Dick Tracy: Tunes, Toons and Goons

Everywhere I look, it’s Tracy, Tracy, Tracy!” So slammed Al Pacino’s gangster Big Boy Caprice in 1990’s Dick Tracy. But why is it not remembered as fondly as its comic book / toontastic predecessors, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Batman? Could it be the age old truism of style over substance?

Dick Tracy as a property was bought from its Chicago Tribune owners by producers Art Linson and Floyd Mutrux, who took it to Paramount in 1977. Various names to direct were batted around, including the man who would eventually take it on, Warren Beatty. When he eventually obtained the rights himself, he took it to Disney, then run by former Paramount men Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner. They smelled a money train leaving the station – Gotham Station, hoping to emulate the success of Tim Burton’s Batman. They agreed to Beatty as producer, director and star, but tied him to a clause in his contract: any overages above the $38m budget was to come out of his fee. Beatty wanted to prove he wasn’t the profligate auteur of old, and agreed. Of course it did go over budget, but no more so than most ambitious studio properties of the period, which just proves William Goldman right: “Nobody knows anything“.

Beatty surprisingly championed the film because he was a life long fan of Chester Gould’s iconic newspaper strip ‘tec. “Dick Tracy was not funny,” he said. “He was serious. People got shot. Times were tough, with the depression. And things had to be done. So he did them.” He set out to make a stylized homage, which is an innocent, primary coloured flip side to the later, moody monochrome, adult Sin City.

Al Pacino’s crime lord Big Boy Caprice seeks to control all the criminal action in the unnamed city and has Dick Van Dyke’s D.A in his pocket. He rubs out Lips Marlis (Paul Sorvino) and his men, unwittingly witnessed by street urchin, “Kid” (who later renames himself Dick Tracy Jr). Caprice takes over Lips’ club, and his chanteuse, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna). Meanwhile, honest detective Dick Tracy tries to clean up the town, and juggle father figure responsibilities to the Kid with boyfriend duties to Tess Trueheart (Glenn Headly), and  fend off the predatory advances of Breathless.

The talent lined up behind the scenes was impressive, with 68 Oscar nominations between them. Beatty took on board trusted collaborators from Reds, his Oscar triumph biopic of American Communist Revolution chronicler John Reed. They were DP Vittorio Storaro (who also lensed Apocalypse Now); Tony / Pulitzer prize winning songwriter Stephen Sondheim, and production designer Richard Sylbert. As a bonus, he also secured Danny Elfman, who scored Batman (Sondheim would pen songs for Madonna, and background scenes).

Beatty chose to play up the artificiality of the three panel strip cartoon, as an expressionistic mis-en-scene. He would shoot on sound stages and studio back lots, with huge matte paintings – 89 in all- and live action inserts. He fell in love with the canvas he  instructed Vittorio Storaro to paint. Storaro devised, in his words, “a dramaturgy of colour” for the characters. “Tracy, with his yellow raincoat and yellow hat, represents one side of the colour spectrum: light, day, sun.” Tess was orange, warm, the Kid, red. He described the colours attributed to the gangster goons wardrobe as the “colours of our subconscious – blue, indigo, violet.” As the hero, only Tracy wore that canary yellow. So convinced were Disney of the merchandising potential of the film, replica coats were sold by retailers, amongst all the McDonalds tie-ins, new Disneyland rides, and action figures. I remember them hanging forlornly in Burton….

It wasn’t just the characters who were defined by primary colours. The entire production – sets, costumes, props, was made up from them. There were no shades of grey. Cars were one generic type, rooms were square. A newspaper is simply “Daily Paper”, dollar bills resemble monopoly money. Storaro tried to keep the camera static. He said: “Comic strip art is usually done with very simple and primitive ideas and emotions (he clearly had a limited introduction to the field). What we tried to do is never move the camera at all. never. Try to make everything work into the frame.” Unfortunately, this just makes the action, when it does get into gear, seem as flat as the original 2D image in the newspaper strip. The story and direction are not dynamic. Beatty’s Tracy is a dull goody two shoes, tongue tied in the presence of women, and fairly humourless. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics suggest depths the characters can’t reach. Beatty seemed to see the film as an innocent, nostalgic tale for kids, and a series of in jokes for himself.

Dustin Hoffman’s Mumbles, Tracy’s underworld informer, is an unintelligible parody of Hollwood producer Robert Evans. Beatty knew Al Pacino had done a little seen stage production of Bertold Brecht’s The Risistible Rise Of Arturo Ui. “Why don’t you just play that?” He slyly suggested to him. This probably marks the beginning of Pacino’s long slide into “quiet, LOUD, quiet” style of acting.  I suppose he had to have some gimmick to draw attention away from the sets. Going through tedious DIY painting at the moment, I found myself thinking as I looked at some of the lovely pictures I had to choose from for this piece, “Nice gloss work on that door“. When you pay more attention to that than the story, you know the film is in trouble.

Beatty’s endless close ups, sans Tracy’s iconic hawk nose, to me reveal his vanity. He protested: “I tried prosthetics and make up to approximate the nose and chin. I just looked silly.” Were you making a live action cartoon or a serious drama, Warren? When you go flat out to create an authentic rogues gallery of famous actors buried beneath villainous exaggerated make up, what does it say about the leading man when he retains his legendary good looks, despite the source material? Beatty, always a prevaricator who never really likes people to second guess him, has alternately stated how happy he is with the film, and how he should have cast someone else as Tracy. I would have taken the make-up off James Caan and cast him.

But then, he was seemingly dating Madonna at the time, and needed her cachet for the younger demographic. Beatty couldn’t afford to look ridiculous on set if he was squiring her later. He later told director Glenn Gordon Caron, “Never, ever, fuck your leading lady. And if you do, don’t stop until the picture’s finished.” The affair fizzled out soon afterwards. As Breathless, Madonna had a role just within her comfort zone, slinking around Tracy’s desk on her knees, teasing him. No wonder he remained seated! If she was nervous about tackling Sondheim’s torch songs, Mandy Patinkin as piano player 88 Keys helped her raise her game. “Sooner Or Later (I Always Get My Man)” sung by her won the Oscar for best original song. She was poured into clinging gowns, a real live Jessica Rabbit, ironically less animated. Madonna rode Tracy’s yellow coat tails by releasing a music from and inspired by album, including the risque “Hanky Panky“.

Dick Tracy also won Oscars for best make up and art direction, out of seven nominations. It captures the precise look of a comic strip, but it stumbles when it should soar, in thrall to its own gorgeousness. It did respectable business at the time, but appears hopelessly dated now. I find it difficult to believe anyone other than Warren Beatty has the appetite for a long mooted sequel. Dick Tracy has none of the zest and wit of Disney’s Touchstone stablemate, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It is a prettily designed, empty box.

If Disney re-released Dick Tracy  with the Roger Rabbit short that originally accompanied it (Roller Coaster Rabbit), I would be tempted to leave after Roger left me rolling in the aisle. “Calling Dick Tracy”? – no thanks, not this time.


Originally posted 2012-04-05 13:40:54. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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