After all the hype, the movie of Dick Tracy turns out to be a great big beautiful bore. Many viewers (myself excluded) felt the same thing about Batman, last year’s box-office biggie, with which Tracy shares more than an origin in the funny papers. Batman also has a loner hero, a grotesque villain, a blond bombshell, a marketable pop soundtrack and a no-mercy merchandising campaign. But Batman possesses something else: a psychological depth that gives the audience a stake in the characters. Tracy sticks to its eye-poppingly brilliant surface. Though the film is a visual knockout, it’s emotionally impoverished.
It’s not that producer-director Warren Beatty hasn’t thought things through. Beatty’s been talking about filming Chester Gould’s classic comic strip for five years. And casting himself in the title role isn’t the problem. At fifty-three, Beatty still has the looks and bearing to play the square-jawed crime fighter whose only fears are a desk job and marriage.
What Beatty can’t do is make Tracy compelling. Gould couldn’t either. That’s why the cartoonist surrounded his duty-bound cop with a jazzy wardrobe (a yellow raincoat and fedora), gimmicks (a two-way-radio wristwatch) and misshapen villains (Flattop, Pruneface, Itchy, et cetera). Violence was unheard of in newspaper comic strips in 1931, when Tracy debuted, so the strip was a shocker and an immediate success. Today, five years since Gould’s death, the strip still appears in hundreds of newspapers, written by Max Allan Collins and illustrated by Dick Locher; it’s an intriguing curio.
But the strip is more than that to Beatty — he sees Gould’s creation as an evocation of prewar America on the brink of losing its innocence. Gould’s drawings, influenced by postexpressionist art, which showed a bright world growing dark and twisted, became the film’s blueprint. Production designer Richard Sylbert (Reds) employed only the seven basic colors used by Gould — a color scheme Milena Canonero followed in her costumes. Make-up experts John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler (Cotton Club) created faces for the villains that exaggerate the baser human instincts. To preserve the strip’s vignette structure, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor) took care not to move the camera too much within the shot. Editor Richard Marks (Broadcast News) then cut the film sharply from frame to frame to mimic the abrupt transitions of the comics. Under Beatty’s exacting direction, these artists did incomparable work.
The trouble is that all this technique hardly gives the actors room to breathe. Glenne Headly (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) as Tess Trueheart, Tracy’s loyal love, and Charlie Korsmo (Men Don’t Leave) as the Kid, a tough orphan who tries to get Tracy to adopt him, don’t have roles — they have plot functions. Young Korsmo is a feisty wonder, but he’s there only to humanize Tracy.
Madonna does substantially more with the role of torch singer Breathless Mahoney, a moll with a yen for Tracy. It’s still hard to tell if Madonna is an actress, but she is a definite presence. “That’s what I call a dame,” says the Kid to Tracy. The Kid’s got a point. Madonna suggests the glamour of Marlene Dietrich in everything from Blonde Venus to Witness for the Prosecution. Dressed in something black, clinging and transparent, Madonna exudes enough come-on carnality to singe the screen. “You don’t know whether to hit me or kiss me,” she tells Tracy. “I get that a lot.” Though the movie heats up considerably when Breathless tries to get Tracy to give in to his dark side, Beatty only hints at the possibilities of this kinky attraction.
More surprisingly, Beatty fails to use the music to arouse thoughts of romance and eroticism. Danny Elfman’s score, uncomfortably close to his work on Batman, sticks to ominousness. Beatty also wastes the three songs Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd) has written for Madonna. The melodies are not remotely near the composer’s best, but his intricate lyrics suggest there are many kinds of fires burning in Breathless. So why does Beatty go out of his way to bank their flame? He never allows Madonna to complete a song without cutting away to car chases or gunshots. The most tellingly romantic Sondheim number is “What Can You Lose” — a duet for Madonna and the gifted Mandy Patinkin, who plays Breathless’s lovesick accompanist, 88 Keys. But the song is mostly played over shots of Tracy and the Kid at a diner.
The villains are another missed opportunity. William Forsythe’s Flattop, Lawrence Steven Meyers’s Little Face and Paul Sorvino’s Lips Manlis are artfully outlandish creations given too little screen time to properly register on an audience. Dustin Hoffman, in a blond wig and with a twisted mouth, does better as Mumbles; he seems to be controlling the makeup instead of vice versa. But all — even the Blank (the faceless villain who gives the picture its surprise ending) — fall before the evil Big Boy Caprice of Al Pacino. Fitted with a hunchback, padded hips and a Hitler mustache, Pacino offers a grandly conceived comic creation. Big Boy threatens Tracy, mauls Breathless and fulminates in a manner that makes Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman look timid. But even this performance grows repetitive and wearisome. Pacino is defeated by the same culprit that ultimately brings down the movie: a lousy script.
Credited to Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. — a pair whose movies (Top Gun, Legal Eagles, Turner and Hooch) make money but no sense — the screenplay is exasperatingly witless. Beatty is so concerned with how things look that he’s forgotten the importance of verbal style and friskiness. By confusing artifice with art, Beatty has deliberately made a movie with no depth. For all its superficial pleasures, Dick Tracy ultimately flounders because it provides an audience with nothing to take home and dream about.