28. Dick Tracy (1990)

Director: Warren Beatty

Starring: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Charles Durning, Mandy Patinkin, Paul Sorvino, R.G. Armstrong, Dick Van Dyke, Seymour Cassel, James Keane

Al Pacino became my favorite actor through his work in “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II,” but the movie I first saw him in was 1990’s “Dick Tracy,” based on the long-running comic strip of the same name. Come to think of it, this movie also served as my introduction to Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. In hindsight, this is amusing to me because two out of those three (Pacino and Hoffman) are rendered completely unrecognizable under award-winning prosthetic makeup. I remember, in the weeks leading up to the film’s release, there was a behind-the-scenes TV special that put a lot of emphasis on the makeup, which allowed the actors to greatly resemble the distinctively abnormal characters as they appear in the comic strip. The attention to detail is especially impressive when you consider that some of those characters only appear on screen for as little as a minute or two before being killed off.

Makeup is not the only virtue of “Dick Tracy.” Further portraying the movie as a living cartoon/comic strip is the choice of shooting the film in only seven colors. I like the shameless use of matte paintings for many of the background shots. This technique becomes especially apparent during scenes such as the meeting of Dick Tracy and Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) at the docks to discuss his need for her to testify against ‘Big Boy’ Caprice (Al Pacino). Set design is also a plus. The diner which Dick Tracy frequents is magnificent.

When you want your movie to have a memorable soundtrack, it helps to have people like composer Danny Elfman and actress/singer Madonna available. I’ve often thought that the outlandish color scheme in “Dick Tracy” looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie, and so it’s only fitting that Beatty hired Elfman based on his work for Burton’s “Batman.” On top of being an integral part of the cast, Madonna also does some of my favorite work from her entire music career here with several songs penned by Stephen Sondheim. The best of these are “More,” the Oscar-winning “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man),” and “What Can You Lose,” a duet with actor Mandy Patinkin. If you’ve never heard Patinkin sing, I urge you to listen to this song.

It’s impossible for me not to find Al Pacino absolutely hilarious in this movie. From the way he moves around as the hunchback gangster to the way his character consistently misquotes historical figures, Pacino delivers one of his finest performances (it’s one of Pacino’s favorites of his career, also). With films like “The Godfather” and “Bonnie and Clyde” in their respective careers’ histories, I can’t think of two actors better suited for a movie like this than Pacino and Warren Beatty. Young Charlie Korsmo does a great job as The Kid, and seems like an actor wise beyond his years. We’ll never know what kind of career he might have had as an adult because, with the exception of a return to do 1998’s “Can’t Hardly Wait,” he went into early retirement a couple of years after doing this movie and eventually got into politics. Such a shame.

Part of the promotion for the movie was a line of action figures. Having so thoroughly enjoyed seeing “Dick Tracy” at the theater, I collected the whole set, save for one, and it was the one I wanted the most! The action figure for The Blank was displayed on the backs of each toy’s packaging, but while this figure was manufactured, it was never sold anywhere in the United States. I found out years later that this was because the toy had a removable mask which revealed the true identity of The Blank, which would have completely ruined the ending of the movie for anyone who hadn’t seen it. The action figure for The Blank exists to this day, but is a rare collector’s item.

It would be very easy to choose any one of Al Pacino’s great moments as my favorite scene, but I feel most strongly about one of the movie’s first moments, before Pacino has even made his first appearance. Dick Tracy is having a discussion with his girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) regarding the dangers of his career as an officer of the law. She is arguing the point that he could have much more to look forward to if he got off the streets. Meaning to say “You could have a life,” she reveals her true feelings about the nature of their relationship by saying “wife” in place of “life.” In response, Tracy says, “Tess, there’s about as much chance of me getting behind a desk as there is of me getting a new girlfriend.” Then Madonna’s “Sooner or Later” begins. It’s a terrific transition. Instantly, you know there’s trouble up ahead.

The moral of the comic strip has always been, “Crime doesn’t pay.” But your experience as a film enthusiast will be made richer by having seen this movie.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Very well done. Your review is enhanced by including your first impressions of the film as a (precocious) eight year old. By the way, what kind of box office did this film make?

  2. It made $162 million worldwide, at a cost of $100 million to produce it. There were plans for a sequel, but the disappointing box office coupled with a lawsuit filed by the producers against Warren Beatty squashed that idea. Apparently, Beatty still wants to do a sequel, but methinks that ship has sailed.

  3. Sylvia Williams says:

    Thanks. Good to know. I love it that you generally have these answers at you finger (and tongue) tips!

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