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Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947)

by on 2011/03/14

“Skip it pal. Get to the payoff.”

* * *

Straight-arrow detective Dick Tracy meets the face that launched a thousand shrieks. Boris Karloff, with his voice of monster green velvet, plays Gruesome, an ex-con who will stop at nothing to lay his gnarled hands on piles of filthy, filthy cash.

You really can’t go wrong with Karloff. I could listen to Boris Karloff read slow-cooker recipes for hours on end and still be thoroughly entertained. And with Karloff driving the evil action, waving a gun and a vial of nerve gas in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, I wasn’t disappointed.

In this RKO Radio Pictures film in gorgeous black and white, there are two threads that ravel up together into one Hangman’s Knot. In one thread, there’s a twitchy doctor who is being stalked and in another, an ex-con by the name of Gruesome comes over all dead(ish) after inhaling a bubbling vial in a dark lab at the “Wood Plastics” factory.

The snoop and sniff at the lab lands Gruesome in the morgue. When Karloff’s character rises from his rigid, death-like state, he stretches and lights a cigarette. Realizing that he’s not in a Japanese capsule hotel, he jumps a cop filing a report and hoofs it out of there.

Speaking every line through a sodden toothpick and looking every bit the monster that made him famous in Frankenstein, Karloff dominates the picture as a desperate ex-con on the make. By contrast, Ralph Byrd is do-gooder Dick Tracy with a heart as big as his hat (and that’s huge).

After Gruesome becomes the unwitting victim of the noxious nerve gas that petrifies anyone who inhales it, he hatches a plan to use it to knock off a bank. Unfortunately the heist doesn’t go smooth as silk.

Tess Trueheart (Anne Gwynne), Dick Tracy’s loyal dame, manages to avoid the gas by hiding out in a phone booth at the bank and her baby blues see everything. Plus one of Gruesome henchmen lands in a coma and a bank guard winds up taking a dirt nap.

Bad news for Gruesome.

It all helps Tracy sew up two of his open cases. He soon realizes that the doctor who came to him complaining of being stalked is tangled up indirectly in the bank heist. The doctor is the inventor of the nerve gas and now he’s missing. Tracy sets his sights on the doctor’s colleague and fellow professor, Irma (June Clayworth).

Personally I’d never trust a professor who wore a fur coat, fur hat and pumps that high either. Turns out Irma is up to her pretty fur-enrobed neck in evil-doings. She stole the nerve gas solution for her boyfriend and Tracy’s got her number.

Tracy tightens the screws. “It is a nice neck, professor but that murdered bank guard had two kids. They liked his pretty well too.”

Irma cracks and Gruesome aims to seal that crack up tight. Note to self: when Gruesome offers to take good care of your girlfriend for you, he means ‘shoot her in face.’

The action is chock full of comic strip humour.  Gruesome runs into V. Stuffum, Taxidermist, and Tracy’s buffoonish partner Laurel and Hardy’s around a bunch of petrified animals. Double takes and stuffed apes, where would comedy be without you?

A tale springing straight from the funny pages, this Dick Tracy instalment was good Sunday afternoon fare.

And Karloff was the payoff.

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65 minutes


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