by NIR SHALEV
Warren Beatty, famous for having starred in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and having directed Reds (1981), delivers an unexpected surprise as the leading man and director of Dick Tracy, a faithful film adaptation of the original 1940s comic strip. This film expertly captures not only the feel and colors of the comic, but the feel of its era as well.
Dick Tracy is a Supercop; a detective of the highest caliber shown to have tremendous fighting ability, brains, and ambition. Just like in the original comics (and many early serial-film adaptations) he wears a yellow fedora and overcoat, a black suit underneath it, and a red tie. He drives fast, hits hard, and fires his Tommy gun with frightening precision.
The film begins with crime boss Lips Manlis’ territory being overrun by another gangster, Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino). Manlis and his entire gang are murdered, but not before he signs away the deed to his nightclub to Caprice; Caprice, then also owns Manlis’ prized possession Breathless Mahoney (Madonna). He begins his reign of terror over the city by attempting to buy every cop and lawyer within it, and also calls up every gang boss in the city to a group meeting. Quoting the Founding Fathers and sometimes famous philosophers, his ideal is for him to be THE boss of the city with everybody else beneath him; if everything runs smoothly, then everyone will become happy. The only obstacle is Dick Tracy.
Caprice tries to buy Tracy, and when that fails he tries to kill him, but without incriminating himself. Breathless tries to seduce Tracy, but Tracy only wants to get her to inform on Caprice’s escapades. And Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) tries to persuade him to take a desk job so that he’d have less work to do and more time to spend with her. However, unlike standard dames she is very intelligent and knows that it’ll never happen.
A curious element enters the story with Kid (Charlie Korsmo), an orphan Tracy rescued from an evil man; Kid hates the idea of going to live in an orphanage. He’d much rather secretly hop onto the back of a speeding car and help Tracy whenever he can.
But enough of the plot. It only twists and turns even more like a good detective story should, and it never grows tiresome. Like a classic James Cagney film, Dick Tracy showcases cops and robbers. All we really need to know is that Tracy is a no-nonsense badass (picture Cagney playing a tough cop) who punches like a bulldozer and Caprice is a total jerk.
The key elements in the film’s success are the Oscar winning art and set direction, the costumes, and the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, whose previous masterworks include The Conformist (1970), Apocalypse Now (1979), and The Last Emperor (1987). The unnamed city in this film is a pastiche of New York and Chicago, but is entirely pastel colored. The pastel aspect is the texture of the colors, while the lighting borders on neon; I’d be afraid to see this film in High Definition. Whole buildings are colored blue, some are red and some are purple. Green lights are reflected onto the pavement, and sometimes purple again. The compositions of each individual shot are simply perfect. There are shots where an optical diopter was applied and there are wide shots of the city that remind us of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in scope and style.
One final note on the look of the film is that even though it’s directed in an old-school fashion reminiscent of the gangster pictures from the 1930s and 1940s, the colors have a certain gloss that amplifies the pastels and adds a certain faded pink hue to the actors’ faces. It’s a beautiful looking film in the way that it looks old and when we are reminded that it was shot in 1990 we are thankful to Warren Beatty for sticking to “proper” filmmaking techniques. Instead of CGI we have composited backdrops and buildings and giant matte paintings that set the scale for the rest of the city.
What is unique about the world of Dick Tracy is that the good guys and bad guys are distinctly separated by their looks. The good guys are handsome or simply wear a cop’s uniform and the bad guys are hideously deformed monstrosities; like putting a fire to the candle and watching it melt for eternity. Some have ironic names, like Little Face whose head is 3 times the size of a regular human head and Big Boy Caprice, who has physical characteristics of a dwarf although he’s almost of average height. Other names are descriptive, like Flat Top who has, well, a flat head and, last but not least, Faceless, who unsurprisingly lacks a face.
I am amazed that this film is so under-appreciated, but I can imagine several reasons as to why. One reason is that it channels a time period of almost 70 years ago and another is that it’s shot like a film from that period, too. Many of the average viewers do not care for “classics” and so to them this film is a turnoff. It may also go over many people’s heads why characters wear solid colors, so they look like crayons going for a walk outside of their box. But that’s the magic of the craft and those that are familiar with what makes classics classics will know why this is a special film. It almost makes me want to find and read the original comic strips to see Dick Tracy punching really ugly people in the face.