Sunday 19 July 2009

Dick Tracy (1990)

Director: Warren Beatty
Stars: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna

Fifteen years before Sin City, Warren Beatty played with vivid colours to mimic the printed page with his version of Dick Tracy. It isn't as stylish, by a long shot, but it sure looked like it in 1990. Beyond bringing back the old Dick Tracy character to film for the first time since 1947, it did so with the closest anyone had ever seen to the Chester Gould's original six colour comic strip (plus black and white). There's some Tim Burton in here (not just the score by Danny Elfman) but most of it is pretty innovative stuff that people just weren't ready for at the time. If this had been released fifteen years later it would have sparked a franchise. Happily though Beatty threw enough in for it to stand definitively on its own.

In case you didn't know, Dick Tracy is a cop, an effective police detective who is the only thing between the civilised folks and the menagerie of colourful villains with imaginative prosthetics that populate his city. Unfortunately they're still there because he's the only effective police detective on the force and there are a lot of them. At the end of the last film, 43 years earlier, Tracy faced up against Gruesome, played by the most iconic villain of the era, Karloff the Uncanny. Here the chief villain is Big Boy Caprice, but he's only one of 21, count 'em, 21 villains from the comic strip.

He's played by no less a name than Al Pacino, though you wouldn't know it if you had the sound turned down because while he sounds just like Pacino he doesn't look anything like him. He looks more like a demonic version of Crispin Glover. Warren Beatty, the man behind this in a whole slew of ways, hired an unparalleled cast and then slapped more than a little prosthetic makeup on them so they look utterly unlike themselves. As the opening credits run in order of appearance Pacino doesn't show up until page five. Dustin Hoffman makes page six but James Caan and Dick Van Dyke have to wait for seven. Madonna gets lucky and beats all of them, turning on page four with Mandy Patinkin and Paul Sorvino.

Sure enough this is a cast to kill for, and plenty of them get it soon enough. The first thing we see beyond Beatty putting on his yellow trenchcoat and hat is a kid stumbling onto a gangland poker game, and you won't be surprised to find that someone ends up with aces and eights right before Big Boy Caprice drives through the wall and shoots up the place. He even leaves 'Eat Lead Tracy' on the wall in bulletholes. Dick Tracy is at the opera but he has his handy wristphone on so gets to check it all out and still make it back before the fat lady sings.

The style is most of the point here and it does trump the substance. Beatty made sure that everything in the film was made in one of the six colours of the comic strip and those colours are work in blocks all the way down. The hats match the coats, sometimes even the hair, meaning that everyone can be distinguished by their colour, all green, all red, all orange. The cars match, when they're not all black, and so do the buildings and the furnishings and everything else. It all works so well that we just get used to it and we just watch the stars.

And there are so many stars that people as important as Dustin Hoffman get next to nothing to do because there are just too many people sharing the running time. They get a single memorable scene and then they're gone, and that's if they're lucky. Hoffman is certainly memorable as Mumbles because he does precisely that throughout an entire interrogation scene, so unintelligible that Kathy Bates can't type any of it up. He gets a second scene too, which is more than people like Seymour Cassel, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Sorvino, James Caan or Estelle Parsons get.

Really there are five people that get screen time, though I wonder how much more others got in the director's cut, as yet unreleased but a full thirty minutes longer. Glenne Headly is a memorable Tess Trueheart, as true as her name, and she deserves a lot better films than she's been given. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels may be the best she's had a decent part in, though I have a soft spot for What's the Worst That Could Happen? Even the kid is a star, of sorts. He's Charlie Korsmo, most recognisable from his next film, What About Bob? but also a presence in Hook and here.

Al Pacino is awesome as Big Boy Caprice, utterly dynamic because he knows he can't act with his face under such heavy makeup so he acts with his voice and body instead, even though he's hunchbacked. He was Oscar nominated for his work, surprising for this type of work but appropriate. Madonna is all over the screen as Breathless Mahoney, even though she often looks more like Jean Harlow playing Edward Scissorhands. She sounds better than I've heard her anywhere else though: If only she'd sung Stephen Sondheim songs like this normally I might have become a fan.

And that leaves Warren Beatty himself, one of the more interesting characters in cinema history who has a habit of doing precisely what he wants or nothing at all. This one is very much his show, as star, producer and director, and he's a good portion of its success. As an actor he's a solid Dick Tracy, able to be the tough guy but willing to look like an idiot when it's appropriate. He's a two dimensional character, but so is almost everyone in the film. This isn't about depth, it's about putting a comic book on screen, and in that Beatty succeeds admirably.

Now I'm watching this because TCM showed it as part of a five film set of Dick Tracy films. They show the four forties films all the time and it gets really frustrating that they don't show the bookends: the original 1937 Dick Tracy, starring Ralph Byrd who returned to the part in 1946 after Morgan Conway took over for a couple of films, and this one. Now they've shown the last Dick Tracy film, hopefully they'll get round to showing the first. Here's to hoping.

Incidentally Dick Tracy is back in the news. Beatty has owned the movie and TV rights since 1985 but has only made this film thus far, even though it was the highest grossing movie of his career. Tribune Media Services has him in court because, as they claim, he has made no productive use of his rights for over a decade thus they should, with their multi-million dollar potential, revert back to them. The case is ongoing and Beatty will be in court within the week. It'll be interesting to see how this pans out, but it looks like it'll begin with him producing and directing a TV special. Maybe there will be a sequel after all.

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