From the Vault: Dick Tracy (1990)

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For this week’s installment of From the Vault, I’ve decided to step away from the superhero genre (and poorly-made CBS TV-movies, apparently), and settled on a film a little more from the pulp side of comics. The movie for this week is (as you may have guessed) Touchstone Pictures’ Dick Tracy. I’m going to be honest for a moment – This film has been on my radar ever since I started writing for Major Spoilers. There is a lot to discuss here, both good and bad, so without further delay, let’s get to it.

Dick Tracy
Starring: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna
Director: Warren Beatty
Company: Touchstone Pictures
Year: 1990

The film starts off with a neat news radio voices over, commenting on the rise of “organized crime,” and firmly cementing the movie’s time period to the 1930′s. After a pan of a very well done mat painting of the city, we’re taken to an abandoned warehouse, just in time to watch as no less than 5 classic Tracy villains are gunned down by mobster Flattop (William Forsythe). A call is made, and the yellow-clad detective Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) is on the case. We’re also introduced to Tracy’s partner/girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), and discover, among other things, that Tracy has turned down another offer to become the Chief of Police. He claims that the chances of him becoming the Chief is “about as much of a chance of him finding a new girlfriend.” Do I smell foreshadowing?

Cut to the Club Ritz, where the headliner, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), is serenading the owner, Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino). Suddenly, some fake police barge in, arresting Lips and Breathless. The two are taken to a waterfront warehouse, and are greeted by #1 bad guy Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino). One thing leads to another, and Big Boy ends up owning the Club AND Breathless, while Lips ends up about 8 feet under water. Apparently, Big Boy is a fan of the performing arts, and sets about reinventing Club Ritz as the swingin’-est place in town, as well as a home for illegal gambling.

This is the point where things start picking up. To cut down on the more frivolous plot, I’m just going to highlight the major points. Tracy and Trueheart meet an orphan named Kid (Charlie Korsmo), and eventually take him in. Breathless makes multiple attempts to woo Tracy, and nearly succeeds. Big Boy decides he wants to unite all the mobs from around town, which he does, and makes a lot of money in the process. This goes on for a while, however Tracy eventually sets up a mole of sorts in the organization, and systematically starts shutting down Big Boy’s operations. That is until Big Boy hires an outside player named “No-Face” who sets Tracy up for the murder of the city’s crooked District Attorney (Dick Van Dyke, oddly enough). Tracy’s in jail, and Big Boy starts making illicit money again. Things are not all good for Big Boy, though. “No-Face” plays the double-cross, framing Big Boy with the kidnapping of Tess, and Tracy is let out of prison long enough to save Tess, stop Big Boy, clear his name, and discover the identity of “No-Face.” Who is he, you ask? Well, you’re going to have to rent this movie and find out. Just because this is Major Spoilers doesn’t mean I have to ruin the ending for you.

The first thing that I noticed while watching the film was the incredible set and character design. Everything in this movie is in bright primary colors. A lot of it looks like it has just been pulled right from the Sunday comic strips (I don’t know it this is the way it is where you’re from, but here in Nowhere, OH, the Sunday comics are the only ones in color). Much of the backgrounds were mat paintings, which is something I usually frown upon, but here it only emphasized the comic-y feel of the movie. The design on the various mobsters was outstanding as well. The prosthetics used on characters like Pruneface, Mumbles, Flattop, and Little Face warrant extra recognition. Amazing, amazing work. If only they used a little of that makeup effect on Beatty and gave him Tracy’s trademark lantern-like jaw. Oh well… nobody’s perfect.

The music used in Dick Tracy, however, was substantially less than amazing. Once again, Danny Elfman turns in a competent piece, but I think this score underlines the main problem I have with Elfman’s work. To me, the score was WAY too derivative of his earlier work, mainly the music in Batman (1989), and while it accomplishes its main objective (namely “Not allowing there to be any dead silence”), it ultimately doesn’t add anything new to the movie.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s take a moment to talk about the “musical montage.” Let me start off by saying, I have nothing against the use of a musical montage. Sometimes, it’s the most logical way to cover a lot of time plot-wise in a very short amount of time, if that makes sense. In many ways, I really enjoy montages. I mean, Rocky would never have won any of his fights if he didn’t have those awesome “Workin’ Out” montages, especially that time he had to fight Dolf Lundgren in Russia. But this movie has 3 music montages in it. 3 montages. That’s lazy moviemaking to me. Can’t get Dick Tracy from Point A to Point B? MONTAGE! Just lazy.

Whew… OK, I think we’re past that unpleasantness now.

Al Pacino turned in a stellar performance as Big Boy Caprice. He’s ridiculous, he’s terrifying, he goes from fairly calm to screaming lunatic at a drop of a hat. He is, essentially, playing Al Pacino, and it works. There’s one scene in particular that really stands out to me, where he’s coaching a group of dancers on a new number he’s concocted. It’s about 5 minutes long, and consists of Al as Big Boy dancing around, giving useless direction, attempting to sing the song, and ends by saying “Good, good, good… it’s terrible. Do it again.”

For that matter, 95% of the films’ cast did a wonderful job, and the various cameos (including James Caan, Dustin Hoffman, Mandy “Indigo Montoya” Patinkin, Charles Durning, and Kathy Bates) were a nice touch. Warren Beatty was, in my opinion, very bland, uninspired, and forgettable… but that’s OK for the “white-bread” cop Tracy. I didn’t care for Headley’s portrayal of Tess Trueheart, but that could just be personal bias. Every word that comes out of her mouth sounds whiny to me, no matter what movie she’s in. The only real complaint I have is with Madonna. I don’t care what anyone says – Madonna is NOT an actress. The only reason she’s even in this film is because, at the time, she was dating Warren Beatty. They could have had a mannequin with a ventriloquists’ dummy mouth play Breathless, and it would have been just as good.

All in all, Dick Tracy is a fairly middle-of-the-road adaptation of a classic pulp comic. If I were to rate this film on the artistic style alone, I would have no qualms with giving out 4 ½ stars. Unfortunately, a somewhat bogged-down plot, multiple examples of lazy filmmaking, and Madonna drop the score from a “YEAH!” to a “Meh.” And so, I give Dick Tracy 2 ½ stars out of 5.