Wanna know the honest truth? I’ve been wanting to write about at least one of the 1940s b-movie flicks centered on comic strip hero Dick Tracy for awhile now. The obvious chaser has been Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome because, hey, Boris Karloff. Nevertheless, when this here copy of Dick Tracy vs. Cueball presented itself at a thrift recently (or actually not so recently; it was months and months ago), I jumped at the opportunity to finally check this one off the arbitrary bucket list.
‘Course, it still took awhile to, uh, happen. I started with a little preliminary work sometime back but then just scrapped the whole idea, only to revive it just earlier today. What can I say, I’m an enigma.
I know for a fact I’ve got other various copies of 40s Tracy movies on VHS boxed/buried away (Gruesome included), maybe/quite possibly even a copy identical to this one. But wanna know another honest truth? At a certain point, it just becomes easier for me to pick up a new old copy of whatever rather than go digging for something I ultimately may or may not even wind up posting about. What can I say, I’m an enigma. (And I’ve got too much stuff.)
Put out by Silver Screen Video in, erm, I don’t actually know when (as you may have surmised by the title of this article; there’s no copyright date anywhere on the tape, man!), this is, simply put, public domain movie/budget video tape goodness in a nutshell. As you can see, the original poster art used for the front cover here is terrific, and if you yearn for the days when VHS tapes recorded in EP/SLP often featured a request to adjust the tracking if/when necessary on the tape label, well, you’re covered here.
Silver Screen Video released the four entries of the 1940s RKO Dick Tracy series (all of which had become delightfully public domain by then) on VHS, and none are particularly rare where used tapes are concerned – no Junior Dick Tracy sleuthin’ required to hunt these babies down! Indeed, I wasn’t even all that surprised when I found this one – I *was* happy though. It saved me potential back-breakin’ manual labor, after all! While, as previously stated, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome was more of a chaser for me (it’s actually sorta weird it didn’t turn up after my deciding I could get a post out of it; these tapes really are pretty common, even in this day and age), there wound up being something about Cueball that actually fired my interest up even more: it was once considered one of the worst movies ever made.
No, seriously; it was included in the 1978 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time! Now that’s something I sure didn’t expect to hear! The RKO Dick Tracy films of the 1940s, obviously they’re not considered high art, but I was unaware of any of them actually being considered outright bad. And certainly not bad enough to merit any “worst movie of all time” nominations! I haven’t read that book, I assume they explain their reasoning behind the inclusion, but yeah, this was definitely unexpected to me. So naturally my curiosity was piqued; could there be some truth to that declaration? (Wacky Fact: while I almost certainly owned it already, I know I had never actually *watched* Dick Tracy vs. Cueball beforehand.)
Before we get to the actual movie stuff, here’s the back cover. The synopsis is brief, but fine. I’d have worded it a bit differently – it’s a little inaccurate even at only a single sentence long, but you get the gist of the picture. So mission accomplished anyway or something like that.
I get a kick out of the disclaimer underneath the synopsis, that little reminder that, hey, the flick is public domain so you can just go put a muzzle on them attorneys, ace. You saw those reminders pretty frequently on cheapie cartoon compilations from that era, but needless to say, it wasn’t limited to only ancient animation anthologies. [Alliteration]
By the way, that picture used on the back is not from this movie. And while we’re at it, y’all can just ignore that 62 minute runtime notation, too; the actual film is about 10 minutes shorter. An old print prepared for TV, or edited for other reasons? I guess a scene of Tracy in an airplane could have been in those excised 10 minutes, but given how the movie plays out, that seems highly, highly unlikely. Since the movie is public domain, I suppose I could go find it somewhere online to check without having to worry about thugs coming to pummel me (not over this anyway), but that seems like an awful lot of work for an article only 12 people will ever actually read.
As you can see, and as I have already stated, there’s no copyright date listed anywhere on the tape or sleeve. Using my powers of useless knowledge however, I can guesstimate that this hails from the late-80s, or perhaps more likely, the early-90s. Why do the early-90s seem more likely? Because 1990 was the year of the big budget Warren Beatty Dick Tracy movie, that’s why! It might be a little hard to understand now, but believe me, the hype for that movie was through the (figurative HAW HAW HAW) roof; beforehand, Dick Tracy wasn’t exactly the beacon of cool-to-kids that Batman or them karate Turtles were in that era, but thanks to the hype machine, for a relatively brief time, it was all about that comic strip crime fighter. I know, because as I mentioned in this post, I got bit by the bug big time. To this day, for me the sight of that Dick Tracy movie logo evokes an image/feeling of 1990 that few other things can.
Anyway, as with any big time Hollywood blockbuster, hey, others want to capitalize on the hype too. And since the RKO Dick Tracy films were quite public domain by then, well, it only makes sense that manufacturers would take advantage of that lucky (for them) break. ‘Course, I don’t know that’s what happened in this case, but it’s a good hypothesis. And even if Silver Screen technically released these tapes before ’90, it’s a safe guess they saw a new surge of sales when Dick Tracy mania swept the nation.
Or maybe I’m wrong on all counts, whatever.
So anyway, 1946’s Dick Tracy vs. Cueball. This was the second of four films based on the Chester Gould character that RKO released in the mid/late-40s. There had been a number of serials prior (the first of which is also quite common in the public domain arena), but I find these 1940s RKO features more appealing personally. Probably because, barring a few exceptions, I’m awfully wishy-washy on serials; while I like the vintage cinematic era they evoke, I don’t typically like watching them. Go figure! But, I digress.
As you can see in my adorable little screen caps here, Cueball isn’t just in the title, he even gets a special introductory card (that segues into his live action counterpart appropriately – swanky!). Does that mean Cueball wasn’t a Chester Gould creation, but rather a villain cooked up by RKO? Truthfully, I have little experience with the original Tracy comic strips; I mean, I’ve got a rudimentary knowledge (boy, those space age installments sure sound goofy), but that’s about it.
Our plot: Cueball (can you guess why that’s his nickname?) is in league with some other nefarious types to steal some ‘spensive diamonds. (Is there any other kind?) Unfortunately, he’s forced to kill the dude he’s stealing them from, so pretty much right off the bat things are getting dicey. (Dicier?)
The murder is what sets Dick Tracy on the trail. But not only that, it also causes some apprehension on the part of the guy Cueball was supposed to sell the diamonds to. He’s a crook with apparent scruples, because he balks at murder being attached to his ill-gotten gems. So anyway, Cueball has to find someone to buy his diamonds, keep others from stealing them from him, all while going around strangling people with a leather hat band. (He’s not a very nice guy.) Of course, Dick Tracy is getting progressively closer during all of this.
Speaking of Tracy…
“Hey that’s not Warren Beatty!” Now, you know full well that’s Morgan Conway in the role of our hero. And if you didn’t, you could’ve just scrolled back up and looked at the front cover again. So is there a reason you’re giving me grief?
Like I said, I’m not terribly familiar with the original comic strips, but Conway seems to do fine here. He’s easygoing yet tough, smart and tenacious, all at the expense of constantly neglecting his girlfriend Tess Trueheart. He doesn’t use that wristwatch walkie talkie thing, which had apparently been introduced in the strips earlier in ’46 and thus its absence vaguely hurts me deep, but otherwise, yeah, I like Conway just fine in the role. I wonder if there’s ever been a fistfight between people arguing over who was the better Dick Tracy: Morgan Conway or Ralph Byrd? Dick Tracy wouldn’t approve of that.
“So do you think that ‘You’re So Vain’ song is really about Milton Armitage?” Knock it off.
The plot, it’s fine, it doesn’t do anything too trendsetting, but then, it (probably) wasn’t meant to. At only
62 52 minutes, it obviously moves briskly. I like Conway’s Tracy, Cueball is appropriately sinister, there’s some comic relief from Tracy’s goofy partner that doesn’t impact the movie negatively. There’s more comic relief from Vitamin Flintheart (you gotta love these character names) that’s a bit more annoying, but nevertheless, I liked most of this well enough.
What struck me more than the plot or the characters, however, is just how this movie looks; this is very much a film noir by way of comic-based b-movie, and that’s most definitely a good thing. The usage of shadows and lighting and evocative camera angles, along with that budget movie sheen, it’s all irresistible in a post-war matinee sorta way. I love it! So much of this flick is bathed in shadows, its noir-ish good looks really sorta disguise those comic strip roots. I could see someone with an unnatural hatred of all things Dick Tracy still being able to appreciate this one, based solely on the aesthetic qualities it exhibits. Despite some moments of levity, the world of Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is a dark, shadowy, sinister one. I mean, there’s even a bar, complete with matching neon sign, called “The Dripping Dagger.” (It probably wouldn’t have been considered a family restaurant.)
Things that could cause some consternation in this day and age: at one point, Cueball strangles the woman that tried to steal his diamonds with his trademark hat band…but not before smacking her in the head with it a couple times. It’s not particularly graphic, but still unsettling for obvious reasons. Also, a little kid playing cowboy uses some language that would be considered derogatory towards Native Americans nowadays. So, as with any movie from decades past, if you watch, watch while remembering it was a different time, a different era in which it was made.
As for the film print Silver Screen Video utilized, it’s…mostly alright. It’s always kinda dirty/dusty/scratchy, but mostly it leans towards the “watchable-but-mediocre” end of the spectrum, with occasional moments of heavy wear and tear. BUT BUT BUT, hear me out: none of that actually hurts the ultimate presentation! Lemme explain: the accumulated wear of this Dick Tracy vs. Cueball evokes countless trips through the projector, of Saturday matinees, of late night television broadcasts on local stations, and as such, there’s just a certain ‘feeling’ about all this that still manages to work in spite of itself. Besides, it’s a budget video release – do you really go into one of those expecting pristine film prints? Lower your standards, champ.
SO, all that said, should Dick Tracy vs. Cueball be making any all time worst movie lists? In my opinion, no. Not at all. In fact, without having read that book or the explanation behind the inclusion of the film, yeah, I just don’t get that choice. Okay, sure, technically it’s not a great film, most people aren’t going to mistake it for an a-movie, there’s some dialog that’s a little silly, etc. etc. etc. But, I didn’t really notice anything about it that would be considered more offensively bad than countless other offerings from the era. Am I missing something here? Was there something in those apparently-excised 10 minutes that could so drastically lower the stature of the film? I can at least understand some choices in that book, even if I don’t agree with them. (I totally love Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and happily consider it the best ‘Zilla of the 1970s, but I can see why some would hate it, because the movie is just totally whacked out, man.) But even in that pre-internet, comparatively less-accessible (movie-wise) era, saying Dick Tracy vs. Cueball wasn’t just bad, but actually one of the worst films ever made, it just seems like such a random inclusion to me. Your mileage may vary, of course.
So yes, ultimately I liked this one plenty. It’s fast and noir-ish and such a fun example of a post-war programmer, as well as a fun example of budget VHS from the late-80s/early-90s. Maybe it played into the hype surrounding Beatty’s Dick Tracy, or maybe it was just easy product for Silver Screen Video to get out there regardless of what else was happening. At any rate, this totally seems like the kind of a tape I would have found for mega cheap at D&K in the late-90s, and THAT, my friends, is a nice feeling to have. (Even if it never actually happened. Not to my recollection, anyway; I do remember seeing some cheapo cartoon tapes there in the summer of 1997, so, yeah.)