story that would have seemed out of place in the 80s.

One potential problem was the the combination of a period setting and colour cinematography would result in a movie that was much too pretty. For the first half of the movie the subdued earthtone-based colour palette helps to avert that danger and it looks every bit as seedy as it should look.

Frank Chambers (Nicholson) is a drifter and small-time con artist. If he can con his way into a free meal he thinks he’s a winner. When he arrives at Nick Papadakis’s isolated roadside diner and gas station he manages to do just that. Instead of getting mad Nick offers him a job as a mechanic. Frank doesn’t want the job, until he spots Nick’s wife Cora (Jessica Lange).

Pretty soon Frank and Cora are having dirty rough sex on the kitchen table. Frank was the instigator but Cora gets into the spirit of the thing pretty quickly. You couldn’t call it love-making. It’s more like animalistic mating.

Frank and Cora develop quite a sexual obsession. Frank is a loser and a sleazebag and there’s an edge of violence and cruelty to him. This turns Cora on a lot. Cora isn’t glamorous but she has an earthy animal sexuality and she’s a bit of a tramp. This turns Frank on a lot.

Eventually the idea was going to occur to them that if Nick wasn’t around they’d be able to have rough dirty sex on the kitchen table whenever they felt like it. You know where this is going to lead.

We get to the dramatic climax of the movie, which is fine and quite clever. But then it just keeps going. And going on and on and on, with totally irrelevant subplots being thrown in as the movie self-destructs.

The first half of this movie is superb. This is James M. Cain in all his seedy squalid glory brought to the screen. The second half seems like a totally different movie, or possibly bits and pieces of several different movies. Apparently Bob Rafelson and screenwriter wanted to do a film noir blended with a love story. Why any sane person would think it a good idea to use a James M. Cain novel as the basis for a love story is beyond me.

Worse still, the two lead characters become totally different people. This means we no longer believe in the characters and consequently we no longer care about them.

And the contrived ending is the final nail in the movie’s coffin.

There are things like a great deal about the first half of the movie. Nicholson and Lange smoulder with lust and greed. The sex scenes are incredibly sleazy and dirty as they should be in a James M. Cain story. Nicholson and Lange are superb in those scenes. The production design is excellent. This is the 1930s totally stripped of glamour.

Unfortunately their performances become increasingly incoherent and confused.

One gets the impression of a movie made by a director and screenwriter (David Mamet) who had an idea of what they wanted to do but their idea was ill-judged and unworkable and inevitably resulted in a movie that loses its way completely.

This movie represents a spectacular missed opportunity. The production designer and cinematographer give it the perfect visual style. It has a dream cast. It should have worked. It does work superbly for the first hour. Then it falls apart.

Is Rafelson’s 1981 The Postman Always Rings Twice worth seeing? In some ways yes, but it’s a very deeply flawed movie. The 1943 Italian version and the 1946 Hollywood version have problems as well. No-one has yet made the definitive film adaptation of this novel.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Hangman (1959)

The Hangman is a slightly odd but interesting 1959 Michael Curtiz-directed western starring Robert Taylor.

Taylor plays U.S. Deputy Marshal Mackenzie Bovard who finds that bringing in a wanted man presents a few problems. For starters Bovard has no idea what the fugitive, an ex-cavalryman named Butterfield, looks like. It’s also a certainty that Butterfield will have changed his name.

There is one person who could identify Butterfield. That person is Selah Jennison (Tina Louise). She’s a pretty young widow eking out a miserable existence working in a laundry. She and Butterfield had been sweethearts but he married another girl. Bovard is confident that the $500 reward will be sufficient to persuade Selah to turn Butterfield in.

Bovard is cynical, hardbitten, ruthless and unsentimental. He has no love for the human race. He believes that everyone can be bought. You just have to offer them the right price. Bovard himself is scrupulously honest. His cynical view of human nature is so extreme that it may have distorted his view of reality. As a lawman Bovard has gained such a reputation for remorseless efficiency that he has gained the nickname The Hangman.

Bovard has a lead. He believes he knows where Butterfield is. It’s a peaceful small town. Bovard soon picks out a likely suspect, a teamster named Johnny Bishop (Jack Lord). Everyone in the town is aghast at the idea that anyone could suspect the popular Johnny Bishop of being a desperate criminal involved in a stage coach robbery that ended in several murders.

The sheriff, Buck (Fess Parker), is an easy-going kind of guy and he also refuses to believe that Johnny Bishop could be a criminal.

Bovard however is convinced that he has his man and he’s convinced that Selah can identify him. His only doubt is whether Selah will go through with it.

There is some action but this is far from being a blood-drenched western. The emphasis is on the characters, not the action. Principally the emphasis is on Bovard and Selah. And there are all sorts of complex emotional undercurrents involving the four main characters.

Bovard is honest but the job has made him hard and cynical. He’s forgotten how to trust people. The job has become an obsession. He grows steadily more obsessed with a touch of paranoia thrown in. He thinks everybody in the town is conspiring against him to stop him from bringing a guilty man to justice. He’s also bitter towards Selah but in a complicated way. First he despises her for agreeing to help him find Butterfield, because it makes her like everyone else he has ever encountered - willing to betray an old friend for money. Then he gets angry at her when he thinks she won’t help him. His conflicted feelings about Selah reflect his conflicted feelings about himself. Maybe she’s right. Maybe he’s become just as bad as the bad men he hunts.

This is the kind of complicated conflicted rôle that Robert Taylor did so well in the 50s, when he shed his lightweight matinee idol image and started taking on much darker rôles. Not necessarily villains. He came to specialise in worldweary morally compromised characters and brought a great deal of depth to such parts. Taylor has never achieved quite the recognition he deserves.

I must confess that when I hear the name Tina Louise I immediately think of Gilligan’s Island. Her character here is a million miles away from movie star Ginger. In her own way Selah Jennison is just as worldweary and cynical as Bovard. She doesn’t want to be an informer but she needs the five hundred dollars. She hates herself for being tempted by the money, and Bovard despises her for betraying her ex-lover for money. In her own way she’s as conflicted as Bovard. Tina Louise does a pretty impressive job in a demanding part.

There’s no real good vs evil theme in this movie. There are just people who have landed themselves in difficult situations and they’re struggling to figure out what they should do.

This is a very low-key western. There are no spectacular action sequences, no sweeping western panoramas, no epic feel. And, unusually for 1959, it was shot in black-and-white. It feels like a B-movie in some ways but that works to its advantage. The viewer is not distracted by spectacle and has to focus on the intimate psychological dramas. With an intelligent script by Dudley Nichols and fine performances by Robert Taylor and Tina Louise it’s an intriguing movie that deserves more attention. The ending breaks many of the rules of the genre but while it won’t please everybody I thought it worked. The Hangman is highly recommended.

The Olive Films DVD release looks just fine.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947)

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome was the last of the four RKO Dick Tracy B-movies made between 1945 and 1947.

Chester Gould’s The Dick Tracy comic strip enjoyed huge popularity in the 1930s. Inevitably Hollywood took an interest. Republic made four serials in the late 30s and early 40s with Ralph Byrd as Tracy. The four feature films from RKO followed. Morgan Conway played Dick Tracy in the first two films and Ralph Byrd returned to the rôle for the last two.

Gould wrote the comic strip from 1931 until 1977. The two-way wrist radio that later became such a recognised trademark of the strip did not put in an appearance until 1946 and therefore does not feature in either the serials or the movies.

The movie opens with a sinister figure (Boris Karloff) entering a bar. We’re not surprised to learn that he is known as Gruesome. Karloff is not wearing actual monster makeup but he is subtly made up to look slightly monstrous. He’s looking for his buddy, a piano player nicknamed Melody. Melody tells Gruesome he has a job lined up. We never doubt for a moment that it’s a criminal enterprise of some sort. Gruesome goes to meet the guy organising the job and finds himself waiting in a scientific laboratory. Rather unwisely he uncorks a test tube and has a sniff. He then goes reeling out into the street.

A beat cop, assuming he’s a drunk, picks him up but by the time he gets him back to headquarters the supposed drunk is as stiff as a board and obviously dead.

Since this is Boris Karloff and he has star billing we know he can’t be really dead, and he isn’t.

Shortly afterwards Gruesome gets up off the slab in the morgue and walks out. This certainly puzzles homicide cop Dick Tracy.

It was that chemical that Gruesome sniffed. It has the effect of causing temporary total paralysis.

That chemical will be the key to pulling off a successful bank robbery. If everyone in the bank - the staff, the security guards, the customers - is paralysed then robbing the bank will be child’s play. It gets better. Afterwards the person remembers nothing of what happened around him during the period of paralysis. That means that not only can he not interfere with the robbery, he can’t be a witness. It’s the key to the perfect crime.

Of course in practice it turns out to be not so perfect. Dick Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Anne Gwynne) just happens to be in the bank at the time of the robbery and she was in the telephone kiosk so she escaped the paralysing gas. So Dick Tracy has a witness. Tracy gets another break as well, due to bungling by a member of the gang.

There’s not enough evidence to make an arrest. Tracy thinks the key is to find the source of that gas. A frightened scientist may offer a clue.

Tracy has to take a big risk to crack this case but he’s used to doing things like that.

This movie has hints of both the film noir and gothic horror visual styles. Content-wise it’s a typical hardboiled crime B-movie except for the addition of the science fiction element of the paralysing gas.

Ralph Byrd is a fine Dick Tracy and looks the part. Karloff plays Gruesome as a mean hoodlum and does a splendid job. Skelton Knaggs as X-Ray (one of the gang members) adds a subtle touch of weirdness.

This is a movie based on a comic strip and it does have a bit of a comic-strip feel, which is as it should be. It manages to be hardboiled and at the same time just a trifle outlandish and exaggerated. It’s an approach that works.

I have this movie in one of those Mill Creek 50-movie public domain collections. The transfer is remarkably good.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome is fast-moving well-crafted entertainment with a slightly unusual feel.

I’ve also reviewed the first two movies in the series, Dick Tracy, Detective (1945) and Dick Tracy vs Cueball (1946). Both are worth seeing.