Friday, December 17, 2021



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

The only reason I graded the last of the Dick Tracy serials as "fair" in mythicity is that the script makes an interesting use of an "invisible man" villain as a world-beating villain. H.G. Wells' original unseen predator talks a lot about taking over the world, but he's too crazy to organize a criminal empire. The Ghost, however, has exactly the right amount of moxie to do just that, and though he's not as spectacular looking as some other serial villains-- the Lightning, Ming the Merciless-- his mask gives him an imposing quality, if only because it remains, even when he's issuing orders to his minions, as motionless as a death-mask.

As in the other three serials comic-strip hero Dick Tracy is essayed by Ralph Byrd, who's back to being a city policeman after a brief stint as a G-man. The first serial from 1937 was noteworthy for giving the hero a "super-villain" before the character had encountered any in the relatively mundane comic strip, while the next two serials made more circumspect use of metaphenomenal elements. When CRIME INC debuted in American moviehouses in December 1941, Chester Gould still hadn't introduced very many of his signature villains in the strip, with the exception of the Mole in September 1951. The Ghost's use of an invisibility ray machine is far more outrageous than anything seen in the strip, yet in one sense the serial-villain has more background than most such world-conquerors. While some of his activities include finding better ways to menace the world-- the first chapter opens with his attempt to destroy New York City with an artificially induced earthquake-- the Ghost's more personal mission is to eliminate all the members of the crime commission responsible for the legal execution of the villain's equally criminal brother. Further complicating the situation is that Tracy comes to suspect that the villain is one of the council, though I was never clear if the Ghost was impersonating a staunch citizen or was simply a corrupt businessman from the word "go."

Though the Ghost is the main source of the serial's mythicity, the hero once again conveys the hard-nosed desire to extirpate all criminality. There's less byplay between Tracy and his various subordinates than in previous serials, though lead female June Chandler (Jan Wiley) contributes some telling assistance with her expertise in sound technology. There's also some good suspense generated by the fact that none of the heroes know that they're dealing with an invisible man, because the Ghost kills everyone who finds out about his powers. There are only a few scenes in which the Ghost invisibly intrudes upon his victims, which are considerably spookier than the average serial-murders. 

The guilty councilman is eventually revealed to be Ralph Morgan, who proves excellent in conveying the Ghost's emotions despite having his face covered all the time, The serial does make some use of stock footage, and only a few of the cliffhangers-- like the one entitled "Beheaded!"-- are memorable. But if CRIME INC isn't in the top ten of the best serials, it should have no trouble making it to the top twenty.

ADDENDUM: I always thought that the 1963 comic DOOM PATROL got its name from spoofing the name of a movie, THE DAWN PATROL, which debuted in 1930 and was remade in 1938. However, one chapter-title of this serial shows that the TRACY writers got the pun out there first:


  1. Never seen this so I can't really comment on it. However, speaking of Dick Tracy, I just love the soundtrack album to the Warren Beatty movie from - when was it - '80s or '90s? How do you think the film measured up to the serial - or didn't it?

  2. Good question. Neither the nineties film nor any of the serials really capture the hardboiled crime aspects of the comic strip, so each of them has to be judged on its own merits. At the time of the film's first release, I didn't care for Beatty's Tracy having so much of a (admittedly non-comical) Dudley Do-Right attitude, but at least it was an individual interpretation, not something wacked out like a sausage from a sausage factory, and that image did play pretty well against the salaciousness of Madonna. That's one signature accomplishment of the film: putting across Madonna's appeal in cinematic form-- which other films couldn't seem to manage.

    And of course I like seeing many of the Gould villains brought to life, which none of the serials attempted. It's just a shame the scripter decided to build the movie around Tracy's first villain, the mundane gangster Big Boy, whose character Al Pacino mugged as never before.