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Savant Review:

Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy
1990 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic enhanced / 105 min.
Starring Warren Beatty, Charlie Korsmo, Glenne Headly, Al Pacino, Madonna, William Forsythe, Charles Durning, Mandy Patinkin, R.G. Armstrong, Dustin Hoffman
Cinematography Vittorio Storaro
Production Designer Richard Sylbert
Art Direction Harold Michelson
Costume Design Milena Canonero
Special Character Makeup Doug Drexler, Ve Neill, Craig Reardon
Visual Effects Producers Michael Lloyd, Harrison Ellenshaw
Film Editor Richard Marks
Original Music Danny Elfman
Songs Stephen Sondheim
Writing credits Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr. based on the comic strip by Chester Gould
Produced by Floyd Mutrux, Art Linson, Barrie M. Osborne, Jon Landau and Warren Beatty
Directed by Warren Beatty

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Time's appreciation hasn't yet overtaken Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, which evaded the cultural wrath that clobbered Robert Altman's Popeye, yet also isn't fondly remembered in hip movie circles. It's silly cartoonish entertainment about a '30s comic strip detective, unashamedly playing the original law'n order myths in earnest. A visual delight with a double-dose of a design scheme that paints everything in sight one primary color or another, Dick Tracy is populated by literal representations of Chester Gould's original grotesque gangsters and hoodlums. Savant can take or leave Madonna, but the graphic overkill of some of the industry's best designers is too persuasive to ignore.


Rubbing out a score of his underlings, Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) deep-sixes mob boss Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) and takes over the rackets, including a night club where the hotsy-totsy Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) sings and seduces nightly. Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty), fashionably dressed in a white cashmere trenchcoat, puts the heat on Big Boy while romancing his steady girl Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) and befriending a nameless street urchin named 'The Kid' (Charlie Korsmo). The overheated Breathless plies her talents on the no-nonsense detective, much to the dismay of Tess - Tracy's too straightlaced to straighten out the misunderstanding. It's old-fashioned cops'n robbers melodrama when a mystery man with no face comes out of nowhere. He successfully framesthe top men on both sides of the law: Tracy for the murder of D.A.Fletcher (Dick Van Dyke), and Big Boy for the kidnapping of the hapless Tess.

Dick Tracy could be subtitled, 'A workout for rods and cones' - Technicolor couldn't have had much color left over for other movies after this show left the lab. It may not have taken artistic genius, but the designers and notoriously hue-happy Italo cinematographer Vittorio Storaro bathed every inch of the decor in this picture in Brights and Bolds. Dick Tracy looks as if Vincente Minnelli had a bad nightmare. In paint-by numbers fashion, blues, reds, greens and yellows shine out from the richly dark noirish shots. Every actor wears an unnaturally bright costume, and even the subtle strokes are done with a size ten paintbrush. Does it evoke a comic strip? No cartoon strip ever had this much color. It makes The Wizard of Oz look subdued, restrained. It's like, very colorful, already.

Every facet of the production is given the same overkill treatment, which makes for a film of constant visual surprise. The weird character makeups are so omnipresent, we quickly accept them. The old-fashioned matte shots are as unreal as anything else in the show and likewise fit in. Just staring at the fabulous costumes can take you out of the picture: how can Tracy expect to keep that gigantic yellow coat clean? Or from making him an easy target? That thing can probably be seen from outer space. Savant got an idea of how Beatty operated during production the next year from effects supervisor Michael Lloyd, when I cut together a reel of his work - the show was originally nowhere near as elaborate, but nobody could say No to Warren, and Lloyd ran with the opportunity to distinguish himself. The budget climbed accordingly.

The leads in Dick Tracy aquit themselves well. Warren Beatty underplays and doesn't so much perform the Tracy role as inhabit the costume, but I can't fault him. His hemming and hawing over his aborted wedding proposals gets a bit strained, but the wonderful Glenne Headley is there to make every scene she's in work. She's better than perfect: she shines in a way that you can't remember how she's lit or made up or what the decor looks like around her. Charlie Kosmo is homeless Kid who eventually picks the name Dick Tracy Jr. as his own, effectively constructing a family for Dick and Tess from the baby backwards. These are generic motifs, but The Kid is reminiscent of the 'Licorice Kid' from Judex  1

Madonna is a subject unto herself. She's certainly as adequate as Warren Beatty, but the fact remains that 1990 audiences were very unimpressed with her turn as a movie love goddess. She isn't all that appealing, getting what attention she does from exaggerated cleavage and a see-through number that, after a half second's exposure in a doorway, she has to fold her arms in front of so as not to get an R rating. When she sings, she's doing (or the camera's doing for her) a Marilyn Monroe imitation from Some Like it Hot. Well, she's no Marilyn by a longshot. She's also no songbird, to be gentle about it, and since all the songs have that Steven Sondheim feeling, you can't help but picture Bernadette Peters in the role, singing better and being sexier too. Madonna fared much better three years later in another supporting role in A League of Their Own.

Since Madonna just ain't that fetching, the casting people have made her backup chorus a bevy of women carefully chosen to come off as more plain. It's an old Hollywood trick. Just try and find a female who's allowed to look remotely attractive in any later Joan Crawford film. There's evidence that Warren Beatty, no slouch himself in the narcissism stakes, operated along the same lines: Mandy Patinkin, three years after looking so dashing in The Princess Bride has undergone a makeover that takes him halfway to Phantom of the Opera territory. Mustn't compete with Warren Baby.

Any movie where Dustin Hoffman is willing to play a bit part must be one attractive vehicle, and Dick Tracy is a star-spotter's paradise. Hoffman's Mumbles character is perfectly suited to him and reminds one of a twisted Rain Man. Al Pacino's Big Boy is a major role, but saddled with a false face and an overstuffed hunchback, he comes off like Richard III lost somewhere in gangland, U.S.A.. William Forsythe is uncannily like the Flattop of the strip, and we accept his deformity almost immediately. Sam Peckinpah actor R.G. Armstrong (Major Dundee) is buried under makeup that makes him resemble Thing from the Marvel comics' Fantastic Four, but his growly voice can't be disguised. Familiar baddie Henry Silva (two versions of Ocean's Eleven) looks like a fleshy skull.

A pastiche like this needs the flavor of an old MGM picture, with dozens of familiar faces flying by. Michael J. Pollard and Estelle Parsons revisit from Bonnie & Clyde. As do Charles Durning, Seymour Cassel, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Sorvino, James Caan, Allen Garfield, John Shuck, Kathy Bates. When a woman who could be nobody else walked up the sidewalk, I said out loud, "Hah, that looks like Mary Woronov' - and it was! Henry Jones (3:10 to Yuma) was scarcely recognizable, but Ian Wolfe still carried his couple of lines as the an old geezer, the same character he's played for 50 years!

Beatty chose to concentrate his plot on basic Dick Tracy lore. The character was born as a wholesome antidote against the popularity of gangsters, who Chester Gould thought were getting too much good press. That's why he made the baddies such grotesque pug-uglies. Tracy's wrist radio eventually developed into a wrist TV. In the 60s, when I discovered the strip, Tracy fought giant termites burrowing under the city, and went to the moon in cool-looking antigravity ships. Until Peanuts took it over, around 1965 or so, Dick Tracy always occupied slot one in the Sunday Funnies. The only thing missing from the film is some representation of the Crimestoppers cut-out anticrime hints that came with each instalment. Savant knows nothing about the popular Ralph Byrd serial exploits of Tracy, except that people liked Boris Karloff as 'Gruesome' in one of them.

The script is fast and funny and sufficiently surprising. Strangely, the main character twist at the end would seem a lift from The Band Wagon's Girl Hunt Ballet. The film already resembles that great musical number's visual scheme - with so much red and red trim everywhere. The Girl Hunt has a similar faceless 'Mr. Big' villain in a coat and hat (itself borrowed from D.O.A) and uses an identical identity reveal, right down to the 'one last kiss' gag.

Dick Tracy did fine in the theaters but wasn't the breakthrough hit that Universal hoped for. There had been so much Madonna hype that nothing could live up to it, especially after people realized that there was no hot stuff with Beatty to be seen in the picture. It was one of the last 70mm general releases, and one of the first (if not THE first) CDS digital sound release. With twelve years' a distance from the hype and the concentration on the star personalities, Dick Tracy plays as a lot of colorful fun. Now that we've grown to accept comic books as movies - or movies that emulate comic books, Dick Tracy looks like quality goods.

Touchstone's DVD of Dick Tracy has an excellent transfer of what must have been a difficult source negative. All the colors in each scene are taken right up to the edge of NTSC legal chroma, but none go over the edge. The cars gleam like shiny pieces of candy and the flesh tones are luscious. This is how Danger: Diabolik should look when it's re-transferred some day. The sound is also clear and brittle - it was so sharp in the theater for demonstration purposes that it almost hurt one's ears. The definition of every gunshot and the clink of each cartridge hitting the street are distinct audible events. The clarity of the music recording makes Madonna's voice sound all the more thin.

There are no extras at all, which is a disappointment considering how elaborate the production was. There's also no mention of the Oscars it won (makeup, Sondheim's Song, Art Direction) or its nominations (costumes, sound, cinematography, Pacino as supporting actor). The show is definitely 16:9 enhanced, which the packaging doesn't make clear, either.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Dick Tracy rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 22, 2002


1. Dick Tracy and Judex share the quality of absolute incorruptability that makes heroes like Superman so sentimentally endearing. Batman always looks ready to commit some crime or hit a bad guy below the belt, but Tracy can't even pretend to be seduced by Breathless, it's just not in his genes. Likewise, Judex is tied up in a tall building with no hope of escape, and when the bad girl Diana Monti offers to team up with him, he doesn't say yes, not even until she unties him. She moves in for a kiss and he turns away. With this kind of uncompromising virtue, Tracy needs 'The Kid' to get him out of the occasional scrape. He's definitely fairy tale material - you need scummy rat Oscar Schindler to operate in the real world, and negotiate with the commandant of Auschwitz - the Tracys and Judex'es just aren't up to it.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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