As the writer of Nightmare on Film Street’s All The Colors of Giallo column, and a film noir fanatic, I jumped at the opportunity to write about my love for 1990’s Dick Tracy. Its gorgeous use of color, beautiful matte painting, fantastic practical effects, and fun performances (not to mention Danny Elfman’s booming score mixed with several fun Madonna songs), made Dick Tracy a childhood favorite. So, my only question going in for the 30th Anniversary re-watch was, how does Dick Tracy hold up in the age of multi-million dollar superhero movies?
A lot has changed since Dick Tracy hit screens June 15, 1990. Now it’s hard to remember that not so long-ago comic book films were not the dominant box office draw as we know them today. Sure, Tim Burton’s Batman became a cultural event during the summer of 1989, but that was more the exception than the rule. While Dick Tracy was greenlit by Disney in 1988, whether intentional or not, the influences of Burton’s noirish superhero film is apparent in almost every area of Warren Beatty’s passion project.
For those unfamiliar with Dick Tracy, the film is based on the popular comic created by Chester Ghoud and features the top cop Dick Tracy (Inspired by Elliot Ness) using his wits along with technology to thwart criminals. The Tracy comics are most notable for their over-the-top villains and beginning each story with a crime before switching to Tracy and his team solving the mystery and showcasing the procedures they used in doing so. The popularity of this comic eventually transitioned into Dick Tracy feature films, television, comic books, cartoons, and toys throughout the years. Dick Tracy himself would be hard-pressed to keep track of the many winding roads the 1990 film took in getting to the screen, with Beatty originally trying to get the project off the ground as early as 1975 before finally landing at Disney in 1988.
With a deal in place, it was time to bring Dick Tracy to the big screen. For that, Beatty would assemble one of the most impressive casts in film history to bring the wildly vile underworld of “The City” to life. While many of the impressive names are hidden under mountains of make-up and masks, the film features Al Pacino (Oscar Nominated), Madonna, Glenne Headly, William Forsythe, Paul Sorvino, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan, Kathy Bates, Charles Durning and Dick Van Dyke among many other cameos.
Admittedly, many of the performances come off as hammy and over-the-top, but it really enhances the idea of a living comic book world better than any movie before or after. Also, adding to that comic book feel is the use of vibrant primary colors, and the gorgeous matte paintings of Peter Ellenshaw and Harrison Ellenshaw. I dare you to not be impressed with the beautiful city in the background as Tracy fights Kid’s abusive dad in a shack outside of town.
Happily, I can report that Dick Tracy holds up incredibly well 30 years later. On this re-watch, I found the film to be more engaging and action-packed than I remember. But I was also shocked at the sweetness of the film. As a parent (and now grandparent) the Kid storyline that I once considered to be the film’s weak point now had a touch of heart, with Tracy coming to love and appreciate Kid. For me, it added the perfect layer of sweetness that is still missing from most comic book films. That said, the villains are still the film’s strong point. With the insane over-the-top performances (every line of dialogue feeling ripped from a comic page) mixed with comic perfect make-up effects, they are the film’s true stand-outs.
It wouldn’t be Dick Tracy article if I didn’t mention Madonna. Her performance often gets dragged through the mud but as a noir fan, I found her performance to line-up perfectly with the femme-fatales of the era. My one gripe would be the lack of chemistry between her and Beatty. Every scene with Breathless Mahoney trying to seduce Tracy is cringe-worthy and awkward despite the fact that the two were dating during production. Of course, the affair didn’t last long so perhaps we’re seeing two actors struggling to show affection amidst the last days of a dying relationship. Another highlight is the film’s elusive antagonist, The Blank. This black-gloved, trench coat wearing menace adds a fantastic mystery (and appeals to my gialli loving heart) to the film and gives a fun foil that offers a threat to both the cops and gangsters. The ending is so much fun that I would not dare to spoil the reveal.
After an inescapable marketing campaign, Dick Tracy was a moderate hit when it released in the summer of 1990. However it failed to meet the Batman-level exceptions Disney had set for the film which killed any chance of a sequel. Warren Beatty retained the rights to Dick Tracy, and has continued to champion a follow-up adventure over the last 30 years. Looking back, I’m not sure if Dick Tracy was ahead of its time, or past it. But either way, audiences were not ready for this level of campy style. I, for one, would welcome a return to this world…”Calling Dick Tracy!”