Dick Tracy (1990) – Warren Beatty

It’s been a long time since I sat down to watch this film, it may be since it first came out, or at least when it first hit video. I remember wanting to really get into this one when it first came out, I wanted it to be the next big summer blockbuster. So did Disney who produced and released it through their Touchstone Pictures.

It didn’t actually play out that way.

Thirty years on, I think that time has actually been very kind to this film, and with my own cinema education conducted through the blog, I definitely appreciate more of what I see in the film. Warren Beatty not only stars as the square-jawed lawman created by Chester Gould, he also served as the film’s director and producer.

It’s obvious Beatty is a fan of the character, and he tries to squeeze in as many of the detective’s rogues gallery as he can, all of them showing their villainy through some physical manifestation – this is how you always know the good guys from the bad guys – the bad guys are corrupted physically.

Beatty keeps the film very much in the realm of the comic book, with his framing, lighting and colour scheme (primary colours dominate the screen), it’s like a comic book panel brought to life. He uses camera tricks to hold focus and frame, and a lot of the dialogue and ways in which the film itself is shot (despite the modern equipment being used) is very much a film of the 30s – something that may have prevented it from connecting with its intended audience.

Beatty packs the cast with friends, and people he’s worked with over the years or wanted to work with and the cast list ends up being a who’s who, which detracts just a little bit, because you are so busy trying to figure out who that is beneath the prosthetic.

Check out this list, Al Pacino, Madonna, Dustin Hoffman, Seymour Cassel, Charlie Korsmo, William Forsythe (who looks exactly like Flattop is supposed to look), Glenne Headly, Dick Van Dyke, Mandy Patinkin, Charles Durning, Paul Sorvino, James Tolkan, Kathy Bates, Henry Silva, James Caan, and Michael J. Pollard. It’s a great cast!

The sets are designed to emulate Gould’s drawing style, making things simple, well-defined, and easily identifiable. There are no brand names, nothing like that, and the costumes, while stunning, stick specifically to one type of colour per character.

The story sees Beatty’s Tracy going after Big Boy Caprice (Pacino), while trying to juggle his personal life with Tess Trueheart (Headly), and a young orphan, The Kid (Korsmo). Things are complicated by the introduction of Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney (who delivers some priceless innuendos), who belts out songs written by Stephen Sondheim, and a new player on the field… No-Face.

It’s a comic book, and anyone looking for something more than that will no doubt be disappointed (and it features a solid score by Danny Elfman, following up his work on Batman). But for what it’s worth, it’s an honourable adaptation of a comic book character whose main defining characteristics were his square jaw, his snappy suit and hat, and his wrist radio.

It’s a colourful watch that is definitely worth the watch just for curiosity’s sake alone. Dick Tracy is a curious property and one wonders how it could have come out better than what Beatty delivered in that summer of 1990.

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