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Dick Tracy
Directed by Warren Beatty, starring Warren Beatty, Madonna, Glenne Headly, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, color, 103 minutes, 1990

DVD cover

DVD cover

By Carter B. Horsley

Dick Tracy was a newspaper comic strip detective created by Chester Gould. He was most famous for his watch walkie-talkie and for his perpetual outsmarting of strange and nefarious perpetrators of crimes in his big city.

He was sort of a no-nonsense Sam Spade although better looking if you were a fan of large square jaws.

Warren Beatty does not have a large square jaw but he decided to play the lead in this film, which he also directed.

"Dick Tracy" is a rare instance of a movie being much better than its source material. It has a lot more going for it, however, than just bringing razzle-dazzle to a comic-strip. It is a rare instance of a film standing on its own as a work of art apart from its story or characters. This movie has deconstructed the comic strip and reassembled it as a highly imaginative and very beautiful montage that has a limited, but extremely vivid palette of colors. It is the quintessential film as far as art direction and production design are concerned. Richard Sylbert was the Production Designer and Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer, uses only the seven colors that cartoonist Gould used.

The visuals are hypnotically surreal. They seem simple but they are subtle. They do not detract from the action and flow of the movie, but they linger on. They are expressionistic and saturate viewers with a rare warmth. The technicolor of "Gone With The Wind," or "The Wizard of Oz" (see The City Review article), or the Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse dance sequence in "Singin in the Rain" (see The City Review article) the "Think Pink" mantra of "Funny Face" are comparable cinematic shocks that immerse the viewers with the exciting world of color that is perhaps too good to be true.

In "Dick Tracy," Beatty has taken a simplistic and pretty one-dimensional hero and enfused him with poetry and poetic surroundings and poetic people. Dialogue and story line are not terribly important here. Attitude and posture are. The environs here are magnetic manipulators of the action. And for the people, geeze, what a crew. Wait `til you see them.

Detective Tracy, as depicted here, is superclean with his bright yellow overcoat and almost luminously yellow hat. The visual effect is almost like watching a old, flickering silent film in which the eroding film stock gives a grainy effect that seems often to emit too much light.

Indeed, one is almost surprised that Beatty did not opt to make this as a silent film so powerful are the visuals. Of course, when he has Madonna as Breathless Mahoney singing lyrics by Stephen Sondheim it is understandable that this is not a silent film.

pix from back of DVD pix from back of DVD

Pictures from back of DVD

And then there are the cameos. Al Pacino is Big Boy Caprice, a nefarious pundit whose delivery of lines would have made Shakespeare smile, and Dustin Hoffman is the definitive "Mumbles," a character whose speech demands a sound film.

Pacino's and Hofmann's cameos are fantastic and others by Dick Van Dyke as D. A. Fletcher and William Forsythe as Flattop and Mandy Patinkin as 88 Keys and Paul Sorvino as Lips Manlis are admirable in large part due to the incredible make-up that brings to life Chester Morris's bad guys who were pretty freaky, if I must say so. The make-up here, created by John Caglione Jr., and Doug Drexler, is the stuff, or glue, of legend.

Surprisingly, this greatly anticipated and hyped film disappointed many critics and was not a major success. It opened the year after Batman and the comic-strip hero, such as Superman, had become something of a regular staple. "Dick Tracy," however, is not an action thriller, but a Zen mindset.

A squeaky clean mindset, too. There is little violence and little sex, although Madonna provides a pretty good Marilyn Monroe imitation. Madonna's performance, alas, was not well received by some critics, which was unfair as she is fine, indeed, smashing as the sexy temptress who sings "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)."

Beatty plays his lead role quite straight. He's Mr. Perfect and does not pander for laughs in very sharp contrast to Pacino who was nominated for an Oscar for his role and should have won. Pacino, like many of the cameo players virtually unrecognizable on first viewing, chews up his role. "A man without a plan is not a man - Nietzche," he remarks. In film heaven, one would like to serve tea to Pacino's "" and Charles Laughton's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" at the same time.

Glenne Headly plays Tess Trueheart, Tracy's noble love interest, with a sweetness that rises above "The Stepford Wives" world of suburban correctness. Charlie Korsmo nicely plays a waif adopted by Tracy who eventually calls himself "Dick Tracy Jr."

To a great extent, "Dick Tracy" is more of a love story than a gangster thrillah and it is hard to believe that Madonna loses out to Headley but that is consistent with the film's innocence/purity.

As Roger Ebert notes in his fine review at http://suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1990/06/552083.html
, the Dick Tracy stories "didn't really depend on suspense Tracy always won. What they were about was the interaction of these grotesque people, doomed by nature to wear their souls on their faces.Tracy in the comics always was an enigma, a figure without emotion or complexity. Warren Beatty plays him as a slightly more human figure.the critics who have described Tracy as too shallow have missed the entire point, which is that we are not talking about real people here, but about archetypes."

The movie won Academy Awards for Best Art/Set Direction and for Make-Up.

This very stylish movie is not perfect. Beatty and Headly are good, but not sensational; the script doesn't have enough zip; the music is not bad, but not memorable.

Still, seeing "Dick Tracy" for the first time is like an Academic painter seeing an Impressionist painting for the first time. Life ain't the same afterward.

This film is ranked 46th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films.

 

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