Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Films of 1990: Dick Tracy

A key question involving Warren Beatty’s ultra-stylized Dick Tracy (1990) is, simply: are (gorgeous) pictures worth a thousand words?

Your response to this film may depend wholly on what qualities you believe matter most in a movie. Are brilliant images enough to intrigue you, even if the narrative fails to engage your senses?

Undeniably, Dick Tracy is a visual masterpiece.

The film is a unique, beautifully-realized, and downright dazzling comic-strip on screen. Beatty’s picture doesn’t recreate the 1930s so much, actually, as it recreates a comic-strip version of the 1930s.

It does so in loving homage to the compositions of comic strip creator Chester Gould (1900 – 1985), who wrote and drew Dick Tracy strips from 1931 to 1977.

Accordingly, Dick Tracy is beautiful to look at, and to intellectualize as a fully-executed work of art that evokes its source material with remarkable fidelity.

And yet, despite such glorious visualization, Dick Tracy never really dramatizes a compelling story, nor makes us feel, through its dialogue, that the characters it depicts are living, breathing people with concerns that matter.

Perhaps that wasn’t the intent of the filmmakers.

Perhaps the intent was to translate Dick Tracy to the silver screen, note-for-note, from the old strip, leaving out all three-dimensional detail and shading in the process.

This is a comic-strip displayed on the silver-screen, no more, no less.

If so, that’s understandable as a creative or artistic strategy, but the ambitious plan doesn’t exactly work as intended, or like one might hope it would.


There’s a kind of remoteness or distance from the film that occurs while one watches Dick Tracy.

There’s almost no emotional impact at all in any of the action or character arcs. And the story-line feels so generic that, at times, it is difficult to focus at all on what is happening, and why it is happening.

The characters are all simple, off-the-shelf “types,” or clichés, such as the dedicated, good woman (Tess Trueheart), or the marble-mouth informant, Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman), and they simply don’t ever become more than their names suggest they are.

They are, merely, the sum total of their faces and their names. 

And again, that’s precisely what they are in the comics.


Representations of character traits such as loyalty, avarice, or even dogged determinism.

Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney may be the closest thing to an exception in the film. She registers strongly as a person, perhaps because Stephen Sondheim’s songs so effectively give her character a distinctive “voice” in the proceedings. Also, Madonna is not shy about transmitting sexual charisma.

But since most of the people featured in the film are brush-strokes as much as they are legitimate personalities, one’s enjoyment of Dick Tracy is based almost entirely on intellectual or cerebral grounds. 

To wit, the color scheme is gorgeous (and faithful to the strip), the camera-work is craftily brilliant in the way that it respects the boundaries of the comic-book frame, and the prosthetics that characterize the villainous criminals are not merely inventive, but effective in conveying the nature of their specific sins.

Perhaps these achievements should be enough.

Dick Tracy is a distinctive, imaginative, inventive comic-book movie, and one can gaze at its flourishes with appreciation just as one might gaze with approbation at a lovely painting in a gallery.

But Dick Tracy’s great flaw, it seems, is that -- while the pictures are admirable and compelling -- the words the people speak don’t move or inspire us. 

Stephen Sondheim’s songs occasionally offer that inspiration, as I’ve noted. An occasional montage of crime-fighting does so as well.

But overall, Dick Tracy doesn’t provide us the meaningful words, or emotions, to go with all the remarkable imagery. 

We can read a comic strip in moments.  

But a motion picture we must commit to on a longer, more thorough basis. And on that basis, I would have to argue that the film is a failure.

A movie critic friend of mine has noted, before, that reviewers can’t give out an “A” for effort on ambitious movies that, somehow, don’t manage to gel successfully.

Yet in my heart, I award Dick Tracy an “A” for effort despite its failings to tell a coherent story, or make us love its characters.

Warren Beatty has directed a gorgeous, challenging film, and I love the breadth of his imagination and fidelity to the source material.

At the same time, the film’s story is dead-on-arrival, and I wish that the gorgeous, inspired pictures were enough to carry the production through its nearly two-hour running time.

The best way to watch and enjoy Dick Tracy, perhaps, is in five or ten minute increments. 

The visuals prove powerful, and in such short “chapter-play” bursts, the film doesn’t lose its pacinng or momentum.

“Whose side are you on?”

In New York of the 1930s, diabolical gangster Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) makes a daring move. With the help of his minions, including Flattop (William Forsythe), he takes out his competitor, Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino), and steals his place: the Club Ritz. 

Included with ownership of the Club Ritz, is a sexy torch-song singer, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).

While Big Boy Caprice grows his empire and bribes the city mayor (Dick Van Dyke), he faces legal problems from “maverick police detective” Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty). Tracy needs someone to testify against Caprice, but Mahoney refuses to do so. 

Instead, she admits that she has fallen in love with Tracy.

This attraction complicates matters for Dick, because he is in love with kindly Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley), and is caring for an orphan boy, The Kid (Charlie Korsmo), who looks up to him as a paragon of virtue.

As Tracy and Caprice clash for control of the city, a new, faceless informant shows up to complicate matters; one who seems to have both Dick Tracy and Caprice in her nefarious sights.

“Eat Lead Tracy.”

Dick Tracy not only looks great…it looks amazing. 

The film’s characters and locations exist in a comic-strip world consisting of only four or so colors: blue, red, green, and yellow. These colors are vibrant and over-whelming, and reflect the comic-strip color scheme to a high degree, as you can see.  

In a way, these colors dictate the nature of the characters, and their world.

Even better than the color scheme, however, is the film’s extensive use of matte paintings. Today, CGI would be used in such circumstances, but something essential -- a sense of the “hand-painted” or “hand-drawn” -- would be lost in in the process.  The mattes here are by Harrison Ellenshaw, one of Hollywood’s most remarkable talents. It appears as though every establishing or location shot in Dick Tracy is “enlarged” and colored by such paintings, and the effect is stunning.

The effect is not so much that we are in a giant city, but -- as noted above -- a giant comic-strip city, one imagined, constructed, and toiled upon by very human hands; by the hands of an individual illustrator. 

Again, one should note that these city-scapes don’t look “photo real.” You can't take them for real. They look, instead, like they came from an artist’s viewpoint or imagination of the world, and that’s perfect. 

Similarly, Warren Beatty achieves much here from the notion of the movie frame echoing the comic strip frame. 

There is a scene, for example, during which Dick Tracy follows the Kid to his ramshackle home, and beats up his abusive father. 

We see the fight from outside the shack, and the only movement in the frame is the tilting of that edifice from one side to another, as Tracy’s fisticuffs strike the abusive Dad, and the walls of the home shift. Significantly, the action is contained within the frame, and the camera is static, it doesn’t move.  

Beatty utilizes this technique again and again, and even creates movement out of artistic montage, rather than via the auspices of a moving camera. 

Late in the film, there’s a crime fighting montage featured, for instance, as Dick Tracy takes the fight to his enemy. It deploys super-imposition and other old fashioned techniques that would be available to a comic-strip artist….pictures within pictures.

This crime-fighting montage is actually my favorite scene in Dick Tracy because everything just comes together so perfectly, and it builds, finally, a sense of momentum. We see close-ups of machine guns firing. We see Tracy, super-imposed over the streets. We see villains falling out of broken windows, another method by which to show movement in the frame without actually moving the camera, and so on. It’s so beautifully conceived and executed, from start to finish.

The villains in the film look great too. 

As their make-up reveals, these are people who wear their sins in the very lines of their faces

Lips Manlis boasts huge, hanging lips…all the better to suck oysters (and demonstrate his avarice…) with. 

Caprice is hunched over, burdened by the weight of his ambitions. 

R.G. Armstrong plays Pruneface, a wizened old gangster whose face, is wrinkled beyond belief. We know from a mere glance at these personalities that they are twisted, evil and perverted. 

We don’t need to know the specifics of their trespasses, because their visages and their bodies speak volumes.

The problem, of course, is that all these characters are expected to function in a tale that lasts nearly 120 minutes. 

Once we know what they are (by looking at them), their plans need to compel us, to drive our interest.

And, simply, they don’t. 

Dick Tracy is true blue. We know this from looking at him. 

Tess Trueheart is a true heart, her name and actions say. 

But the movie is not able to shade these obvious characters with any sort of three dimensional reality. By being so stolid and stereotyped, they transmit as campy.

Again, I know it isn't the game to humanize these comic strip individuals. 

But beautiful cardboard is still cardboard, in the final analysis.  

In a two-hour motion picture we need to be driven by a story, and by the desires of the characters. Dick Tracy shows us beautiful and ugly people in a picturesque world, but it never engages our heart sin a real way.

There’s an important asterisk there, of course.

And her name is Madonna.  

While belting out a Sondheim tune, or confessing her desire for Tracy, Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney transmits as fully -- and fallibly -- human. 

As you may remember, Madonna and Beatty were in a romantic relationship together when this film was made. It’s no surprise then, that Beatty is best in his scenes with Madonna, particularly the scene wherein Tracy rebuffs Mahoney’s advances. 

It feels there -- like nowhere else in the film -- that feelings and the future itself -- are on the line. 

Madonna brings an incredible and playful brand of sexiness to the film, particularly in the scene wherein she crawls -- on all fours -- over Dick Tracy's office desk.

Perhaps the problem I’m really writing about in this review involves nuance.  

In a motion picture, if interest is to be sustained, the story and the character must feature some nuance. 

In a comic strip like Dick Tracy, by contrast, the idea is the opposite. With so little space available to tell a story, every image must transmit a surfeit of information. We must know from a character’s name (Tess Trueheart) or his very appearance (Flattop) what that character is all about. 

In a movie, by contrast, we want to learn a little at a time..

So what Dick Tracy gains in terms of fidelity to a comic strip, it loses in terms of emotional connection and nuance.

It seems a dilemma, doesn’t it? 

Perhaps Dick Tracy is un-adaptable in film format, at least without serious adjustments to the comic strip format.

The whole problem reminds me of Big Boy Caprice’s dialogue in the film. “You get behind me, we all profit. You challenge me, we all go down.”

Perhaps the original Dick Tracy strips needed to be challenged a little bit more, in terms of their efficacy as workable motion picture material. 

I've tried to get behind this movie, but still, it goes down...


  1. When I was a kid, my two favorite characters were Batman and Dick Tracy. In 1989, I was treated to a big screen treatment of my first hero and, while I wasn't crazy about the movie, I was happy that it was so successful and that so many people finally realized that Batman was more than the campy tv show. In 1990, I was really psyched to see my second hero have the same glorious treatment. It didn't work out that way. Not only was the movie weak, the public saw that weakness as well and didn't come through with the same box office success.

    I think part of the reason Dick Tracy failed with the public was that, while Batman offered many a new version of a character they thought they already knew, Dick Tracy was rooted in the very familiar confines of the era when he was most popular. The Dick Tracy I read in the 1970s and 80s was a man of the modern era, not the guy in this film. I understand the impulse to go with a 1930s gangster genre film, but as you pointed out, it's simply a gloriously painted 2-hour cliche. I remember watching the climax in the theatre and thinking how much it resembled an old silent movie serial. Pacino might as well have been tying Tess Trueheart to the train tracks.

    I also agree with your point about the scenes with Madonna. Beatty was one of Hollywood's innovators with movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo. He really knew how to present warts-and-all relationship moments. As a director, he seems to be in conflict trying to deliver some dramatic gravitas while creating a summer super hero blockbuster. There's so much good here that never comes together. I was not merely disappointed after I saw this movie; I was depressed for weeks.

  2. Personally, I love this film and feel it is unjustly overlooked. I think Beatty absolutely made the right decision in filming the movie the way he did. This truly felt like an old school, classic comic strip of the period made flesh. I do wish that they followed through with the original gimmick of making you guess who was behind the make up of all the villains. But I can understand why they didn't in the end. Always wondered if the Blank was a nod to Bava's "Blood and Black Lace?" For God's sake, Madonna was actually good! No mean feat. A wonderful film fantasy.