Dick Tracy (1990)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Comics & Superheroes | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Some sexual content. Nothing too bad, it’s just that Madonna heard “acting role” and translated it as “porno acting role.”

This budget-busting project (it went from $25 million to $101 million) that changed more hands than a cheating poker player (bad, I know) wound up with star/director/producer Warren Beatty, who in turn created a highly stylized picture with a star-studded cast, kitschy colors, over-the-top makeup, and “slap/pow” violence like a comic strip. The end result is something that will instantly repel or attract viewers. I have always been among the latter.

Maybe it was the insane marketing scheme that got to me (action figures, trading cards, etc.), or the fact that I’ve always been a sucker for the De Stijl art movement, but something got me jazzed about this square-jawed tough guy, practically a one-man army in a city entirely up to no good. I was sold from the very first shot, in which important combat items are strewn on a desk – a badge, a walky-talky watch, a fedora, a gun – every item (and more!) needed for a young boy’s badass cops-and-robbers dress-up party (and there would be many).

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The matte paintings, set pieces, and color scheme (from buildings to costumes and everything in between) are obviously fake. They practically scream it. But it never takes anything away from my movie experience. If anything, it added to it, almost justifying a real-life version of the comic book world, telling me they really can exist in life. It is here that women (dames) are one-dimensional stereotypes – either a sexy “bad” girl (Madonna) or a homely homemaker (Glenne Headly) – and men are quite simply either good guys or bad guys. Kids are either baggage or stereotypes in training (Charlie Korsmo).

Beatty, indeed, gave the titular cop from Chester Gould’s comic a life of his own. There’s no telling what would have happened in the hands of a Spielberg, Fosse, Scorcese, Burton, or Landis with star options like Eastwood, Gere, DeNiro, Selleck, Ford, Nicholson, or Gibson. It doesn’t matter now. We got Beatty, and alongside him a fantastically spastic villain in Big Boy Caprice, played by Al Pacino with a perfect balance of brains, anger, and energy, and with a perfect imbalance of psychoanalytic issues. The other “good guys” are what they are (Dick Van Dyke, Seymour Cassel, and Kathy Bates among them), essentially simple minded and impotent compared to Tracy. The crew of “bad guys” is where it’s at (Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Paul Sorvino, and James Caan among them). Whether you’re talking about Little Face, Flat Top, Lips, Mumbles, The Brow, Prune Face, et al., what you’ve got are simply structured caricatures that look and act the way they ought to.

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The icing on the proverbial cake comes in the seven-color palette carried throughout the art direction, the unbelievable make-up that’s almost as important to the characters as the actors playing them, and an impressive soundtrack with songs by Stephen Sondheim and score by Danny Elfman, all of which earned Oscars (sound, cinematography, costumes, and Pacino all earned nominations).

The production is rumored to have been a difficult one from many fronts, though I find it most disappointing that we’ve yet to see the 135-minute director’s cut (theatrical was 105 minutes) and talk of sequels is on a constant teeter-totter of on-again, off-again. Dick Tracy is a concept that was even overdone in the 30s. A serial hero that had tons of villains, just as many cliffhangers, and always won in the end. But dammit, it’s entertaining; and a formula that still works as we approach a century later. Indeed there are many similar movies that come and go every year, but none of them do it quite like Dick Tracy.

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