Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Dick Tracy (1990)

Dick Tracy (1990)

Director: Warren Beatty

Cast:  Warren Beatty, Madonna, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Charlie Korsmo, William Forsythe, Mandy Patinkin, Catherine O’Hara, James Caan, Dick Van Dyke, Kathy Bates

The 90’s brought on the rebirth of the big budget comic book movie (which had been dead since Richard Donner’s Superman films) thanks to the phenomenal worldwide success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), suddenly every studio wanted to make a comic book movie, the problem was they didn’t know how to go about it. For some reason, they got the idea in their heads that going with ancient comic book heroes like The Phantom (1996) and The Shadow (1994) was a good idea. And even when they did do original comic book films, they went with a comic book that paid tribute to all those old heroes called The Rocketeer (1991). The studios hadn’t figured out yet that people really wanted the more contemporary heroes like Spiderman and the X-Men, which is probably why a lot of those old school comic book movies tanked at the box office. Batman made kajillions because the character had remained alive in the collective consciousness because Batman has always remained in print, it had its own television show and it became a part of popular culture. Not so with the older characters, which though not entirely dead, were not as recognized by modern audiences. In other words, characters like The Shadow and The Phantom all had their day back in the 30’s and 40’s. Today’s kids aren’t really familiar with these characters. The same can be said of Dick Tracy, Chester Gould’s hard boiled detective that started out in comic strips, on news papers, three little squares of story per week. The strip was such hit that they made Dick Tracy serials, radio shows, b-movies, you name it. Unfortunately, Tracy never got the big screen treatment that Chester Gould wanted. That is until Warren Beatty came along and directed this here picture.

I remember seeing Dick Tracy in theaters, that awesome summer of 1990. It was a big summer as far as blockbuster movies go. Squished in between big action films like Robocop 2 (1990), Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) and Total Recall (1990), Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990) seemed tame in comparison, it made my 15 year old mind wonder if it was going to make it a the box office. I remember there was a big publicity push for the movie, Disney (under the Buena Vista Pictures banner) made sure you knew about the film one way or another, right down to selling Madonna’s soundtrack ‘I’m Breathless’, which by the way I really dug and still own to this day. Was the film a huge hit in theaters? Well, it didn’t lose money, but it wasn’t the smash hit that they were expecting either. The smash hit of that summer was Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost (1990). Dick Tracy ended up making  162 million dollars worldwide, a figure that didn’t impress its producers and probably the main reason we never saw a sequel. But who cares what producers think right? At the end of the day, what we really care about is if the movie was good or not.  And in my opinion, Dick Tracy was excellent; the problem was that Dick Tracy was a hero from another era, with a big budget film that came many decades too late.

But if you can see past the fact that Dick Tracy is a hero from the 30’s you can actually have a lot of fun with this movie. While I understand why the masses shy away from anything they consider ‘old’ or ‘passé’, I personally enjoy all types of films, I don’t just watch contemporary things, I can appreciate the many attributes that a film like Dick Tracy has to offer, for example, it’s a beautiful film to look at. Warren Beatty aimed to make a film that looked like the comic strips; so he went with a color palette composed of primary colors that leap off the screen; this movie is pure eye candy, a vibrant kaleidoscope of colors! Dick Tracy was made using old school filmmaking techniques and I have a great appreciation for films made using miniatures and matte paintings to create city landscapes, I just love that about films made this way. The interesting thing is that Dick Tracy was made just before computer generated effects were about to take over, so it’s one of the last films to be made this way. I think that Beatty wanted to purposely make an old school film, same way that Coppola purposely used old school visual effects to make Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). In this way, the director evokes a bygone era of filmmaking; Beatty wanted to take us back in time. And he achieved it if you ask me. We go back to a time when hardboiled detectives were out on the streets trying to solve the crime, getting the bad guys in the big bad city. In this way Dick Tracy is an interesting film because it has elements of film noir, yet it’s also colorful and vibrant, bringing together an interesting mix of genres and styles.

The cast is something truly amazing! Beatty as Tracy is pitch perfect casting if you ask me. Beatty has said that they tried applying fake noses and jaws on him to make him look more like Gould’s sketches and that ultimately they decided not to go with it because it would distract audiences. I think it was a great idea because Tracy’s normality goes in direct contrast to the downright grotesque villains. And while the villains are comic book monsters, Tracy is human, he’s all about heart. He’s Tracy, the ultimate good guy who is in many ways like Superman, the embodiment of all that is good and pure in humanity. He’s loyal to the love of his life, Tess Truehart even though Breathless Mohoney is trying to eat him up every chance she gets. Tracy’s such a good guy; he wants to adopt an orphan he picks up from the streets. He’s all about the law and doing what’s right, he’s honest and hard working, he wants to get the bad guys. He’s the ultimate do gooder. His counterpart is Al Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice, one of Pacino’s most over the top performances, he got an Oscar nomination for this performance. He just goes nuts here. Madonna as Breathless Mahoney oozes sensuality, you have to understand this was Madonna at the peak of her youthful beauty, she was so damn sexy in those days! She exploits that sensuality for all its worth. Every line Breathless speaks is in double entendres. Then we have Big Boys gang, which is composed of a who’s who of character actors like William Forsythe, Ed O Ross and Paul Sorvino. We also get big name actors playing smaller roles, like Dustin Hoffman playing ‘Mumbles’ one of Big Boys men, who, as his name suggests, mumbles everything he says. All these characters make the film an amalgam of craziness straight out of a comic book, made all the more interesting because each and every one of these actors are made up to look exactly like Gould’s original drawings. Which I’m sure made making this film, a huge challenge, I mean, having all those actors in make up at the same time!

The icing on this Dick Tracy cake is the music! The orchestral score was composed by the always excellent Danny Elman. His score is grandiose and epic, similar in many ways to his score for Batman (1989), but then again, that’s the exact reason why Elfman was hired, Beatty was impressed with Elfman’s score for Batman (1989). Then we have the soundtrack, written by Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim and sung by Madonna, it makes for one of Madonna’s most unique albums. It’s fun, retro and heartfelt. So as you can see, many awesome elements came together to make Dick Tracy an extremely unique film, a trip back in time to simpler times when good was good and evil was evil, no place for in betweens; or is there? At the end of the day, while Tracy is always out to get Big Boy and his gang, this film is really about Tracy having to decide between pleasure and sensuality over true love, marriage, kids and possibly becoming a family man. Which one will he choose? Tracy is torn between being a bachelor or becoming a family, some say this mirrored Warren Beatty’s own personal life, after all, Beatty was the ultimate bachelor back in his day. So anyhow, I’ve gone on long enough, bottom line is Dick Tracy is an excellent comic book movie, dare I say one of the best ones ever, an excellent production from beginning to end.  

Rating:  5 out of 5  



Sergei Kolobashkin said...

I've seen this movie only recently when it was on cable. It aged so well and looks gorgeous. The colors are so crazy. I don't know why filmmakers don't make colorful movies anymore. These days we get ugly grey or brown filters that make the picture as apocalyptic as possible.

Jennifer O`Neill said...

This is one of those movies thats always had a kind of indescribable magic about it, a bit like Jaque Demi's "The Umbrella's of Cherbourg" (1964) which also had a similar incredible use of colour.

Franco Macabro said...

a lot of directors associate making a comic book movie with putting lots of colors in the film, prime examples of this are The Crow: City of Angels, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin.

Jennifer O`Neill said...

"Batman and Robin" was a superb film, it was ludicrously under-rated and fabulously entertaining, i could never understand why it was trashed to the levels that it was by critics and fanboys. In my opinion it was 100 times better than Tim Burtons ludicrously over-rated 1989 pile of unwatchable garbage "Batman" with Keaton and Nicholson, now that film WAS pure crap.

Unknown said...

I love this film - pure eye candy and such a bold color scheme and production design, esp. when you consider this was made for a major Hollywood studio but that was the kind of clout Warren Beatty had!

Franco Macabro said...

Agree J.D., my recent re-watch made me appreciate it a little more. Beatty had clout, he'd been trying to make this one since forever! Though it turned out to be the highest grossing film in Beatty's carreer, it wasn't a huge money maker when compared to its budget so we never saw a sequel. As I write this, Beatty still has the rights to Dick Tracy, and he's trying to make another film, but I doubt it'll happen. Still, commercial success or not, the film remains a fantastic movie, beautiful to look at, a work of art in more ways then one.


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