With an unbeatable supporting cast and Stephen Sondheim in the credits, Dick Tracy deserves a better legacy.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was seen as a vanguard for superhero movies in 2008: a massive box office success that also earned a staggering eight Academy Award nominations and eventually won two. But Nolan’s second Batman adventure wasn’t the first comic-book movie to break through the Oscars’ once-impenetrable ceiling. It wasn’t even the one that did it best.
Before comic-book movies ruled the box office, the genre was littered with one-offs (Howard the Duck, The Rocketeer, The Shadow) and franchises that are already being remade today (Superman, Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy was an outlier. A star-packed callback to the glory days of trench-coat-clad crime fighters and a nostalgic confection set to the music of Stephen Sondheim, it was unafraid to not just nod, but fully lean on its roots as a two-dimensional story ripped right from the funny pages.
Now, as it turns 25 years old, Dick Tracy still hasn’t gotten its due—even though it has three Oscars to show for itself.
Based on the Chester Gould comic-strip character of the same name, Dick Tracy imagines a stylized, thirties-era world where men are men and bad guys, well, are kind of gloriously deformed in a way that’s damn hard to ignore. Beatty stars as hero Detective Dick Tracy, who is constantly up to his ears in crime, thanks to a city overrun by literally cartoonish baddies, like rising mob star Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino), whose crime syndicate is hell-bent on taking over the city. As Tracy attempts to take down Big Boy and his wacky band of henchmen, he also has to juggle his relationship with the long-suffering Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), the appearance of a sass-mouthed orphan (Charlie Korsmo), and the advances of one helluva dangerous dame (Madonna). It’s a classic story, a detective tale, and a comic-strip adventure tied up in a big, colorful bow.
Dick Tracy’s road to the big screen was bumpy, as the property cycled through attached directors (Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Walter Hill), possible stars (Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson), and even studios (originally optioned by Paramount Pictures, it was made by Disney and released under their Touchstone label) for over a decade. Things turned around once Beatty came on board to direct, produce, and star in the feature, marking only his third turn behind the camera. A hard-core Tracy fan, Beatty was committed to making his film more of an homage to the comic strip than a singular adaptation. He didn’t go for the dark and gritty; he wanted something that looked like what it was, and Beatty’s desire to do just that turned Dick Tracy into one of modern cinema’s best adaptations of the two-dimensional storytelling form.
Casting for the film verged from the stunty (it was only Madonna’s seventh big-screen role, and the pop star was at the height of her singing fame) to the sublime (the supporting cast is rounded out by names such as Pacino, Charles Durning, Paul Sorvino, Dustin Hoffman, Estelle Parsons, Dick Van Dyke, and James Caan). The original Tess Trueheart, Sean Young, was axed after a week on the job. Still, the cast list remains impressive, stacked with Oscar winners and nominees, some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, all lead by Beatty. This is a comic-book film with a pedigree, long before that was something that audiences could look forward to.
Even with a beloved character to chronicle and a star-studded cast under its belt, Dick Tracy took a big risk that’s yet to be replicated in the comic-book movie genre: it’s basically a musical. Not just any musical, but one set to music by Sondheim and Danny Elfman, a big, breezy outing that would feel right at home on a Broadway stage. The entry point of the music is an obvious one: Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney is a lounge singer (and a pretty good one at that), and Sondheim uses Breathless’s act as a way to inject the film with huge numbers—literal song-and-dance bits—that are then revisited as a more traditional soundtrack (the film uses montages to great effect, and Sondheim’s songs repeatedly play over them in an amusing way). Scored by Elfman, fresh off his turn scoring Batman, Dick Tracy doesn’t sound like anything else, and its gleeful embrace of musical trappings made sure it didn’t look like anything else—especially a comic-book movie—either.
Beatty’s intention to make Dick Tracy, the movie, look like an homage to Dick Tracy, the comic strip, resulted in a feature that looked pulled straight from the paper—vivid flatness and limited color palette and all. The film only uses seven colors, mostly red, yellow, green, and blue, all the better to approximate the look and feel of a comic strip. The film’s wider shots make the background look newspaper flat and inkily colorized, a look achieved by combining matte paintings with live action. Sharply cut costumes only add to the effect (most of them in single colors: Tess is all reds, while Dick is yellows and blacks), and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s often static camera keeps every film frame feeling like a comic-strip panel, boxed in, heavy on the silhouettes, with obvious focal points.
You know where to look in Dick Tracy, and when you do, you see a comic strip. Despite the glut of comic-book-based films at the box office, few features have used such styling to stellar effect, though the 300 series and the Sin City franchise have certainly tried, with mixed results. Both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Warner Bros.’ DC Comics films have balked at making their comic-book movies look like comic books, instead opting for all that dark and gritty stuff, so rooted to reality and so often disinterested in acknowledging the medium that spawned their stories.
Dick Tracy ultimately pulled in mixed reviews—Roger Ebert gave it four stars and praised its comic-strip artificiality, even comparing it to Batman, writing that the film “is a sweeter, more optimistic movie, [and] outdoes even Batman in the visual departments.” Others weren’t as kind, and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers derided the feature as “a great big beautiful bore.” (Hey, at least he thought it was pretty.)
Beatty’s film ended up being nominated for seven Oscars—the most ever for any comic-book film at the time, and a pack that included nods for both Pacino and Storaro—winning three at the 1991 ceremony, including best original song, best art direction, and best makeup. Yet, its most unique and obvious elements—the musical stuff, the comic-strip styling, the star-packed cast—have yet to make it mainstream with the rest of the comic-book crowd. Maybe they should, because 25 years sure is a long time for a hero to get his due.