Whoa. It’s been a LONG while since I last did one of my “Glorious year 1990”-columns. In fact, the last one was “Arachnophobia” almost a YEAR ago. I can only blame myself – I have had so many different series of articles coming out that it was very easy to forget that this series was the one that started this whole writing-thing for me. Time to get back on it. This time it will be a little bit different though, as the subject at hand will definitely split people’s opinions on it. The 14 year-old I was when I saw it in the theaters for the first time loved it. Now – as an “adult”, I can very well see that it is not really a “good” film if you look at the story (and some of the performances), but visually it is STILL out of this world.
The movie I’m talking about?
Dick Tracy (1990)
Director: Warren Beatty
Writers: Jim Cash & Jack Epps (uncredited: Warren Beatty & Bo Goldman)
Let’s start with a totally unexpected segue to ANOTHER series of articles I’ve been writing here: The Walter Hill-series. I had NO idea before I started to do my homework on this movie, that it very nearly was to be directed by Walter Hill. Let’s backtrack a bit: the movie adaptation of “Dick Tracy” first went into development in 1975 – already then attached to Warren Beatty – with the film rights being owned by Michael Laughlin. No studio took to the idea. Two years later the rights were bought by producers Art Linson and Floyd Mutrux. United Artists made a distribution deal and Tom Mankiewicz was brought in to write a script – as he had just written “Superman – the Movie“(1978) and “Superman 2“(1980) and was THE guy for comic book-movies. The deal fell through, again. Then Paramount Pictures took on the project, Steven Spielberg was considered to be a director and Universal was brought in to the deal as Spielberg was THEIR guy. Spielberg didn’t bite – but John Landis was brought in. Landis was the one who got screenwriter team Jim Cash and Jack Epps(“Top Gun“) to write a screenplay after several previous drafts by several writers. Now – during all this time, Beatty was not the only actor considered to play the lead; Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Tom Selleck, and Mel Gibson(!) were all also considered during this long process. Then came “Twilight Zone – the Movie” (and all that happened during it) and Landis dropped out.
This is the time when Joel Silver joined the film as a producer and Walter Hill as the director and Hill was adamant that Beatty be cast as Tracy. But more problems arose when the project was already as near production as set-building; it was that good old song called “artistic differences”. Hill wanted to do a gritty, realistic action thriller while Beatty wanted to keep the style of the old 1930’s pulp comics. So Hill was out. Would’ve been interesting to see that – I kinda imagine it being a kind of a blend between “The Warriors” and “Streets of Fire“. Oh well. Both Hill AND Beatty left the film at this point, and Paramount tried to develop it a while with director Richard Benjamin(“City Heat“), but finally let the movie rights expire. And here begins the third genesis of the project. Beatty finally bought the film rights for himself, and as Jeffrey Katzenberg moved from Paramount to Disney, Beatty offered the whole package to the studio; himself as star, director and producer and the latest draft of the Cash & Epps script (which Beatty DID substantial rewrites on with his partner Bo Goldman but they lost the Writer’s Guild arbitration and got no writing credit). The movie finally got greenlit in 1988 – only after 12 years or so in development.
I’m not gonna do a long plot breakdown for this movie because it’s really not that complicated. In a nutshell it goes like this:
“Detective Dick Tracy(Beatty) is trying to take down Mob boss Big Boy Caprice(Al Pacino), while also attempting to take his relationship with Tess Trueheart(Glenne Headly) to the next level – while trying to avoid the advances of the Femme Fatale nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney(Madonna) – and deal with an orphan boy named The Kid(Charlie Korsmo).”
That’s pretty much it.
I think the fundamental problems that “Dick Tracy” has can be blamed on two different parties: the lead actor and the script.
Let’s take on Beatty as Tracy first. The man was passionate about the project – I give him that, but he just feels hopelessly miscast in his own picture here. Tracy’s supposed to be this Tough Cop and Beatty instead plays him as this “aw shucks”-type of a boy scout, who becomes a stuttering mess anytime he has to deal with any relationship issues. This just all feels wrong. And then there’s the business of Beatty – in a movie where about 90’% of the characters are wearing some sort of prosthetic makeup – opting not to go with the Tracy-trademark sharp-edged nose. I have read that they DID have tests on it but for whatever reason dropped it (possible reasons are varied: either Beatty was too vain to cover his face or they decided to just have the villains be cartoony). In the end, Tracy does not feel like Tracy at all. He just comes across as Warren Beatty in a yellow jacket. And let’s add to the equation, that Beatty and Madonna (who were dating at the time) really have the Most Awkward on-screen chemistry ever. Madonna IS a good artist. And a successful one at that. But I have never bought her as an actress and this movie is another proof of that. On the nightclub stage, while performing, she is great – but in the more intimate scenes (I gotta imagine the see-through gown she wears in one scene must’ve given Disney executives a heart attack – probably the reason this went under the Touchstone Pictures-banner), nnnope.
Then there’s the script. Who knows how many dozens of drafts Cash and Epps did of this during the time they worked on the project – or how much of their original material survived into the final product – but the fact of the matter is that the movie feels like a crazy mashup of a “Disney’d-up” best of-collection of the 1930’s gangster-movie cliches (from movies like “The Public Enemy”, “Scarface” and “Angels With Dirty Faces”) AND some relationship comedies. And The Kid is obviously a nod to Chaplin’s “The Kid“. Oh – and let’s add some Stephen Sondheim-written musical numbers there too while were at it. It’s just structurally all over the place. And some character motivations are left pretty much unexplained, like: why did Breathless decide to become “The Blank” – the faceless villain – exactly? Was that just a last-minute decision they did after the shooting? It might explain why it sort of makes very little sense (but you know what, it makes as much sense as Ray Winstone’s double-triple-quadruple-crossing character in “Indiana Jones 4”, so probably best not to overthink things).
So why do I like it then?
Because I believe that, short of Robert Rodriguez‘ first “Sin City“-movie (and perhaps Zack Snyder’s “300”), “Dick Tracy” is the most effective comic book-movie adaptation in the sense of world-building. Meaning, when you look at it, you see the world that’s associated to that particular source comic – and not just actors looking like the comic book-characters walking around in real world. There’s not one frame in “Dick Tracy” that screams “real world!” or “shot in the back lot!!!” That 14 year old kid that I was at the time watched that screen – completely void of any real knowledge of matte-paintings of other visual tricks – and just went: “wow”. In the years since, I’ve become more savvy about these things and I have to say: I’m a supporter of the practical, old-school visual trickery over CGI any day of the week. I’m NOT a CGI-hater – don’t get me wrong. It can be a useful tool when done properly. But there is just something about mattes, models, rear projection and the works that feels more…present. I’m sure if this move was done today, it would be shot in a stage with a 360-degree greenscreen-backing and it would sure be an IMAX Real 3D-worthy experience. But it would lack that personal touch.
In essence: while Beatty the Actor fell short, Beatty the Director pulled off something really great when deciding to make the film in that classical 30’s-style pulp way – only with the most top-notch visual tools and best crew available. What Production Designer Richard Sylbert, Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro and visual effects supervisors Michael Lloyd and Harrison Ellenshaw did in this movie, deciding to limit the color palette to just a few primary colors (mimicking the way the old comic books were done), using matte paintings and model work to extend sets – never going for realism but full fantasy, was the best creative decision that the filmmakers ever did. Sylbert won an Academy Award along with Set Decorator Rick Simpson, and Storaro was nominated for Best Photography. John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler won an Oscar for Best Makeup (for the most imaginative rogues gallery of characters put on film at that time) and Milena Canonero was nominated for Costume Design. And this is just more testament to the success of the overall visual design for this movie.
Another person who was nominated: Al Pacino was nominated as “best supporting actor” for his portrayal as Big Boy Caprice. I was never aware of this before. He IS another big part of why this film works for me, as he is definitely aware of the type of film he is in. He goes into a total cartoon character-mode here and is clearly having a ball. Big Boy is an outrageous character; villainous – but still humorous. Even though he’s encasing guys into concrete and dropping them into the bottom of the river, you still laugh at the guy as he’s a bad guy – and loving every minute of it. I’m not sure if his character trait of constantly misquoting historical characters was part of the script or just Pacino ad-libs. I’m sure a LOT of it is ad-libs; and that might have egged director-star Beatty a bit (sort of reminds me of the story of Kevin Costner wanting to cut down Alan Rickman’s part in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” after seeing Rickman chewing the scenery). Some would probably say, that this was the beginning of Pacino’s “HOO-HAH!!!”-phase that finally got him that Oscar for “Scent of a Woman” two years later, but I’m not in that camp: after all, on the same year as “Dick Tracy” came out, Pacino also did “Godfather 3“…
Speaking of the actors: what a helluva supporting cast they got there. Glenne Headly, William Forsythe, Michael Pollard, Charles Durning, R.G. Armstrong, Dustin Hoffman, Henry Silva, Dick Van Dyke, Ed O’Ross, Paul Sorvino, Mandy Patinkin, James Caan (this actually provides a nice little “Godfather”-reunion as Caan faces Pacino as a rival mob boss in one scene). Granted, many of these guys only have bit-parts and very little (if any) dialogue and have their distinct features exaggerated by make-up, but they all add to the atmosphere.
So yeah, I’m basically featuring this film on this article-series because it looks good. I know it’s a very vague reason to do so , but as I’ve always said – I have never said I was a professional critic; I could go ahead and try to make some psychological analysis of the film like “does Tracy’s yellow jacket symbolize his cowardice over relationship issues or does it mean he’s a ‘yellowjacket’ – an East Coast WASP“? But no – that’s not me. The film could very easily be snubbed off as a major example of a Big Star’s Vanity Project, but it manages – in spite of that – to be a visual trip with some other good parts working in favor of it, like I listed above.
And besides: in these times when we have a new comic book-film coming out in theaters practically every other month, it’s sometimes good to take a look back and see those first few attempts the big studios made of ’em. Learn about the roots.
It could almost be called Cinematic Archeology.
(Sidenote: someone really ought to make a comprehensive “making of”-documentary about this movie some day. As both the DVD and Blu-Ray releases of it are completely barebone. I’d love to know every behind the scenes-secret about it, but am limited to the internet(which always speaks the truth) and some short promotional videos)
(Sidenote 2: there have been a lot of comparisons about this film AND Tim Burton’s “Batman” and questions of “how much did they rip off?” The funny thing is: both movies were filmed at the same time, but “Tracy” opened almost a year after “Batman”. Danny Elfman WAS hired to score this movie based on his work in “Batman”, and it shows. Or…sounds(?) Elfman’s score for “Dick Tracy” is a clear case of “composer for hire” as it’s just droning underscore without any real memorable theme(sort of a harbinger of Elfman’s work in the last decade). Elfman’s only recorded comment about working on this film is “Warren was insane”.)