Underrated: DICK TRACY

Warren Beatty's 1990 film of DICK TRACY gets a bad rap. Personally, I think it's fantastic. I don't think I've ever seen a film that does such justice to its comic-strip origins. Even that other great, unjustly maligned comic-strip film, Robert Altman's POPEYE, doesn't come close to matching the adherence of style to DICK TRACY. But rather than delve into the various criticisms of the film, I want simply to point out why it's great, and why I love the film so much.

DICK TRACY is a joy to look at. Filmed in high contrast primary colors (an attempt to recreate the comic's original four-color printing process), there is a vibrancy not regularly seen in the palette of a typical noir. And believe me, despite its cartoonish look, this film is noir through and through. Tracy is a little more black and white than most leads in films noir, but the situations he gets himself into and the general feel of the film make for an interesting take on the genre. Hell, if anyone doesn't get absolute thrills at Madonna's take on Breathless Mahoney/The Blank - one of my favorite femme fatales - they probably aren't alive.

Taking seminal characters from the comic strip - Flat Top and Big Boy, prominently - writers Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. tell the story of crime boss Big Boy Caprice's attempted takeover of the city and the battle Tracy faces in a city filled to the brim with henchmen. And filled to the brim it is, as producer/director/star Beatty, a huge fan of the strip, decided to put in as many of the series's signature villains as possible in case a sequel never got made (which it sadly didn't.) The result is a bit of an overcrowded cast and an underdeveloped plot, I'll admit, but I won't admit that this negates the feel of the strip the film achieved.

A rogue's gallery: Flattop, Itchy, "Breathless" Mahoney, Big Boy Caprice, and The Stooge

The music is also a highpoint, as Stephen Sondheim wrote one of my favorite "period" songs ever in a modern film: "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)." It's perfect in just about every way, and the montage over which it plays is amazing as well. I'm such a little girl for little sequences like this.

I love the relationship between Tess Trueheart and Tracy, and the development of The Kid's role in their family dynamic. I also love the little nods to the strip here and there, from the opening sequence with the rescue of The Kid from The Tramp, straight through to the use of the two-way wrist radio (an invention of Gould's that served as an early inspiration for cell phones.) And the decision to set it in the period of the strip's classic run rather than the more current takes made the art direction stand out even more.

Going back to Tess Trueheart for a moment, I just want to say that I think it's criminal that Glenne Headly never broke bigger than she did. Sure, she has had major roles (notably in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS), but someone of her talent should be well-known, not relegated to small roles in GREY'S ANATOMY and the upcoming KIT KITTREDGE movie. Anyone who sees this movie and doesn't automatically fall head-over-heels in love with Tess Trueheart really doesn't get it. She's the heart that keeps everything together, and Glenne provides a huge performance with what she's given.

The bright, blown-out primary colors took a knocking at the time, but today look fantastic.

I think the real problem everyone had with DICK TRACY was that it was a bit ahead of its time. It came out about a decade too soon, before we really started analyzing and thinking about the importance of artifice in film. The prominence of style as a form of narrative itself really wasn't even considered heavily in mainstream film criticism (academics, certainly) until the 90's (despite the style-over-substance movement in France a la Luc Besson's LA FEMME NIKITA.) Maybe it's time to think about what DICK TRACY is and where it fits into film history. I, for one, would be completely down with a re-evaluation of comic strip movies that have gotten a raw deal. Seriously, go back and watch DICK TRACY again and don't enjoy the hell out of it on its own terms. Take no pretense other than it is a comic strip come to life. Go ahead, I dare you.


Marcy said...

I love this movie almost as much as you. It's not perfect, but it's a lot of fun. I went into the film without knowing anything about Dick Tracy and came out enjoying the complexities of the character very much. What a surprise too, since I expected it to be an average kid movie. Glenne Headly was the heart of the movie and it it's disappointing to see that she never became a bigger star. The Sondheim songs really accompanied Madonna's voice well and were quite memorable. Beatty's performance is often ignored too. The fact that Beatty can speak like a noir hero with all those goofy bright colors around him (fantastic feat) is quite admirable.

I love Al Pacino, though. A well-deserving Oscar nomination for a scene-stealing but menacing role.

matt said...

I think that Al Pacino's role is possibly the one big thing people see about this movie and not like. He's so over-the-top and zany at points that it sort of embodies the entire spirit of the movie in "Big Boy" Caprice alone. But I love him, and his design for that makeup is amazing. So good, in fact, that I don't mind at all that he looks nothing like the strip character!