Looking back at Dick Tracy

Becky looks back at an almost-forgotten comic book adaptation from a time before they were cool: Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy.

Chester Gould’s famous yellow-coated detective, Dick Tracy, has appeared across various mediums since his first comic strip appearance in 1931, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the character made his way into blockbuster territory. It may have been considered less than successful on release and forgotten to a certain extent since then, but there is a lot to love about Warren Beatty’s film, imbued with an infectious sense of fun and comic strip visuals that continue to impress.

Dick Tracy went through several hands before it finally landed Beatty in the director’s chair, though the actor had had a concept for it as far back as 1975. It’s a long and rocky development history that saw names such as Steven Spielberg and John Landis offered the chance to direct with Tom Mankiewicz assigned to produce a screenplay at one point. When Landis was on board, he drafted in screenwriters Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr, who had previously hit big with Top Gun, to produce a script.

They would continue working on this throughout the film’s troubled production, even after the rights had reverted from Universal back to Tribune Media Services, and it was their screenplay that survived right through to Beatty taking over (though Beatty and collaborator Bo Goldman would revise much of the dialogue). Cash and Epps meticulously researched the history of the character and packed in various references and plot points from the comic strips including little nods like Tracy’s famous watch-radio and his love of forensics.

All of these references are weaved into a thrilling tale that finds the maverick detective tipped for a desk job before Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino), a long time enemy of Tracy, takes over a large portion of organised crime in the city. Tracy is soon on the case, but finds himself tangled up with Big Boy’s club singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) whilst also having to deal with a runaway known only as The Kid (Charlie Korsmo) and attempting to propose to longterm, and long-suffering, girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly).

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A lifelong fan of the comic strip, Beatty had been offered the role whilst the rights were with Universal, but left following disagreements with Walter Hill, who was attached to direct at the time. However the reversion to Tribune Media Services offered Beatty the chance to option the rights himself, taking on the roles of director, producer and leading man. He had always envisioned a more stylised version of the comic strip and with the finished film, he fully embraced of Gould’s comic strip stylings, choosing to use only the seven basic colours of the strip.

Bright, consistent shades of yellow, blue, red and green dominate each shot and artistically, the film wears its comic influences on its sleeve, combining it with Art Deco and German Expressionism references to give Tracy’s city an iconic look. With the bold colours and the practical make-up effects work is still beautiful to look at and looks much younger than its twenty-four years. It would deservedly going on to win Academy Awards for both the art direction and the make-up effects and picking up nominations for the cinematography and costume design. As the the film plays out, it often feels like you’re watching a live action cartoon, so accurately was the visual medium of the comic strip captured.

Many of the hoodlums that Tracy faces are named after various facial features or disfigurements (brilliantly spoofed in an episode of Robot Chicken) and the make-up effects rise to the occasion. With the current emphasis on CGI, it’s always a treat to go back to films relying on practical effects and producing something quite special. An early scene featuring various mobsters playing a card game showcases the grotesque mobsters like Little Face, a man possessed of a giant head with his facial features poking out of the middle. Then there’s Flattop, long a comic strip foe of Tracy’s, who is not quite so level-headed as both his name and his cranium would suggest or Pruneface with his overly wrinkly features. It all adds to the wonderful cartoonish proceedings, a proper rogues’ gallery for our hero to face off against.

The benefit of having such strong visuals is that it tends to distract from the somewhat slight plot. It’s as labyrinthine as any good noir and like its genre forebears, often doesn’t make sense, but whips along at such a pace that it doesn’t wholly matter. Beatty resorts to the montage to convey crucial information swiftly and the first is used particularly effectively, combined with a Sondheim song and some knowing humour to speed through the story. Alas, by the fourth montage, it feels not only repetitive but distracting, a diversion from the main events rather than informing them.

The main characters never stray too far from their assigned archetypes, but the strong cast manages to add a few dimensions to the ensemble that strengthens the ongoing narrative. As the eponymous detective, Beatty puts in an impressively physical performance. Tracy is the squarest of square jaws and could have easily got lost amidst the impressive supporting cast, but Beatty plays him with a knowing wink and the right balance of nobility and roguish charm. His chemistry with Headly’s Tess (damsel in distress) and Korsmo’s The Kid (plucky sidekick) is particularly good and there is a nice familial feel during their interactions which also provide many of the laughs.

However, it’s Beatty’s scenes with Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney that fall a tad flat, lacking the erotic charge that usually goes with a femme fatale meeting, somewhat ironic given that the pair were an item at the time. Madonna’s performance is a curious one because, unlike some of her other acting roles, it’s not flat out terrible. She attempts a sort of Monroe-esque enigma in the role, living up to her character’s name with breathy line deliveries. Mostly it fits with the heightened noir tone, but there are occasions where she lurches to melodramatic extremes that it detracts from the atmosphere rather than heighten it. However, when she’s on form, she can dole out a dry one-liner as well as any member of the cast and naturally excels when performing Sondheim’s songs.

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The rest of the supporting cast are all routinely excellent, many of them performing through layers of make-up to provide the right sense of menace. Dick Van Dyke crops up as a beleaguered DA whilst Dustin Hoffman steals every scene he’s let near as the fast-talking, incomprehensible Mumbles. Look out too for various cameos in said rogues’ gallery including James Caan and Catherine O’Hara as mobsters and Kathy Bates as a looming social worker.

The ultimate scene-stealer though is Al Pacino in an Oscar-nominated role as Big Boy Caprice. It’s the perfect role for him really considering his propensity for combining unpredictable shouting with a sense of menace. He’s introduced in spectacular fashion, dispensing of Paul Sorvino’s Lips Manlis in a concrete bath and taking over the mob empire in the process. What’s so special about Big Boy though is that he’s not particularly good at thinking on his feet, something explored to amusing effect when he is framed for a crime he didn’t actually commit, muttering “Oh, yes. I’m gonna have a thought. It’s coming… It’s gone” as he attempts to find a solution.

Dick Tracy had been intended to launch a new franchise, but the film’s box office was considered too disappointing to greenlight a sequel. Beatty stated back in 2011 that he still intends to make a sequel, having gone through a lengthy legal battle to retain the rights. Even if the sequel doesn’t emerge, Dick Tracy remains a strong standalone story with a wonderful sense of nostalgia woven into everything from its impressive cinematography to the soaring theme from Danny Elfman. The actors all play their parts with a knowing sense of humour, adding to the heightened comic strip atmosphere that Beatty cultivates through the visuals. The stylised nature of the film may be its defining feature, but revisiting it shows that it’s a rip-roaring noir homage with a huge affection for Chester Gould’s characters.

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