4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“The enemy of my enemy is my enemy” — Dick Tracy (1990)

As we close out 2018, “4-Color to 35-Millimeter” is firmly ensconced in the 21st-century renaissance of superhero movies. However, your humble rewatcher did miss a few 20th-century flicks that fit the bill, so in this final week of the year, we’ll take a look at those forgotten films. We started yesterday with 1985’s Red Sonja, and today we move on to the Warren Beatty-led Dick Tracy from 1990.

Chester Gould created the Dick Tracy comic strip in 1931, and continued to write and draw the strip until the 1970s when he retired. A hard-boiled police detective who used cutting-edge (fictional) technology to stop criminals, Tracy proved to be hugely popular throughout the 20th-century, his two-way wrist radio becoming an iconic feature (and a major inspiration for the later invention of smartphones and smart-watches).

Tracy inspired a whole series of films in the 1940s, which this rewatch will get to eventually (your humble rewatcher didn’t even know they existed until researching this entry), and then in 1990 Warren Beatty helmed a new adaptation.

Beatty had wanted to do Dick Tracy for ages. He originally conceived of a Tracy film in 1975, but the rights were already accounted for. Tom Mankiewicz was hired to write a screenplay, but Gould’s creative control proved an impossible roadblock to getting a script approved, and the film fell through.

Gould died in 1985, and his estate was less hands-on with the approvals process. John Landis was brought in to direct a new script by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., but Landis pulled out after the on-set accident on Twilight Zone: The Movie that killed Vic Morrow. Walter Hill replaced him, with Beatty signed to play the title role, but Hill and Beatty clashed creatively, and then they both quit.

Beatty wound up buying the rights himself after they reverted to Tribune Media Services, the distributor of the comic strip, and he also bought the Cash/Epps Jr. script, and wound up producing and directing it himself as well, not to mention doing an uncredited rewrite of the script with longtime writing partner Bo Goldman.

The cast is a who’s-who of acting talent of the period, starting with Al Pacino as “Big Boy” Caprice (the gangster from the comic strip who was modeled after Al Capone), Madonna as Breathless Mahoney, and Glenne Headley as Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart, as well as Kathy Bates, James Caan, Seymour Cassel, Charles Durning, William Forsythe, Dustin Hoffman, Catherine O’Hara, Mandy Patinkin, Michael J. Pollard, Henry Silva, Paul Sorvino, Dick Van Dyke, and tons more. Sean Young was originally cast as Trueheart, but was fired partway through, likely due to being harassed by Beatty. (Beatty’s story is that she was too difficult to work with; Young’s story is that she rebuffed Beatty’s sexual advances. My money’s on Young’s account being closer to the truth.)

Beatty lined up the Walt Disney Company to produce and distribute the film, but at the last minute they shoved it over to their Touchstone Pictures studio because of the adult content (mostly sexually charged dialogue from Mahoney).

While the film was successful, it was not as big a success as Disney had hoped for, and that, combined with various rights issues, led to this being a one-and-done franchise instead of the vanguard of a series as originally hoped by both Beatty and Disney.

 

“No pals in this business, Lips—you taught me that”

Dick Tracy
Written by Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr.
Produced and directed by Warren Beatty
Original release date: June 15, 1990

A bunch of mobsters are having a poker game in a warehouse. Flattop and Itchy, two other mobsters who work for Al “Big Boy” Caprice, gun down every player. Detective Dick Tracy—who is at the opera with his girlfriend Tess Trueheart—is summoned to the crime scene.

Later, a young boy who witnessed the massacre steals some food, and brings it to a shack. Tracy follows him, beats up the thug who forced the kid to steal, and takes the kid in. The kid, who doesn’t have a name, is cared for by both Tracy and Trueheart.

Big Boy continues his campaign to take over the city’s criminal element by killing Lips Manlis, his mentor, and taking over his nightclub, Club Ritz. Big Boy overhauls the entertainment, led by singer Breathless Mahoney, accompanied by piano player 88 Keys.

Lips is reported missing, so Tracy arrests Flattop, Itchy, and Mumbles and questions them, to little effect. However, he goes ahead and arrests Caprice for Lips’s murder. Mahoney is a witness, though she’s more interested in getting into Tracy’s pants than the witness box.

Unbeknownst to Tracy, the district attorney is on Caprice’s payroll, and so he fails to secure an indictment, and Caprice is freed. Caprice tells reporters that he isn’t going to sue the city for wrongful imprisonment—why blame the city for the actions of one man? He blames Tracy for harassing him unfairly.

Caprice tries to bribe Tracy, but he refuses to accept. Then Caprice tries to kill Tracy by leaving him in a building with an overloading boiler, but the kid is able to save him at the last minute before the building blows up.

Tracy tries to raid Club Ritz, which seems to fail, but it was all a cover for Officer “Bug” Bailey to put a listening device in Caprice’s office. Tracy is able to put a massive dent in Caprice’s criminal empire thanks to this inside information, but soon Caprice finds the bug. Caprice uses the bug to set Tracy up for a hit, but someone wearing a blank face mask shows up and spoils the hit, killing Pruneface and almost killing Bailey.

Mahoney agrees to testify against Caprice, but then Trueheart is kidnapped by “the Blank,” while Tracy is framed for the murder of the corrupt DA. With Tracy behind bars, Caprice’s criminal empire thrives—at least until the Blank frames him for Trueheart’s kidnapping.

Tracy’s fellow cops “accidentally” let him go on New Year’s Eve when he’s being transferred to a different prison. He interrogates Mumbles, who reveals that 88 Keys kidnapped Trueheart on Blank’s behalf. There’s a shootout at Club Ritz, and Caprice gets away with Trueheart, hiding out at a drawbridge. Tracy confronts him there, only to have Blank show up and offer to rule the city with Tracy after killing Caprice. Tracy refuses, Caprice shoots Blank, but Caprice himself falls to his death. Tracy unmasks Blank to discover that it’s Mahoney.

Tracy is cleared of all charges and back on the job. He’s about to propose to Trueheart when he gets summoned to a robbery. Leaving the engagement ring with her, he goes off with the kid—who’s now an honorary detective after saving Tracy’s life, and who has taken the name “Dick Tracy Jr.”—to solve the crime.

 

“You know, Tracy, for a tough guy, you do a lot of pansy things”

In his book about screenwriting, Which Lie Did I Tell?, the late William Goldman wrote an essay about the production of The Ghost and the Darkness. Goldman’s script for the movie was based on real-world events involving two lions who killed railroad workers in Tsavo, Kenya in 1898. Michael Douglas was one of the producers of the film, and Goldman talks about what a great producer Douglas was, and how he was concerned only with what would be good for the film. However, once Douglas was cast in the role of Remington, Douglas’s entire demeanor changed, and everything became about what would be good for him as an actor. It ruined the movie, to Goldman’s mind. (And to the minds of moviegoers, as the movie didn’t do so hot.) Goldman wanted to point up the difference between how actors behave when they’re writers and/or directors and/or producers versus how they behave when they’re actors, and how the latter tends to warp reality around themselves.

Dick Tracy always reminds me of that story, because producer Warren Beatty and director Warren Beatty did superlative work. Actor Warren Beatty, not so much…

The look of Dick Tracy is fantastic. Beatty used matte paintings for backgrounds—pretty much the last gasp of a technique that was being superseded by CGI for artificial backdrops—and everything in the movie was a primary color with no shading, just like a Sunday comic strip. Heavy use of makeup on the bad guys (provided by John Caglione Jr. and the great Doug Drexler) works beautifully here, giving the villains the same surreal look that Gould gave them in the comics. (I’m particularly impressed with William Forsythe’s Flattop, who looks like Gould drew him right on the film stock.)

Most of the cast is very obviously having a great time, starting with Madonna living up to her character’s first name as Breathless Mahoney, perfectly playing the sultry lounge singer. (She does a lovely job singing the Stephen Sondheim-written songs Mahoney performs at the Ritz Club, too.) Glenne Headley gives Trueheart a nice edge, her performance beautifully inspired by Noel Neill’s Lois Lane and Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson. Seymour Cassel and Charles Durning are delightful as the Greek chorus of Tracy’s fellow cops, trying to keep up with the determined detective, Dustin Hoffman is perfect as the pathetic Mumbles, and Paul Sorvino and James Caan lean into their histories of playing gangsters as Lips and Spud.

But the standout here is Al Pacino. There are far too many occasions in Pacino’s career when he’s let shouting substitute for acting (Scent of a Woman, The Devil’s Advocate, Glengarry Glen Ross), but this is the only time he does it to good effect. He’s having a grand old time, going so far over the top as Caprice he gives everyone around him nosebleeds. It’s a joyous, hilarious performance, leaving no piece of scenery unchewed.

Sadly, the kudos do not extend to the lead, and that’s where the movie falls apart. Beatty never once gives the impression that he’s playing Chester Gould’s determined detective. Instead, he’s playing Warren Beatty, movie star. No matter how many times he puts on the bright yellow coat and hat, he never inhabits the role the way the rest of the cast does, never convinces me that he’s Dick Tracy.

It doesn’t help that the movie’s view of police procedure is horribly dated. The abuses of power Tracy indulges in—particularly his brutal interrogation of Mumbles—is difficult to watch in 2018. Since 1990, we’ve had so many reported cases of police brutality, from Rodney King and Amadou Diallo to Ferguson and Charlottesville, that seeing our protagonist torment Mumbles in his underwear is an image that no longer resonates as anything remotely heroic. It drains what little sympathy Tracy has as a character, and it’s a loss that Beatty’s poor performance can’t afford.

Even with the drag effect of the title role, the movie is a fun ride, for the most part, with great visuals, great music—besides the Sondheim songs, we’ve got a prototypical superb Danny Elfman soundtrack—and a lot of really great performances. If only Beatty had cast someone, anyone, else in the lead…

 

Tomorrow we’ll close out 2018 by looking at all three movies in the Men in Black series.

Keith R.A. DeCandido wishes everybody the happiest of holidays.

citation

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