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Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy

Due in equal measure to the reported $40 million-plus studio advertising blitz and the ceaseless gossip column ink devoted to the affair of its director/star and leading lady, Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy (1990) was one of the most anticipated theatrical releases of its season. In adapting the adventures of the venerable comic-strip cop, Beatty and his production team performed an eye-popping job of bringing a 1930s' Sunday-funnies milieu to three-dimensional life.

Beatty had harbored the notion of starring as Chester Gould's stalwart, incorruptible plainclothesman since the mid-'70s, biographer Ellis Amburn had noted in The Sexiest Man Alive. A planned collaboration with director Walter Hill had fallen apart over Hill's insistence on treating the project as a straight crime drama, and Beatty's vision of "a stylized hybrid--real people presented as if they were animated figures in a cartoon come to life." The star picked up the film rights to the character in the mid-'80s, and after negotiations with Martin Scorsese failed to pan out, opted to produce and direct as well.

In casting the role of the femme fatale nightclub chanteuse Breathless Mahoney, Beatty had been thinking in terms of Kathleen Turner or Kim Basinger. That was prior to his being on the receiving end of some intense lobbying from Madonna. At that time, the Material Girl's desired conquest of the film medium hadn't lived up to the initial promise shown by Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), and she felt the part could give her acting career a boost. Between her willingness to work for scale (with percentages at the back end, and the soundtrack rights), and the belief that she could give the project cross-generational appeal, Beatty gave in. (It didn't take long afterwards for the collaboration to become more than professional; the fourteen-month relationship that ensued kept the production and promotion of Dick Tracy lively.)

The film's narrative concerns Tracy's efforts to keep the streets of his generic four-color metropolis safe from the predations of its less savory element, most notably the ambitious Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino). Having rubbed out ex-mentor Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino), Big Boy lays claim to his operations and goods, up to and including Breathless. Tracy is certain that he can make the rap for Lips' "disappearance" stick if Breathless turns state's witness; she, in turn, will only play ball if Tracy returns the seductive singer's interest.

Tempted as he is, Tracy won't stray from his "makeshift" family, enduringly patient girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) and the feisty orphan "Kid" (Charlie Korsmo) that he's taken under his wing. Beyond Big Boy's redoubled efforts to take him out, the cop is also being subtly stalked by the featureless "Blank," who's playing both sides to ensure Tracy's disgrace as well as Caprice's downfall.

Looking like some strange hybrid of Richard III and Michael Corleone, Pacino brought kinetic, way-over-the-top brio to his performance as Big Boy, and he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his efforts. Rattling off mangled aphorisms as he sends his flunkies scurrying, Pacino's bad guy very nearly steals the picture, much as Jack Nicholson's Joker had with the prior year's big-budget comic book opus, Batman (1989).

In his book, Amburn noted that Madonna had initially bristled at the numbers crafted for the soundtrack by Stephen Sondheim ("I can't sing this. This isn't me."), but acquiesced when Beatty brought the composer to the set to coach her. Sondheim was eager to see his material reach the MTV audience, and he worked with her on shaping the lyrics. As a result, Madonna won over music critics as never before with her successful tie-in album, I'm Breathless, and the tune Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man) took the Academy Award for Best Song.

The Oscar-winning make-up team of John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler had the challenging assignment of recreating one of the signature elements of Gould's strip, the infamous gallery of heavies whose personalities were defined by their improbable deformities as well as their acts of cruelty. In addition to Pacino's Big Boy, Flattop (William Forsythe), Itchy (Ed O'Ross), Pruneface (R.G. Armstrong), Influence (Henry Silva), the Brow, Little Face, Shoulders, Steve the Tramp and many other major and minor Gould goons filled out Beatty's audaciously realized universe.

Credit for achieving the primary-palette world of Dick Tracy must also be shared by Oscar-winning production designers Richard Sylbert and Rick Simpson, as well as cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and costume designer Milena Canonero, who also received nominations from the Academy for their efforts. The film would ultimately haul away $110 million in domestic box office.

Producer: Warren Beatty, Jon Landau, Art Linson, Floyd Mutrux, Barrie M. Osborne, Jim Van Wyck
Director: Warren Beatty
Screenplay: Jim Cash, Jack Epps, Jr., Bo Goldman, Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Film Editing: Richard Marks
Art Direction: Harold Michelson
Music: Danny Elfman, Jeff Lass, Andy Paley, Stephen Sondheim
Cast: Warren Beatty (Dick Tracy), Charlie Korsmo (Kid), Glenne Headly (Tess Trueheart), Madonna (Breathless Mahoney), Al Pacino (Big Boy Caprice), Dustin Hoffman (Mumbles).
C-105m. Letterboxed.

by Jay S. Steinberg



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