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Dick Tracy
(1990)

(SPOILERS) So, I pretty much denounced Dick Tracy at first sight. I couldn’t understand why it seemed to be getting such a charitable response, since it fundamentally failed to understand the hows and whys of translating a comic to the big screen, certainly in terms of capturing the thrill or dynamism of reading one of the things. I had problems with Batman, but at least it featured Burton-esque quirks and a couple of memorable performances. Dick Tracy just sat there, oblivious, its only noteworthy aspect being an eyeball-grazing colour palette.


But, I reasoned, said appraisal took place prior to my discovery and appreciation of all things Warren Beatty. Or at least, all things, or at least most things, Warren Beatty in the 1970s, as long all those things were his actual 1970s movies (and Reds, but that may as well have been the 1970s). I don’t tend to rewatch movies I thought were lousy in the first place unless I think the passage of time, or some redeeming aspects, may merit the effort; I’m not a complete masochist. And I’d been thinking about revisiting this one for a while. Maybe I’d just completely misunderstood it, expected the wrong things. And, having rated highly two-and-a-half of the actor’s other pictures as a director (Heaven Can Wait is nice, but weightless), it seemed quite possible. Alas, I was right to begin with. If anything, Dick Tracy is even less worthwhile than I recalled. Increasingly, the best thing that came of it seems to have been Beatty’s batty press conference (which Empire magazine diligently transcribed in one of its early issues; alas, I no longer have a copy to quote from).


Beatty wasn’t just jumping on the Batwagon; he’d been interested in exposing us to his Dick since ’75, which may be why, in pace, tone and general muster, the movie is closer to some of the non-Superman comic book flicks (Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, Popeye), acutely self-conscious of its origins. To such an extent in terms of art direction that some are sure to cite it as an inspiration for Sin City.


A roster of directors, studios and stars rolled by, much as they did before Burton landed Batman, including John Landis and Walter Hill. When Jeffrey Katzenberg arrived at Disney, he kick-started it with Beatty, who opted to helm, but the exec, whose policy (in tandem with Mike Ovitz) of low-budget, high-concept hits had turned around the Mouse House, put what he thought were safeguards in place to prevent another Reds-sized budget malfunction; it didn’t work out. Including marketing, Tracy ended up costing what it grossed in the US, and the attempts to cash-in with merchandise à la Batman went tits-up. And people wonder why the superhero genre took so long to find its feet (and in some cases, or rather with some studios, it’s still struggling). Katzenberg was, famously, outspoken about the error in calculation (“We made demands on our time, talent and treasury that, upon reflection, may not have been worth it”).


The picture’s a strange beast, which might well have been in its favour if it wasn’t so static, passive in performance, pace and plot. Beatty the director focuses on the hero’s romantic tribulations, with Beatty the actor falling back on the slightly self-effacing, tongue-tied quality, the guy playing someone who isn’t that emotionally intelligent, we saw in his ‘70s persona, but with the added gag of the renowned lothario not being so assured with the ladies. Too much time is taken up with torpid treatment of unpersuasive content; we’re supposed to care about Tracy’s relationship with the Kid, but it doesn’t really play. Glenne Headly is outstanding as Tess Trueheart, lending depth and soul to the devoted girlfriend, but you can’t help feeling she’s too good for a movie that has no room for anything more than a grotesque/ungainly caricature.


The plot’s a parade of gangster motifs – concrete overcoats, squealers and snitchers, attempted hits, police raids and framings – none of them especially engaging. There’s a single feat of superheroics, in which Tracy jumps up out of skylight, so of course it made the trailer. There’s a mysterious assassin, The Blank, whose performance is all the better for not knowing its Madonna behind the mask.


Who is pretty bad, looking the part of Breathless Mahoney but over-deliberate and self-conscious in delivery (“I sweat a lot better in the dark” is about seductive as a leaky faucet). Al Pacino, mystifyingly received an Oscar nomination for Big Boy Caprice, indulges in a tirade of shameless mugging that would set the tone for too much of his subsequent career. He’s big and broad, but neither fun nor enthused, so fundamentally missing what made Nicholson’s big and broad performance in Batman such a hit; magnetism.


Dustin Hoffman is fun as Mumbles, though, nailing the tone of cartoonishness and humour the picture occasionally seems to be ineptly angling for elsewhere, as his confession is literally sweated under lights (similarly, he’d be the highlight of another expensive turkey the following year, Hook). Perhaps that’s the problem. For all Beatty’s talents, and purported devotion to the strip cartoon, he has no real facility with such exaggerated tone and content. His stabs at humour work best when he keeps a foot in the real world (Bulworth); even striving for the Hope and Crosby vibe isn’t really his forte (Ishtar).


Other notable actors who show up, mostly shrouded under prosthetics, include William Forsythe, Mandy Patinkin (who almost manages to turn his piano player-turned-villain’s-stooge into something interesting, but only almost), Paul Sorvino, Dick van Dyke, Henry Silva, James Caan and RG Armstrong. Most of them have little, aside from the facial appliances, to make them stand out.


Whether it’s the attempts to supply action or dusting down the domestic material, none of it quite works. None of it’s actually painful, the way much of Hook would be, but Tracy bludgeons you with indifference to your attentiveness. Rumoured directors on Beatty’s list, before he took up the megaphone, included Scorsese (temperamentally wrong, I suspect), Bob Fosse (now that might have worked) and Tim Burton (plain lazy thinking). Speaking of lazy, Danny Elfman is drafted into provide a serviceable but undemanding score, dutifully meeting Disney’s demand to give them some of that Batthing (hence Madonna providing the soundtrack, just as Prince had done for Warner Bros the year before).


The irony is, a really stylish, ‘30s set crime yarn, with larger-than-life villains and a truer-than-true hero bringing them to justice, with gorgeous set-pieces and classic hardboiled dialogue, was made only three years earlier: Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. Okay, one isn’t quite the other, but it shows Beatty, bereft of a prosthetic nose, was sniffing around Dick Tracy with blocked sinuses. And yet, a measure of studios’ grasp of the genre at the time, his movie was still the most successful of a string of ‘30s heroes adapted during the ‘90s, with The Shadow and The Phantom also failing to hit the spot.


And, in some respects, that the picture did as well as it did is a testament to the unwholesomely persuasive power of marketing; Madonna’s musicality (rather than performance) gave it free publicity, the Disney Store promotions and MacDonald’s tie-in put it squarely in the public consciousness. So it didn’t really matter that kids had no real interest in seeing an over-the-hill star attempting to play comic book hero; it was turned into a thing to see, so people went to see it.


Also, in fairness, Tracy didn’t do a turkey-like nosedive at the box office in its second weekend, it just didn’t have legs; Batman, which opened to nearly twice the amount, stuck around in the Top 10 for 13 weeks. Tracy scraped seven. In today’s equivalences, this was a $200m grosser, so a studio would be firing up a sequel. But the reality was closer to the Burton Planet of the Apes movie (more financially successful than the recent reboots), with which no one was really very happy.


Beatty has murmured about a sequel intermittently, but that’s more to do with retaining the rights than serious intent (hence a 2008 in-character interview); Disney certainly didn’t care, relinquishing its interest to him years back. No doubt Dick Tracy will live again at some point, but how to make it actually appeal and work on the screen, rather than motoring ahead simply because someone has rights to a property they’re trying to make a buck off (most recent example; boorish oaf Seth Rogen in The Green Hornet); that’s the question.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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