Friday 1 September 2023

Dick Tracy TV series (1950-51)

The VCI boxed set containing all three Republic Dick Tracy serials (and I’m a huge fan of movie serials) which I bought recently includes as a bonus an episode of the 1950-51 Dick Tracy TV series which aired on the ABC network. It's a series I had never seen.

The episode in question is Hi-Jack, episode 16 of season one.

I don’t consider myself a huge Dick Tracy fan but I love the Republic serials and the 1940s RKO Dick Tracy movies so I guess maybe I am a bit of a Dick Tracy fan after all.

The episode was a disappointment, but it is an interesting example of some of the problems of very very early TV crime drama series. American television was developing rapidly and by 1955 was starting to become reasonably sophisticated, but series from the early 50s do tend to be clunky.

There were reasons for this. The half-hour TV drama is a distinctive format of its own, quite different from one-hour dramas and feature films. There was a real art to writing a successful half-hour drama. You really had to plunge the viewer straight into the action and you had to get on with it. It was essential not to waste time on sub-plots or irrelevant scenes that failed to advance the action. You would probably only have time for one major plot twist so it had to be a good one.

It’s hardly surprising that in 1950 these rules were not yet fully understood. Hi-Jack wastes a lot of time early on with a long boring completely irrelevant dialogue scene with no connection at all to the story. Once we get into the action there’s just not quite enough plot and there are no major twists. Even at a half hour it drags a bit.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a car-stealing racket. Which is a rather mundane case for someone like Dick Tracy (at least it would be a very mundane case for the Dick Tracy of the serials and the RKO movies). The bad guys are switching the engine and chassis numbers on stolen cars and they’re also planning to double-cross each other.

The villain is unfortunately rather colourless.

Another problem with early 50s U.S. TV is that it looks stodgy. This was possibly due more than anything else to the limitations of the medium at that time. TV sets had very small screens and picture quality was not good. There was little point in trying for artistic lighting effects or imaginative framing (even if there had been time for such luxuries which there wasn’t). Sets were very basic. These early TV shows looked cheap.

Of course it’s possible that this just happens to be a dud episode.

It doesn’t help that image quality is atrocious.

What seeing this episode has done for me is to increase my admiration for the achievements of American television in the late 50s. The improvement was staggering. Series like Decoy (1957), M Squad (1957) and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958) were to demonstrate just how good half-hour episodic television could be.

Dick Tracy was possibly just made too soon. Six or seven years later it might have been possible to make a truly excellent Dick Tracy TV series.

On the plus side the series does have Ralph Byrd, the definitive screen Dick Tracy. And that’s a major plus.

So overall more of a curiosity than anything else.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of the RKO movies - Dick Tracy, Detective (1945) and Dick Tracy vs Cueball (1946).

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