After the massive commercial success of Batman (1989), rival Hollywood movie studios attempted to cash in by adapting other classic comic strips from the 1930s and 1940s with the likes of Dick Tracy (1990), The Shadow (1994), and The Phantom (1996) being released in the early to mid-1990s. With the exception of Dick Tracy, all of them were box office flops. Mainstream audiences were just not interested in retro action/adventure movies that paid tribute to classic Hollywood cinema. So, why did Dick Tracy succeed where these other movies failed?
Dick Tracy was an adaptation of the popular comic strip created by Chester Gould in the 1930s and featured the titular square-jawed police detective as he tangled with a colorful assortment of villains. He solved crimes using the latest gadgetry and advances in forensic sciences. Gould’s creation proved to be very popular and continues to be published to this day despite Gould’s retirement in 1977.
The film version was produced, directed and starred Warren Beatty in the title role, while also including his then-girlfriend Madonna, as well as Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and James Caan among many other notable character actors. With that kind of star power, how could the film not garner advanced hype? It also helped that Touchstone Pictures took a page out of the marketing techniques employed on Batman and aggressively promoted Dick Tracy with a video game, a novelization and Madonna herself advertising it on her Blond Ambition World Tour.
A lot was riding on this film, not just for the studio, who invested millions of dollars, but also Beatty, still stinging from the high-profile failure of Ishtar (1987) and who hadn’t directed a film since the highly acclaimed Reds (1981). The gamble paid off and Dick Tracy performed very well at the box office, but fell short of the kind of figures Batman registered. While the story was pretty standard stuff, Dick Tracy was visually stunning as Beatty and his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) adopted the source material’s primary color scheme, making it quite unlike any comic book adaptation before or since.
Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) investigates a gangland slaying. He knows who’s behind it – mob boss “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino) – but can’t prove it, much to his consternation. With the help of his right-hand man, the vicious Flattop (William Forsythe), Big Boy eliminates rival boss Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) and takes over his territory, which includes his girlfriend, nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).
Meanwhile, Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) wants him to accept a desk job so that he’ll stay out of trouble – something that he’s not crazy about or do any time soon, at least not as long as Big Boy is at large. If that wasn’t enough, Tracy and Tess are temporary guardians of The Kid (Charlie Korsmo), a scrappy boy who witnessed the Manlis execution and is rescued from his abusive father by Tracy.
Warren Beatty does just fine as the upstanding Dick Tracy. He certainly looks the part and does his best to flesh out the character by developing a bit of a love triangle between Tess, Tracy and Breathless. The Kid also shows a slightly vulnerable side to Tracy and thankfully Beatty doesn’t fall into the trap of making the boy too cutesy or annoying. A lot of people criticized Madonna’s performance and when she’s paired up with the likes of veteran actors like Beatty and Al Pacino, she looks out of her depth. For two people romantically involved in real life, Beatty and Madonna have little chemistry together on film. Throughout, Breathless tries to seduce Tracy with sexual double entrendes and provocatively revealing outfits (including a see-through black negligee number that somehow got past the PG rating). Madonna makes up for these moments in the song and dance routines where, naturally, she is on more comfortable ground. Beatty does have slightly more chemistry with Glenne Headly who plays Tracy’s girlfriend – a thankless role that the talented actress does her best with, especially early on when Tess and Tracy take care of The Kid in a charming montage that humanizes the lawman a little bit.
Beatty must’ve pulled a lot of favors that he accumulated over the years as so many of his contemporaries and people he worked with back in the day play minor roles with most of them buried under all kinds of prosthetic make-up. Al Pacino barks out most of his dialogue in a scenery-chewing performance that would set the tone for many of his portrayals in the ‘90s but Big Boy actually requires him to play it over-the-top on purpose, which he does with typical gusto. The veteran actor looks like he’s having a blast in the scenes where Big Boy bosses around Breathless and her chorus line. One wonders if the little slaps he administers to the sultry singer were improvised. Hell, in one scene alone you get to see Pacino berate a room full of gangsters played by people like James Caan, Henry Silva and R.G. Armstrong among others. Meanwhile, one of Tracy’s deputies is played by Seymour Cassel and the police chief is portrayed by none other than the late great Charles Durning. Beatty even cast two of his Bonnie and Clyde (1967) castmates, Michael J. Pollard and Estelle Parsons in supporting roles.
Beatty also stacked the deck behind the camera with the great Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and award-winning production designer Richard Sylbert (Chinatown) contributing to the film’s distinctive look. Not since Streets of Fire (1984), had there been such a stylized self-contained retro-world where everything is heightened in a way that remained faithful to its source material. Even the outfits that characters wear are color-coded. For example, Tracy wears a yellow trenchcoat and hat while Tess wears a red outfit. This also extends to the setting of a given scene. In the diner that Tracy, Tess and the Kid frequent the seats are all red, the walls are all white and outside the windows are saturated with green light. The end result is a visual treat on the eyes and it’s all achieved through excellent cinematography, production design, art direction, and old school visual effects like matte paintings.
For the music, Beatty got Batman’s composer Danny Elfman to work his magic and he delivers a suitably robust score even if it sounds like he basically recreated the music he did for Tim Burton’s film. For the five period authentic songs that Breathless Mahoney sings, Beatty enlisted none other than the legendary songwriter Stephen Sondheim to write them and had Mandy Patinkin and Madonna bring them to life in the film.
A common complaint among critics was that Dick Tracy’s story was a little on the simple side, but the comic strip was never that complex to begin with and so keeping things simple stayed true to Gould’s creation. The one minor quibble I have in this area is the over-abundance of bad guys, but Beatty has said that he wanted to put as many of them in the film as possible in case he didn’t get a chance to do a sequel, which, as it turns out, was probably a wise move as another film seems highly unlikely.
Warren Beatty had contemplated making Dick Tracy as far back as 1975. He had fond memories of reading the popular comic strip as a child. Producer Michael Laughlin owned the rights at the time, but gave up his option when he couldn’t drum up any interest among Hollywood studios. In 1977, director Floyd Mutrux and producer Art Linson bought the rights and got Paramount Pictures involved. Over the years, many directors circled the project, including Martin Scorsese, John Landis, and Richard Benjamin. At one point, Clint Eastwood expressed an interest in playing Tracy, but Beatty had the right to accept or reject the role before anyone else. However, even he took convincing because the movie star didn’t think he looked like the character. Beatty eventually realized that “nobody did. When I realized that I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can play this as well as the next guy.’”
Initially, Beatty had difficulty finding a studio interested in bankrolling his project because they were concerned with its commercial appeal and the movie star’s reputation as a “control freak,” but he had gotten Chester Gould’s family’s blessing, which was a good start. He almost made Dick Tracy with Walter Hill when the director was in-demand during most of the 1980s, but they differed on the approach to the material – Hill wanted to go the gritty, realistic route, while Beatty envisioned a stylized look based on the comic strip. Beatty bought the rights himself in 1985 and was soon armed with a screenplay by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. However, Beatty and Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) rewrote much of the dialogue. In 1988, he got backing from Disney, but had to work with a $25 million budget.
Once Beatty got the go-ahead, he had to figure out how to adapt Gould’s two-dimensional comic strip into a live-action film. He felt that “it could be fun to go into another world – if that world were carefully planned and carefully created.” With Dick Tracy, Beatty wanted to “look at a picture through a child’s eyes, to get back to the feeling I had when I first read Dick Tracy as a kid.” By employing such a dazzling color scheme, Beatty figured that “If I could make Dick Tracy the centerpiece of a swirl of color and plot, then maybe I could keep him from being terminally dull, which a straightforward character like that is in danger of being.”
To this end, Beatty hired three key collaborators to help him create this world: cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, production designer Richard Sylbert and costume designer Milena Canonero (A Clockwork Orange) and they all met at Beatty’s home during the summer of ‘88. Storaro wanted to go with a standard aspect ratio in an attempt to mimic the comic strip panel. Beatty told Storaro that the look of the film would be influenced by the late 1930s when Gould started Dick Tracy and asked him to study the Bertolt Brecht opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny. Storaro found that German expressionist artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix best defined the art of the ‘30s and inspired Gould’s drawings.
Sylbert drew inspiration from ‘30s era Chicago and adhered to the source material’s generic look with homes devoid of anything but permanent fixtures and costumes kept basic and repetitive. The idea was to reduce the sets to their most basic iconography. Such a stylized world required filming the entire picture on the Universal Studios back-lot where the filmmakers could create their world from scratch, hiring visual effects artists Michael Lloyd (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Harrison Ellenshaw (Tron) to create 57 matte paintings on glass that were then optically merged with the live-action.
Canonero was the one who proposed that the film stick to a primary color palette. Another important element was the make-up effects. To create the elaborate make-up of the various gangster Tracy battles in the film, the make-up artists created drawings of the characters and then hired sculptors to make models of each character. The actors portraying each one of these characters had a cast made of their face so that the right make-up and prosthetics could be created.
Dick Tracy enjoyed mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and felt it was “one of the most original and visionary fantasies I’ve seen on a screen.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Unlike Batman, though, Dick Tracy is more than imaginative decor and the sort of clever makeup that transforms ordinary actors into characters named Pruneface, Flattop, the Brow and Little Face. The movie is a gentle whirlwind of benign mayhem swirling about the staunch figure of Mr. Beatty's Tracy. As both the director and the star of the movie, Mr. Beatty is remarkably generous.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “Unlike the pretentious Batman, Dick Tracy doesn't attempt to find depth in the heroic machinations of a two-dimensional figure: it seeks simply to turn the famous cut-out into an iridescent icon.” USA Today gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Beatty, though, has taken Dick Tracy to the next level: a Sunday strip. This means color, additional artifice, and the further suspension of disbelief. And even though Batman's Tim Burton is a better filmmaker than Beatty will ever be, Dick Tracy is the movie – of all screen attempts – that most convinces me I'm watching a live-action cartoon.”
However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “ is an honest effort but finally a bit of a folly. It could have used a little less color and a little more flesh and blood.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Dick Tracy is an ambitiously vainglorious effort, expensive, beautifully appointed, but at its core empty as a spent bullet. It asks us to read these comics without a grain of salt or a pinch of irony. Popping around in that floppy designer trench coat, Beatty looks more like the fashion police than a gangbuster. For that matter, he is the director as haberdasher in this color-coded clotheshorse of a movie.”
Along with Sin City (2005), Dick Tracy is one of the most visually stunning comic book adaptations ever committed to film and one that anticipated similarly hermetically-sealed cinematic fantasy worlds like the one the Wachowski brothers created for Speed Racer (2008). If the goal of movies, like this, is to take us away to a fantasy world, then Dick Tracy succeeds admirably. It has a look and atmosphere all its own. Sadly, a sequel has not happened as Beatty spent years in court with the company that own Gould’s strip who tried to wrest back the film rights. Beatty recently retained them and has expressed an interest in doing a sequel, but isn’t he too old to play Tracy now? Only time will tell.
Ansen, David. “Tracymania.” Newsweek. June 24, 1990.
Emerson, Jim. “Beatty Breaks the Rules in Dick Tracy.” Orange County Register. June 10, 1990. Pg. L08.
Guthmann, Edward. “Warren Beatty Speaks.” San Francisco Chronicle. June 10, 1990. Pg. P20.
Koltnow, Barry. “Back with a Simple Vision.” Orange County Register. June 10, 1990. Pg. L06.
Lowing, Rob. “Beatty’s Last Chance.” Sun Herald. June 3, 1990. Pg. 6.
Staff. “Strip Show: The Comic Book Look of Dick Tracy.” Entertainment Weekly. June 15, 1990.