Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947)
“KARLOFF PETRIFIES THEM!”
Director: John Rawlins
Cast: Boris Karloff, Ralph Byrd, Anne Gwynne
Synopsis: Dick Tracy goes up against a villain who robs banks using a nerve gas.
Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome was the last of four movies made by RKO in the 1940s to featuriethe chisel-jawed homicide detective. It benefits from the presence of Boris Karloff as the eponymous Gruesome, and a quite bizarre storyline involving a gas that paralyses people in a way that freezes them in whatever position they were in when they first inhaled the gas, whether it’s chasing a cat or having a sneeze. The movie also makes an effort to recreate the exaggeratedly ugly features of those strange criminal characters from the comic strip through the use of such distinctive faces as Skelton Knaggs as X Ray, perennial extra George Lloyd (who made over 200 movies and was credited in about three of them) as the manager of The Hangman’s Knot, and, of course, Karloff himself.
Gruesome has just got out of prison — although whether he was released or escaped is never made clear — and he goes directly to a drinking den called The Hangman’s Knot, where he hooks up with old accomplice Melody Fiske (Tony Barrett). Melody tells him he’s working for a new boss he calls ‘the doctor’ and takes him to the doctor’s warehouse where they’re reluctantly allowed entry by the doctor’s sidekick, X Ray (all bad guys have a sidekick in Dick Tracy’s world). While Gruesome is left alone to await his introduction to the doctor he breaks into the safe (as you do) and has a whiff from a glass vial which almost knocks him out. He staggers away from the warehouse and just manages to make it to the door of the Hangman’s Knot before collapsing. Unfortunately for Gruesome, he’s picked up by a cop and transported to police headquarters. However, upon arrival it’s discovered by Pat Patton (Lyle Latell), Tracy’s sidekick (good guys, too, have a sidekick in DT’s world) that Gruesome has died and that rigor mortis has set in in an unfeasibly short period of time. But Gruesome is only under the effects of the drug he inhaled, and awakes in the morgue. He makes his escape by whacking Pat over the head and hiding under a sheet on a gurney when Tracy (Ralph Byrd) walks in.
The following day, Gruesome, Melody and X Ray pull off a heist at a city bank, which Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Anne Gwynne) just happens to be visiting, by planting a ‘bomb’ containing some of the gas Gruesome inhaled. The gas causes everybody in the bank to freeze, leaving the way clear for the robbers to stroll in and take what they want. The only person who isn’t affected by the gas, and who witnesses the entire robbery, is Tess who happened to be in the bank’s (apparently airtight) phone booth when the bomb went off. Tess phones Dick, but Gruesome and his gang make their getaway after first shooting one of the guards.
Tracy pays a visit on Dr. A. Tomic (Milton Parsons), whom we had earlier seen complaining to a colleague of Dick’s that he felt someone had it in for him. Tomic isn’t around, but his assistant, Irma M. Learned (June Clayworth) shows him where the formulas are stored to ensure none of them are missing, and Tracy takes a sample for testing.
As usual with these B-Movie shorts, the pace never lets up from the opening shot to the last, and the unusual — if far-fetched — nature of the story, combined with Karloff’s lugubrious presence, means that Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome is always engaging. It’s mostly played for laughs, with those character names — in addition to A. Tomic and I. M. Learned, Tracy’s sidekick Pat also pays a visit on a taxidermist named U. Stuffem — and self-referential lines, such as when Patton exclaims ‘If I didn’t know better I’d swear we were dealing with Boris Karloff.’ In fact, the quality is high enough to leave one wondering just why RKO decided not to make any more Dick Tracy movies. However, Ralph Byrd would reprise the role a further 48 times when he played the detective in the TV series that ran from 1950 until his untimely death in 1952.
(Reviewed 13th October 2013)