- Produced and Directed by Warren Beatty
- June 14, 1990 (Lake Buena Vista) / June 15, 1990 (United States)
A police detective finds his life complicated by a homeless orphan and a nightclub singer as he takes on the mob in 1938.
Dick Tracy is perhaps one of the best comics to film adaptions in existence. It is a faithful interpretation of the strip and puts everything that fans enjoy about the strip into the film without overcrowding the story. It is pretty much a one-to-one transition. I am not talking about just character names and attitudes but their appearance as well. There is a heavy use of prosthetics to make everyone look recognizable.
I admit it has been quite a few years since I have read the Dick Tracy strip (is it even still around?) but when this movie came out, I read the daily strip pretty regularly as well as the Sunday edition and the characters that I was familiar with that appear in the film were pretty much as they appeared in the strip. Pruneface (R. G. Armstrong) is one that particularly stands out to me mostly because there was a storyline going on with the character around the time this movie came out and while he is not as serious of a threat in this film as he was in the strip, his physical appearance and general portrayal are pretty spot on.
The sets and costumes are done in bright and garish colors that you would find in the strips of the day. The distance shots showing the landscape look like comic panels and the action is choreographed in the slightly over the top nature of comics. Warren Beatty did not try to hide from what he was adapting to the silver screen. He embraced it as much as those that wrote the script did.
This is a comics accurate film and proves to me that with the most minimal of tweaking most of what you see on the page can be translated to the screen. And rather than go for straight goofy or straight up campy it can take itself just seriously enough and avoid becoming pretentious by thinking it is high art. Why do they not do that more often?
As much as this is a comic film, Dick Tracy is also an old school gangster 1930s style movie. It has the same rhythms, the same type of dialogue, and the same type of characters with a touch of Fritz Lang style direction to heighten the feel.
And the cast of actors is just some of the most talented I have seen connected to a comic book film. They either became something or were something at the time. Aside from Warren Beatty we have Al Pacino as Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, Madonna as Breathless Mahoney, Glenne Headly as Tess Trueheart, Charlie Korsmo as The Kid, Michael J. Pollard as Bug Bailey, Charles Durning as Chief Brandon, Dick Van Dyke as District Attorney John Fletcher, Kathy Bates as a stenographer, Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, William Forsythe as Flattop, Ed O’Ross as Itchy, Mandy Patinkin as piano player 88 Keys, R. G. Armstrong as Pruneface, Henry Silva as Influence, Paul Sorvino as Lips Manlis, James Caan as Spud Spaldoni, and Catherine O’Hara as Texie Garcia with Mike Mazurki (who played Splitface in the original Dick Tracy film) in a cameo as an old man in a hotel. That is a serious roster of talent that most films cannot pull together.
None was a slouch in the talent department. Warren Beatty had to of called in more than a few favors from his friends (he appeared with more than a few of the above listed actors at various points) while I am sure others where are attracted to the scripts take on the Dick Tracy universe. Many probably grew up on the character.
Warren Beatty walks and ask every bit of the part of Dick Tracy. He is the detective’s detective. He is all square jawed John Law enforcement who is loyal to his one and only Tess Trueheart but also a little commitment phobic of the woman who has stood by his side. That is straight out of older films.
Tracy goes up against “Big Boy” Caprice and really who better to cast as a gangster than Al Pacino? I am 99% sure this is Pacino’s only comic film. As “Big Boy” Caprice he is all bluster and anger but not maniacal villain anger. He is comic book villain anger which works perfectly with the feel and the tone of this film.
We even get a femme fatale played very effectively by Madonna as Breathless Mahoney. While she gets her name from a character that appeared in the mid-40s, she bears little resemblance in portrayal to her namesake. The character is as lethal and sexual as any woman you would find in a film noir. She is as dangerous as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Madonna is not known as a great actress, but she showed talent here.
Added to the story is a character known for most of the film as The Kid. He is the newsboy style orphan who is there to get Dick Tracy out of a jam when needed.
There is not too much mystery in the plot. A significant portion of the film is a gangbusters style story where the good cop goes after the mobsters that everybody knows exist and are doing criminal deeds but for some reason they just cannot prove how bad they are.
There is some mystery and it comes with the introduction of a character known as “The Blank.” This individual just abruptly shows up at 88 Keys and tells him to give a message to Caprice. What is their angle and what do they get out of all this? That is the question.
This is a great fun story that is well directed with a reverence for the material. There is no need to modernize Dick Tracy because he fits in much better in 1938 than he does in the present day. He is a character of a particular time that does not work in a modern world.
Dick Tracy is a fantastic comic book film that is superior to anything put out today. It has a style and individuality that the majority of current comic book films lack. You feel like you are looking at the panels in motion. It gives you the vibe of the strip and that does not happen often enough today.
Dick Tracy is a nostalgic comic classic. It has a great story, great characters and an amazing cast. This is not just a watch it but also a must see!
2 thoughts on “The Amazing Experience That Is Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy”
This definitely seems a better candidate for a 4k UHD release than Howard the Duck (but then again, what isn’t?); I’m sure the bright garish colours that nod to the films comicbook origins would really pop with HDR and gain the film an additional life. I haven’t seen the film for years (possibly back in the VHS days) but I recall that visually at least it really impressed me: always reminded me of the Flash Gordon film, visually. Dick Tracy is EXACTLY how the film of Will Eisner’s The Spirit should have looked and its a tragedy that it didn’t.
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Dick Tracy is available on Disney+ (last time I looked) and available for purchase. My Blu-ray looks amazing so I am sure a 4K would blow other movies away.
I am mystified by that whole Howard the Duck thing myself.