An elaborate fantasia on the 1930s from the vantage point of the 1990s, Warren Beatty’s labour of love is still a high watermark for comic strip and graphic novel adaptations. Based on the character created by Chester Gould and written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., and starring Beatty, Madonna, Al Pacino and Glenn Headly, Dick Tracy is suffused with beautiful sets and scale models, many of which quote classical Hollywood, interspersed with a rotation of matte prints that makes the whole film look hand-painted. Weaving its way in and out of incredible cityscapes and shot through with an amazing sense of space and place, it’s a far more flamboyant and extravagant exercise than Tim Burton’s two Batman films, not least because of how elegantly it throws the language of classical Broadway into the mix as well. With a score by Stephen Sondheim and a criminal nemesis who is trying to organize a musical variety show, Dick Tracy often feels as if it is unfolding on an elaborate stage set as much as a film backdrop, with each toytown sequence exuding a palpable plasticity and artificiality that splits the difference between Jacques Tati’s Playtime and the moody, melancholy atmosphere of the New Hollywood 1970s, which is when Beatty first had the idea of adapting his favourite childhood character to the big screen.
Above all, though, Dick Tracy is a film that revels in colour film stock like it was invented yesterday, with the tricolour palette of the comic strip – red, yellow and blue – working to recall the bold primary hues that defined the early years of Technicolor as well. While the gritty black-and-white textures of early gangster films couldn’t have been more removed from this kind of high-end spectacle, Beatty converges the two perfectly to produce something like a dark fantasy and blurred memory of the 1930s as it must have appeared to someone growing up in that decade. Key to that colourism is the defiantly anachronistic use of matte prints at a time when CGI was just starting to be fashionable, with the depictions of night time vistas – neon bouncing off rain-slicked streets – demanding to be framed, exhibited and perused on their own terms. Yet while these matte images may have been prompted by nostalgia, the result is that Dick Tracy now looks much more modern – or perhaps more timeless in its modernity – that most other films made around the same time, especially those that opted for the avant-gardism that came with early digital special effects.
In other words, Dick Tracy offers a world of surfaces, and a world in which everything is defined by surfaces (it’s no coincidence that all the bad guys have bad skin, or too much skin), leading many critics at the time to criticize it for being an exercise in style over substance. No doubt, there is a hyperreal emptiness to it all that turns the characters into caricatures – a series of poses, postures and utterances – as well as an evacuated sense of space that prevents any scene ever feeling totally lived-in or inhabited by the figures within it. Yet that evacuation also perfectly captures the strange sense of vacancy and vacuity that pervades so many comic strips and graphic novels. More specifically, Dick Tracy works hard to capture the peculiar emptiness and airlessness of comic strip streetscapes and cityscapes, and the way in which they conjure up a world without a public sphere, or a world in which a public sphere has to be wrested back by the protagonist, whether he be an everyman, detective or superhero. Accordingly, the editing often seems designed to capture the experience of moving from one frame of a comic strip to the next, as Beatty refuses to ever spend enough time on a scene or space for it to become populated or inhabited, instead ceaselessly moving from one shot to another and fusing the montage of the comic strip with the montage of classical Hollywood cinema.
Yet it’s not just Beatty’s sense of space that rescues these characters from blandness, but the film’s taste for the myth of Dick Tracy and the golden age of comic strips more generally. In fact, the film is more an adaptation of that myth than of any single story, shot through with the deep, rich sense of fantasy this character must have possessed for someone who grew up with him. Even or especially in his most stock utterances, then, Beatty inhabits the role of Tracy perfectly – while he is certainly older than the original Tracy, he had also just reached the age at which his handsomeness was starting to take on a more plastic, cartoony edge that rendered it perfect for this kind of comic strip exercise. That’s not to say that Beatty wouldn’t remain handsome for the rest of the 1990s – or that he isn’t still handsome – but that it played more as a prosthetic and slightly dazed handsomeness, the kind of handsomeness that results from plastic surgery, which works perfectly at this earlier moment to capture the slight cheesiness of Tracy’s features as well. In addition, Beatty handles Tracy’s agility really well, since instead of trying to seem more mobile than he was for his age he instead places himself at the centre of the film’s many montage sequences – he turns himself into an engine of montage – so as to imbue all his still poses and silhouettes with a profound sense of potential energy and barely suppressed movement and momentum.
Dick Tracy may not have “depth,” then, but it doesn’t really need it, since this is more about capturing the visceral experience of reading and looking at a cartoon strip on the big screen than developing a “realistic” or introspective character study. As a result, Beatty always opts for scenes that are gestural rather than psychological, archetypal rather than narrative-driven, and always focused on capturing the quintessence of the Dick Tracy “feel” rather than telling any one particular story. Insofar as there is a single story, it actually revolves around Tracy’s iterability as a one-dimensional character, with an elaborate “decoy Tracy” forming the centerpiece of arch-nemesis “Big Boy’s” efforts to take him down. As Big Boy, Al Pacino takes advantage of Beatty’s approach to utterly ham it up in something like his answer to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and watching their performances side by side is like seeing the two New Hollywood actors most conducive to caricature embracing their most hyperbolic selves. Pacino’s voice, in particular, is so plastic and exaggerated that you can almost see the speech bubbles and typographical details hovering over his head, as his utterances careen away from his body and generate self-perpetuating montage sequences of their own, which in turn form endless, disembodied monologues that go on and on despite themselves.
Between him and Beatty, it often feels as if Dick Tracy’s aim is to come as close to a cartoon as possible, an appropriate goal for an era in which the status of major animation studios was in doubt (Disney still hadn’t fully wrested hegemony back from Don Bluth) but also in which the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had produced a new interest in fusing animated and live cinematic styles. As it happens, I have a very clear memory of a school friend going to see the film and speaking about it as if it were a cartoon, recommending it in the same breath as The Rescuers Down Under, Duck Tails: The Movie and other animated releases that were popular in 1990. At the same time, rewatching it made me realise that the next step in this direction was probably Jim Carrey’s performance in The Mask, which distorts and exaggerates Dick Tracy’s tone and palette in much the same way as Dick Tracy distorts and exaggerates its own mixture of cinematic and theatrical citations.
Key to that distortion is Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful score, which is integral to the montage sequences and imbues the entire film with a melancholy, astringent edge that tips it more in the direction of an adult release. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stage version that really lived up to Sondheim’s actual music – there’s something about his style that exceeds musical theatre as a medium – and the filmed versions of his plays, such as 1978’s A Little Night Music, tend to be even stagier. Yet here the montage sequences work beautifully to draw out everything inherently cinematic about Sondheim’s musical style, while there’s also something utterly unexpected and yet indubitably right about seeing Madonna perform his works, with her central rendition of “Sooner or Later” recalling Barbra Streisand’s reinventions on The Broadway Album. In a strange way, then, Dick Tracy is also the best Sondheim musical I’ve seen on the big screen – or even on the stage – not least because Beatty’s project of revising and denaturing the Broadway tropes of the 1930s and 1940s is quite continuous with Sondheim’s own.
As a result, Dick Tracy also feels more and more like a revisionist musical as it proceeds – elaborately theatrical, in its own way, as the rock operas that were carrying the torch at the beginning of the 1990s. As montage and regular editing start to converge, so does action and music, until a film that initially appeared profoundly disinterested in narrative beautifully identifies itself with the peculiar narrative music of the comic strip. Since it’s Sondheim, there are inevitably moments of dissonance, but it’s the dissonance that comes with moving from one comic panel to the next – a continual readjustment and recalibration of perspectives that cuts against the film’s fixation with surfaces and silhouettes. Just as Busby Berkeley drew on stage design and theatrical language to craft spectacles too elaborate for any stage, so Beatty draws on the language of comic strips to craft tableaux too lush and reticulated for even the most elaborate and experimental graphic novel. In both cases, however, Berkeley and Beatty bypass their source material to demand reverence for the studio as a medium and venue in itself, making for films that are still utterly spectacular decades later.
Here, that sense of spectacle builds to a beautiful final sequence in which Tracy has to make it over an elevated bridge to the main part of the city, as fireworks explode over the distant buildings. Given that this threshold – between bridge and city – also represents the point at which physical sets segue into matte prints, it’s a beautiful way to conclude, breathlessly poising us between two perfectly polished forms of artifice. Narratively speaking, it’s always difficult to end a film based on a serial, so it’s a wonderful twist that this is also the moment at which Tracy finally realizes that he actually needs to be distracted by crime for his relationship with Tess Trueheart (Glenn Headly) to work. Poised between the plastic foreground and the matte background, and between this one individual case and the necessity of further cases, it’s an ending that befits the film that precedes it – a thing of beauty, laid out with all the elegancy and economy of a single-page comic strip.