Dick Tracy, as much of a fever dream as it is, has some of the best-looking asphalt in cinema.
We are living in a time where comic book adaptations are rulers of the box office. Even the four-hour-long special cuts of already released comic book films are dominating because people want to like superheroes or characters that they remember from their childhoods.
In this era of comic intellectual property being micromanaged by studio executives with limited control given to the actual filmmakers, there is one film that stands alone: Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
This film is Synder’s uncut, creative baby that is not watered down or compromised by the opinions of those who think they know what’s best. While the Synder Cut may be the most unique, auteur-driven comic book film out there, Warren Beatty beat Synder to the punch back in 1990 with his film, Dick Tracy. Let's take a look back at this bonkers film.
Who and what is Dick Tracy?
It’s a loaded question. Dick Tracy is a multitude of things from Beatty’s retrospective project, a musical, a childhood revisited, an over-budget failure that forced Disney to change its business strategy, and a three-time Academy Award and Oscar winner wrapped up in one over-simplified story.
In the beginning, Dick Tracy was just a comic strip created by Chester Gould that could be found in the funny pages in the back of newspapers. This 1931 crime series was loosely inspired by Elliot Ness, the real-life detective responsible for taking down Al Capone, and follows a detective who chases down gangsters.
Unlike comic books, which were able to tell emotionally complex stories through serialized prolonged stories with dynamic artwork, comic strips had to stay simple for the sake of the reader who would sometimes read the strip while enjoying their morning coffee. While it makes sense to turn a Superman story into a two-hour-long film, creating a feature from a simplistic comic strip with no emotional weight or true storyline would be difficult, or nearly impossible, yet Warren Beatty decided to give it a try.
Warren Beatty and the development of Dick Tracy
Warren Beatty’s career is just as wild as Dick Tracy was.
After starring in Bonnie & Clyde in 1967, Beatty decided it was time to start producing his own movies. In pretty much every aspect of his life, Beatty was a control freak and cared about making a great movie to the point that it became an obsession. It would take up to six years for Beatty to finish a project because he was determined to reach a certain level of perfection while still reflecting on an aspect of himself through his art.
For much of the 70s, Beatty only worked with the best people from every department in Hollywood. He assembled a team of collaborators that he would bring with him from project to project. This team included Robert Towne, who would work with Beatty on all of his scripts, and Vittorio Storaro as his cinematographer (best known for shooting Apocalypse Now). He even got Stephen Sondheim to write original music for his films, a feat that no other director has been able to do.
Development for Dick Tracy began in the early 80s with Paramount Pictures. Paramount executives believed that the film and the character of Dick Tracy could be their answer to the ever-growing popularity of James Bond. John Landis was set to direct the film but pulled out after the helicopter incident during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Walter Hill was brought on to the project, and Hill was set on bringing on Beatty to play the title role.
Unfortunately, Hill wanted it to be a gritty, serious film, and Beatty wanted it to be a homage to his childhood, and this disagreement led to Hill leaving the project. With the director position open, Marvel’s number-one fan, Martin Scorsese, stepped into the role, but then quickly left.
In 1985, the movie rights to Dick Tracy lapsed, meaning that no one had ownership of the character or the franchise that could be. Warren Beatty being Warren Beatty decided that he would buy the rights himself, making Dick Tracy his lifelong passion project that no studio could touch without his permission. With no one wanting to direct this movie, Beatty decided he would do it himself.
In the late 80s, all major studios had locked in a major franchise that they could rely on, and everyone thought that Dick Tracy would be the next franchise to make it big. Disney, being the only studio without a major franchise, decided that Dick Tracy could be the answer to their problems. At this time, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, who were the CEOs at Disney, were obsessed with allowing major stars to create whatever bonkers project they wanted to make, and this is what allowed Beatty to create his stylistic experiment.
Unfortunately, it didn’t resonate with mainstream audiences.
Let’s talk about Dick Tracy
Refreshingly, Dick Tracy is not an origin story. Instead, it follows the best detective who is already fully formed as he attempts to end the war with a gang led by Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino). There isn’t an inciting incident to the story that gives reason for the film to exist; instead, the audience is just following Dick Tracy (Beatty) around through his day-to-day life.
The film truly exists in a comic strip world. The characters are designed to do one thing forever, and the status quo never changes.
What is interesting about the film is how it looks. Beatty and his production team, cinematographer Storaro and production designer Dick Silbert, set visual rules for themselves so they could create a film that looked and felt as close to the original comic strip as possible. Only seven colors that were found in the comic strip were used throughout the film. The camera never moves, framing shots in a way that is reminiscent of a comic panel. Backgrounds and establishing shots were matte paintings that didn’t bother to look real.
This lack-of-realism approach extended to the look of the characters, giving us haunting characters that were designed to look like this:
We are so used to good movies being defined with buzzwords like realism and darkness, so films that embrace cartooniness and artificial elements like Dick Tracy might feel cheap and out of place, even if they are good movies. Unfortunately, the only way to get a mainstream audience on board with something that is this stylized is if the film is a hyper-violent ode to masculinity.
The problem with films that stick to a stagnant frame is that it creates a frame that looks beautifully disengaging. There is nothing truly happening within the frame, and the movie loses any momentum that it created early on. Instead of embracing its lack of realism, Dick Tracy is confined by its visual language. Instead of embracing the surrealist world of the film, it is confined by traditional American filmmaking.
So what was the point of Dick Tracy existing outside of being an exercise in style?
There is a major subplot in Dick Tracy that is far more interesting than whatever else is going on in the film. A love triangle in which Dick Tracy is torn between two choices: does he want to date Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), who is super hot, or does he want to settle down and have a family with Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly)? At this point in Beatty’s real life, he was thinking about changing his bachelor-like lifestyle and finding someone to settle down with. Dick Tracy, much like most of Beatty’s work, was him trying to work through his life problems.
Dick Tracy could have been a sensation if the film took itself a little more seriously and pushed itself into a dark storyline, but that wouldn’t have been Beatty at his truest artistic self. That's the irony when it comes to visual language in filmmaking. Do you make something that reflects your artistic self that has the potential to fail, or do you make something that is safe that audiences can easily digest?
What are your thoughts on Beatty’s Dick Tracy? Are you a fan? Let us know in the comments what you think!