Retro Movie Nerd: DICK TRACY (1990)

In 2017, films that have their origins steeped in comics history are nothing new and are usually the more highly anticipated films of the release schedule. Dick Tracy isn’t from the world of Marvel or DC, but it certainly has its roots in the illustrated annals of the funny pages. In 1990, Warren Beatty brought this long-running strip to the big screen after years of being in development hell. Was it worth the wait? Well, let me tell you…

Rated PG
Running time: 105 min.
Release date: June 15, 1990

The character, Dick Tracy, created by Chester Gould, first appeared in the funny pages in October 1931. The fact that he is still around this very day is a huge statement in regards to the popularity and appeal of the character. With his trademark overcoat and hat, using things like technology (the two-way radio wrist watch) and forensics to bust gangsters, he seems to be some combination of Sam Spade and Gil Grissom of CSI. With the big-screen adaptation of Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty surprisingly understands the aesthetic appeal of the comic strip from behind the camera, and gives the Tracy character a heartbeat in front of it. Dick Tracy is a fantastic-looking film with a cast that is totally immersed in the make-up and costumes of the production as well as the nuance of the strip.

Bad guy Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) is ruthlessly taking over the underworld, having henchmen like Flattop (William Forsythe) and Itchy (Ed O’Ross) gun down rival gangsters and then forcing Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) to sign over his nightclub, then murdering him with a concrete bath. Witnessing this latter scenario is Lips’ club songbird, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), and when detective Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) tries to get her to testify in order to put Big Boy away, Breathless would much rather attempt seduction, rather than talking. Meanwhile, Tracy is a busy man in both his professional life as well as his personal life. Trying to find a way to take Big Boy down is a full-time job, but so is dealing with *gulp*…a relationship. Tracy has a great gal in Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), who is constantly being left alone at their favorite greasy spoon whenever he gets a call on his fancy high-tech watch. Tracy is visibly tempted by Breathless, but always stays true to Tess, even if she doesn’t see it. Then there’s the fact that a kid falls into their lives. The kid (named The Kid), played by Charlie Korsmo, is a precocious little moppet that eats like a horse and is always game for some adventures. From a screenplay standpoint, the action is well-balanced with the more personal moments for Tracy, which actually help to provide some depth to the character.


Warren Beatty gives Dick Tracy some depth in scenes with Glenne Headly and Charlie Korsmo.

Where the movie falters a little bit is with a few plot elements. There is a blank-faced character (called The Blank, appropriately enough) that seems to be pulling some strings behind the scenes, with the end-game being….confusing. Sure, the reveal at the end of the film explains a thing or two, but it fell flat and was not convincing enough to justify the screen-time that this subplot received. At one point, Tracy is framed for the murder of the district attorney (a cameo by Dick Van Dyke) by The Blank, not long after The Blank actually helped Tracy escape a jam. Even when this subplot is wrapped up at the end, the question still remains: why send Tracy to jail? This loose end is never convincingly tied up.


Al Pacino was nomined for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and rightfully so.

Warren Beatty understands exactly what a comic strip from the 1930s is supposed to look and feel like. From the set design to the matte background, from behind the camera Beatty is sure-handed in his framing, and the use of primary color schemes for everything from interior sets to costumes evoke the comic strip origins of the story. The make-up for chracters such as Pruneface, Flattop and others are taken directly from Chester Gould’s drawings and are so accurate that you would think actors like Forsythe and R.G. Armstrong were born to play Flattop and Pruneface. Danny Elfman’s score is similar to the score from Batman, rousing Dick Tracy to action and giving Warren Beatty’s work a Tim Burton-esque feel to it all. Going a little further with the music, Steven Sondheim wrote several songs that appear on the soundtrack, and Madonna makes use of the better part of her skillset in bringing the lyrics to life on-screen, especially during a montage of Dick Tracy and his pals busting up Big Boy’s operations.

As Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty suitably plays Tracy a little dryly, especially when it comes to the police work. However, Beatty adds a little more character in the personal moments when it comes to dealing with Tess and The Kid. Beatty gives Tracy heart, especially in a scene where The Kid has decided to take the name Dick Tracy Jr. There is also some depth when Tracy tells Breathless that he loves Tess, even when he can’t bring himself to use that word to Tess herself. As Tess, Glenne Headly is exasperated at Tracy’s comings and goings but she also shows some spark in calling Tracy out on his shortcomings. The screenplay does not do Headly justice, however, as she becomes just a quivering damsel in distress near the end; that spark somehow disappeared. Madonna, as Breathless Mahoney, is a mixed bag. She can sing, of course, but in scenes where she is attempting to seduce Tracy, there isn’t a lot of chemistry between her and Beatty, and her character’s motivations at the climax of the film are weak, making Madonna’s performance uneven. Charlie Korsmo is quite charismatic for a child actor, and understands how to act like a street kid in the 1930s. Al Pacino really steals the show as Big Boy Caprice, blustery and over-the-top, much like a villain in a comic strip. With a strong cast of character actors, Dick Tracy has assembled an ensemble that is hard to match. The cast is so immersed in their make-up and are totally convincing. Even Dustin Hoffman gets a small but funny role as Mumbles. It is kind of surprising when you get a cameo from someone who isn’t immersed in make-up, like James Caan. This is just a great ensemble cast and they all do tremendous work.

Time capsule: The 53-year old Warren Beatty and the 32-year old Madonna had a thing going around this time.

With a tighter story, Dick Tracy is the near-perfect entertainment. Plenty of action, some light-hearted moments, some touching moments, great production design, top-notch make-up and visual effects, and the conviction of all involved. It took some time to get this project off the ground (this idea was kicked around quite a bit in the early 1980s) but the evidence for Warren Beatty and his team believing in the material is on-screen. This is just a great-looking film with a good cast and an adequate story, even with some holes.

RATING: **** – Very good and highly entertaining.


Remember, for more reviews of genre films from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, check out Retro Movie Nerd’s very own blog.