Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comes to life in this visually brilliant adaptation by Warren Beatty. The comic strip detective (Beatty) finds his life vastly complicated when Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) makes advances towards him while he is trying to battle Big Boy Caprice’s (Al Pacino) united mob. The film offers a who’s who of actors as Beatty was able to bring in big stars for even cameos based on his friendship with them. Dick Tracy was the winner of three Academy Awards, including Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Makeup and Best Music (Original Song for “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)”).
After Tim Burton’s Batman brought a resurgence to comic book characters in theaters, Dick Tracy followed behind it but veered away from Burton’s dark and grim world of Gotham. Instead, the world of Dick Tracy is a technicolor splash from the comics it originated from. Director and star Warren Beatty wisely decided to limit the film’s color palette to the seven most common colors that can be found in comics (primarily red, green, blue and yellow) which gave the film a striking and faithful look that harkened straight back to the comic strip by Chester Gould. On top of that, every time one of those colors appeared on screen, it would also be the exact same color to keep it consistent. Even for a famed cinematographer like Vittorio Storaro that was a difficult proposition. He later said, “These are not the kind of colors the audience is used to seeing. These are much more dramatic in strength, in saturation. Comic strip art is usually done with very simple and primitive ideas and emotions.”
Beatty also decided to hire production designed Richard Sylbert to recreate the cityscape to match how Gould drew it, but he also combined it with some Art Deco and German Expressionism. Since the city had to be created, the movie was filmed on soundstages and improved upon by some incredible matte paintings by the legendary Harrison Ellenshaw. The final result is the most true comic book adaption done yet and one that still looks amazing today. In fact, it’s that world (and the fantastic performances) that’s made me a huge fan of the movie ever since I saw it. I really believe that this film should be used to teach film students to appreciate production and makeup design, costuming, and cinematography. I remember reading in Premiere Magazine (I really miss reading that) that Beatty had gathered so many talented people for the movie and that combined, they had over twenty Oscars between them, all to work on a comic book movie. And boy does it show. I really believe that this movie was ahead of its time despite being set in the 1930s.
The plot for the movie isn’t real complex but it’s perfectly suited for the world of Dick Tracy. The start of the film kicks off with a mob war between Lips Manliss (Paul Sorvino) and Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino). It doesn’t take long for Big Boy to take over the city and try to consolidate the various mobs into one controlled by him. Of course, not every mobster is thrilled with those plans. After meeting with Big Boy, Pruneface (R. G. Armstrong), Influence (Henry Silva), Texie Garcia (Catherine O’Hara), Ribs Mocca (Robert Beecher), and Numbers (James Tolkan) agree to consolidate, but Spud Spaldoni (James Caan)has other ideas and leaves only to be killed in a car bomb. Thanks to his very hostile takeover of Lips Manliss’s operations, Big Boy takes control of a nightclub called the Club Ritz and everyone that works there including singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) and 88 Keys (Mandy Patinkin). Big Boy has his own ideas on how to stage a show and his brutal treatment of all of them puts him in the cross-hairs of a mysterious adversary known as The Blank.
Now faced with a united mob, Dick Tracy finds himself even more outnumbered than usual, so he does what he does best and starts a one man war against the mob. What Tracy doesn’t realize, is that Big Boy has a lot of hidden influence in high circles and Tracy finds his efforts thwarted by the corrupt District Attorney (Dick Van Dyke). To make matters worse, Tracy is also watching out for an orphan named The Kid (Charlie Korsmo), who witnessed Bib Boy’s number one henchman Flattop (William Forsythe) kill a group of mobsters during a card game. Of course while Tracy is chasing criminals, it’s up to his girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) watch over the kid. As Big Boy’s power base expands, he knows that Tracy will stay after him so he kidnaps him and offers Tracy a bribe to leave him alone. When Tracy refuses, he’s left to be killed by an overheated boiler that’s rigged to explode. Lucky for Tracy, the Kid followed him and manages to rescue him just in time.
Life gets even harder for Tracy as he can’t get Breathless to testify against Big Boy as all she is interested in is him. When he rebuffs her advances she tells him that she won’t testify unless he gives in to her. He refuses her and is soon captured and drugged by The Blank and framed for murder. With Tracy locked up in jail, Big Boy and his men take control of the city and enjoy a new level of success. The Blank kidnaps Tess and leaves her to be discovered in Big Boy’s club to frame him just like Tracy. Tracy is freed from jail by his police colleagues and races to save Tess only to learn that he will not only have to survive a firefight with Big Boy’s men, but he will also have to deal with Big Boy himself and unravel the mystery that is The Blank.
It’s easy to say that Dick Tracy represents style over substance because it such a stylized movie, but that’s selling the movie short. True, the movie is visually amazing and looks like a living comic book, but it’s the performances that make the movie work. Even the most outlandish characters in the movie (and there’s a lot of them) all are grounded and believable despite their disfigurements. Of course, when you have old pros like Al Pacino, James Caan, Dustin Hoffman, and Dick Van Dyke just to name few, you can count on some cinematic magic no matter how big their role is. The script is pretty simple but it’s also true to the source material. Beatty keeps things moving, as it seems he’s crammed several story-lines into one movie and made sure that just about every villain in the comics is included here. I suspect that Beatty didn’t think he would get to do a sequel so he added as much as he could into this movie.
Beatty is perfect as the square jawed detective and he adds his considerable charisma to the otherwise limited Tracy. Glenne Headley is also good as his long suffering girlfriend Tess Trueheart who on the surface is not much more than a goody two shoes, but Headley plays her with a enough grit to suggest hidden depths. Pacino is unleashed to not only chew the scenery but everything in sight. You can just see how much fun he had playing this part. His version of Big Boy is essentially a human rat and he pulls it off without embarrassing himself. In a nice little Godfather reunion, one of his main rivals is played by James Caan in a very brief cameo. Madonna offers up her best performance to date as Breathless Mahoney, the trapped dame from the wrong side of the tracks that does her best to win over Tracy. Her best parts are the singing scenes and Stephen Sondheim contributed some fantastic songs for her to sing. Those songs contribute to the story and work very well in advancing the story. This was a tricky movie to pull off for Disney as a lot of mobsters get killed during the movie, but they are bloodless deaths and never dwelled on. This is the rare gangster movie that the whole family can enjoy and it’s a lot of fun too. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you should just to see the considerable artistry to be found in the movie.
Since so much effort was spent by Beatty and his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to give the film its signature look, I was really hoping that this 1080p (1.85:1) transfer would be worthy of their efforts and fortunately it is. This transfer captures all of the brilliant colors and intricate lighting that was done for the film. The black levels are solid and dark and the flesh tones are natural (when appropriate) throughout the film. The detail is sharp and not overly scrubbed with DNR. In fact, the grain is still present but it just gives it a nice cinematic look. Fans of the movie should be pleased with this transfer.
Dick Tracy’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also very good and and is well known as being the first film to use digital audio despite its composer Danny Elfman’s dislike of it. As he later said, ”I detest contemporary scoring and dubbing in cinema. Film music as an art took a deep plunge when Dolby stereo hit. Stereo has the capacity to make orchestral music sound big and beautiful and more expansive, but it also can make sound effects sound four times as big. That began the era of sound effects over music.” As unhappy about it as he may be, there’s no denying that that choice contributed mightily towards this film sounding as good as it does. The dialogue is crystal clear and the rear channels offer a lively soundscape that sounds good enough to be a recent movie instead of a movie over twenty years old. The songs and music by Stephen Sondheim and Danny Elfman also sounds fantastic and much better than I’ve ever heard it.
As happy as I am about the video and audio for this disc, I am equally unhappy about the decision to not include any extras for this release. For a movie that involved so many talented people all working to create something unique and groundbreaking, there had to be some kind of behind the scenes footage filmed. They could have at least done some retrospective interviews or included some trailers or something. But instead, all we got was a digital copy of the movie which is nice, but nothing else which is unacceptable.
Dick Tracy is the perfect blend of the mobster movies from days gone past and contemporary special effects and production which elevate the material quite a bit. I love the production design, the lighting, and how Beatty directed the movie, as well as the fun performances throughout. This Blu-ray offers some excellent video and audio quality but completely dropped the ball on the extras which should have been a no-brainer to include. This movie is highly recommended!
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