Monday, November 12, 2012

DICK TRACY - 75th ANNIVERSARY EDITION

One of the things I like about VCI Entertainment - aside from the fact that they're the only commercial outfit regularly releasing classic cliffhanger serials on DVD - is that they'll occasionally revisit older titles and upgrade their A/V quality. Case in point: the new "75th Anniversary Edition" re-issue of the 1937 Republic Studios serial, DICK TRACY, which represents a notable improvement over their 2000 DVD release.

Based on the long-running newspaper adventure strip created by Chester Gould, Republic's first (of four!) DICK TRACY chapterplay stars square-jawed Ralph Byrd as the two-fisted crimefighter. (Byrd would go on to play the character in three more serials, two features and a TV series!) The studio took some liberties with the source material - none of the comic strip's supporting cast appears in the serial except for kid sidekick Junior (Lee Van Atta), and Tracy's no longer a big city detective but instead one of Hoover's G-Men - but it still feels like Gould's comic strip: frantically-paced, with lots of violence and grotesque villains!

The plot pits Tracy and his colleagues against the club-footed criminal mastermind, The Spider, whose true identity (as with the villains of many Republic serials) remains a mystery until the 15th and final chapter. The Spider is a truly evil S.O.B. - not only does he have a giant "flying wing" equipped with a sonic death ray device, he's also kidnapped and brainwashed Tracy's brother Gordon (Richard Beach and Carleton Young), turning him into a scar-faced homicidal maniac!

Directed tag-team fashion by Ray Taylor and Adam James, DICK TRACY barrels along from chapter to chapter with considerable energy. Republic specialized in action, and the chases, fights and cliffhanger stunts are all top-notch (in fact, Spielberg and Lucas ripped off at least one of them for the third Indiana Jones flick). The serial also benefits from the exemplary miniature effects contributions of brothers Howard and Theodore Lydecker, who pull off some astounding - and mostly convincing - trick model shots throughout.

The 2-disc "75th Anniversary Edition" from VCI features all 15 episodes of this excellent serial in their original 4x3, 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The DVD has been sourced from improved film elements, and aside from a few brief instances of aggressive digital noise reduction and edge enhancement, the newly-remastered transfer looks very good. Contrast is more stable, and while image quality varies a bit from chapter to chapter, it is a definite improvement over VCI's previous DVD release -and looks better than any other budget label DVD edition of this serial that I've seen. Audio is a satisfactory Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono.

Bonus features in this edition include a video introduction and audio commentary (over Chapters 1 & 2 only) by mystery author, filmmaker, and former Dick Tracy writer, Max Allan Collins. There is also a still gallery and an episode from the rare 1950's DICK TRACY television series, which also starred Ralph Byrd. Be aware, though, that the picture and audio quality of this episode is very poor. Finally, there's the 1945 all-star Armed Forces Radio special, DICK TRACY IN B-FLAT, starring Bing Crosby (as Tracy), Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters. It's an enjoyably silly spoof and fun to listen to.

I should note here that VCI also offers the other three Dick Tracy serials - DICK TRACY RETURNS, DICK TRACY'S G-MEN and DICK TRACY VS CRIME, INC. - individually, and as a very nicely packaged box set (which includes this first serial). They're all loaded with vintage thrills.

DICK TRACY is one of my all time favorite Saturday matinee chapterplays, and that's saying something. If you're a serial buff or a fan of classic Hollywood crime thrillers, this new edition is highly and enthusiastically recommended.

BUYDick Tracy - 75th Anniversary Edition Original Serial
BUYDick Tracy - Complete Serial Collection