Comic Book Movies 101: Dick Tracy

Chester Gould introduced Dick Tracy to the world (well, the readers of the Chicago Tribune) back in 1931 and continued to draw his adventures for the next 46 years. Tracy was the most famous of Gould’s cartoon strips and in 1991, a year after this film was released, the Chester Gould Dick Tracy Museum opened in Woodstock, Illinois only to close in 2008. Personally, I’m not surprised. I didn’t appreciate this film as much as I should have when it came out, but, I guess 20 years later I’m not looking for the same things in a film as I was back then.

The strict use of the four colour scheme to the entire wardrobe, props, vehicles, buildings and lighting really provides a strong visual dynamic and a fantastic nod to its roots as a newspaper comic strip. This kind of artistic licence is normally confined to indie flicks, so attempting it with a summer blockbuster (following on the heels of the superbly successful Batman,) actor/director Warren Beatty was brave. It paved the way for other comic book films to use similar stylistic ideas in a time when comic books meant nothing more than super heroes or the Beano to the masses.

In the film, gangster Big Boy Caprice tries to get a conglomerate of mob bosses to join forces and own the town before the tenacious police, headed by the seemingly incorruptible Dick Tracy, snuff them out.  They don’t all agree, leaving Caprice little option but to try to get them out of the picture to take care of all of the business himself, although his actions make him the prime target of Tracy.  Meanwhile, Tracy struggles with personal issues of his own in trying to balance his sense of duty to his occupation with a yearning to start a family with his main squeeze, Tess Trueheart. This is further compounded by the presence of a young orphan runaway, known simply as “Kid”, who becomes a sort of protégé to the brave hero.  However, the seductive guile of Caprice’s new showgirl, Breathless Mahoney (played by Madonna), threatens to undermine Tracy on all fronts, though her actions always appear to be sincere.

Dick Tracy is an enjoyable film and is visually and artistically brilliant but the storyline is a bit weak. As Gould used to make up his storylines as he drew the strip, Tracy used to be drawn into some fantastic adventures but the film version relies more on sleek sets and high profile casting. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not saying Dick Tracy is a bad film, because it certainly isn’t, just that it ultimately falls short of being a great film.

Although Beatty is a fine actor and director, his biggest mistake was casting himself as the hard-nosed, square-jawed detective, chiefly because he isn’t hard-nosed or square-jawed.  Beatty’s performance shows Tracy as a kind, caring man who is efficient at his job at the expense of his personal life. He seems a bit too old-fashioned and innocent to ever be completely sullied by the allure of the vices of the underworld he regularly brings down. We understand he wants to do a good job, but we never quite get enough of a glimpse into his character to understand why he has become such a tireless crusader. Surely there is more to him than just wanting to be an excellent cop? Beatty’s version of Tracy is a far cry from that of Gould, although he slavishly recreated the look of most of Tracy’s menagerie of villains.  Big heads, hunched backs, excessive wrinkles – why doesn’t anyone notice that most bad guys are hideously deformed?

At the time of its release, Dick Tracy was surrounded by hype, probably because people were hungry for more Batman-type action and Madonna was red hot (and still considered an actress). The hype certainly outweighed the film but it raked in over $100 million at the box office and acquired seven Academy Award nominations (including a Best Actor nod to Pacino) and managed to win three. However, as quickly as the enthusiasm came for this film, it died. No sequel was made and no huge cult following emerged. Looking at it today, despite having a soft spot for it in my heart, it remains a product of its era – a pop culture release that had its time and place in the spotlight before making way for the next new and interesting thing.

Laura Johnson

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