Arriving the year after Tim Burton’s Batman was such a box office hit, Dick Tracy was Disney’s attempt at kick-starting their own comic book film franchise. The House of Mouse pulled out all the stops, relentlessly feeding the hype machine and marketing the hell out of the picture. Although it proved to be somewhat of a disappointment for the studio, Dick Tracy is delightfully enjoyable all these years on, a colourful adaptation of the comic strip of the same name by Chester Gould. What the film lacks in gripping storytelling it makes up for with memorable visuals, strong filmmaking and tremendous star power, and the result is a real hoot. Dick Tracy really was ahead of its time as well, and it’s difficult to not be impressed with the visual fireworks on display considering the primitive tools that were at the disposal of director/star Warren Beatty.
A police detective sporting a yellow overcoat and fedora, Dick Tracy (Beatty) splits his attention between cleaning up the streets and wooing his girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). Into his life soon steps The Kid (Charlie Korsmo), an orphan boy who was saved from the streets by Tracy. Meanwhile, ruthless crime boss Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) is positioning himself to rule the city with his gang of outlandish goons. Looking to take down Caprice, Tracy becomes distracted by Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), a sexy nightclub singer owned by the violent gangster. Amid all of this, a new menace emerges known as The Blank whose allegiances are ambiguous.
Gould started the Dick Tracy newspaper comic in 1931, and the strip is still being published today. Tracy is a character who communicates with other police via wristwatch walkie-talkies, and he pursues a cavalcade of eccentric villains of peculiar appearance. All of these characteristics were carried over into the movie with a script by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. (Top Gun). The movie pays meticulous attention to fan service, cramming in as many characters from the strip as possible to nice effect. The only real problem with Dick Tracy is the story, which is completely nondescript and clichéd. It’s a typical tale of a powerful gangster looking to rule the city while law enforcement look to prevent such a goal. Added to this, the script baulks from exploring Tracy the person; we see him fight crime, but we never find out his motivations or his past.
From a technical standpoint, Dick Tracy is a home run. The production values are immaculate; shots bursts with colourful sets, detailed costumes and period-specific cars and props. The action sequences are consistently strong, as well. There are not many shootouts, but the stuff that is present is of a high standard. The film also made headlines in 1990 for its unique visual approach used to bring the comic strip to the big screen. Beatty and his crew restricted the film’s colour palette to seven colours, each of which is exactly the same shade. It gives the picture a look that’s unique to this day, and it recreates the original strip faithfully. Added to this, the visuals mix live-action material with hand-drawn matte paintings, giving it a slightly cartoonish appearance which makes it look even more unique. Beatty and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro limited camera movement as much as possible, too, aiming to make the film feel like a series of still panels. Going one step further, the outrageous bad guys are covered in extensive prosthetics to recreate the look of the strip’s characters. Also impressive is Danny Elfman’s flavoursome score, as well as the inclusion of a number of original songs written by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim. Dick Tracy was nominated for seven Oscars, ultimately winning in the categories of make-up, art direction and original song.
Beatty has copped a bit of criticism for his portrayal of Tracy. He’s not exactly the first person one imagines for such a role, but Beatty’s performance is solid; he presents a perfectly serviceable interpretation of the hero cop. Likewise, Pacino is frequently belittled for his scenery-chewing turn as Caprice, which actually earned a very controversial Oscar nomination. It’s not exactly a skilful performance, but Pacino is a hoot, hilariously cheesy and over-the-top. The supporting cast is huge and completely star-studded, with appearances from the likes of James Caan, Dick Van Duke, Paul Sorvino, William Forsythe, Charles Durning, and many more. Beatty must have called in every single favour he could. Madonna is here as well, while Dustin Hoffman plays Mumbles, a character perfectly suited to the actor’s abilities. Hoffman took the role and ran with it; he’s very entertaining.
Before Beatty was given the director’s chair, Walter Hill was apparently close to filming his take on the comic book character. Beatty ultimately stopped Hill due to the filmmaker’s violent vision, which is frankly somewhat disappointing as it’d be interesting to see what Hill could have made of this material (it would’ve likely been R-rated and thematically thoughtful). Nevertheless, Beatty’s film is a lot of fun in spite of its flaws, and it’s a shame that it has become so obscure. Indeed, no sequel ever came, the film didn’t inspire much of a cult following, and no other filmic Dick Tracy project (be it movie or TV) has been made as of 2013. Looking at it today, it’s a garish product of its era that deserves a wider audience. Given that comic book adaptations aspire to be realistic and gritty these days, it’s refreshing to watch Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which is light-hearted and stands by the roots of its source material.