Dick Tracy

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The Movie: Dick Tracy

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Now/HBO Go

The Pitch: Hard-boiled detective Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty, who also directs), based on the comic strip by Chester Gould, is searching for evidence that proves Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino) is the city’s most dangerous crime boss. He may have found the key to unraveling the crimelord’s illegal empire in Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), an enigmatic barroom singer who has witnessed some of Caprice’s crimes firsthand. However, she seems more set on stealing the detective away from his girlfriend, Tess (Glenne Headly), than helping him solve the case of his career.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Dick Tracy was largely considered a flop when it was released back in 1990. With a production that was significantly over budget, Walt Disney Studios was disappointed to see the film make only $103.7 million domestically and another $59 million internationally. That’s not a bad take for a movie that came out in 1990, but for a movie that reportedly cost over $100 million, it’s less than thrilling, especially when it followed Tim Burton’s massively successful Batman, which grossed $411.5 million worldwide. But I’m here to tell you that not only should this movie not be considered a flop, but it’s one of the best comic book movies of all-time.

Dick Tracy was ahead of its time, and not just because the titular detective had a watch that worked like a radio and allowed for two-way communication from almost anywhere, long before mobile phones and Apple Watches existed. This is a movie rich with comic book visuals even more vibrant and stylized than what was seen in Tim Burton’s Batman, a soundtrack with songs written by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, and an incredible score composed by Danny Elfman, and an amazing ensemble cast full of some of Hollywood’s biggest names and finest character actors.

Starting with the visuals, the hyper-stylized array of colors seen in the cinematography, production design, wardrobe and art direction brought to life the art of the original comic strip in a way that’s even more impressive than if it was done today. Produced back in the late 1980s, all of this vibrant color and unique set design needed to be done practically. Throughout this movie are some of the most stunning matte paintings you’ve ever seen, perfectly executed by Disney matte painter Michael Lloyd and fellow matte painter and visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw, not to mention his father, the legendary artist Peter Ellenshaw, as well as a handful of other artists. This includes matte paintings that enhanced sets in trick shots in the same way that digital technology is used to extend sets today, along with the help of miniatures and optical trickery. Yes, it looks far less realistic than the effects employed today, but in the stylized world of Dick Tracy, it only enhanced the comic book aesthetic, and made even the most mundane establishing shots positively stunning. You can see an amazing breakdown of their work over here.

Let’s not forget about the music provided by both Danny Elfman and Stephen Sondheim. Elfman does what he does best by composing a heroic and lively score that meshes masterfully with the overall comic strip style of the movie. On top of that, Sondheim provided several original songs for recording superstar Madonna to sing as Breathless Mahoney, the sultry lounge singer who works in the night club owned by Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice. These songs help make several sequences, especially crime-fighting montages, all the more memorable, and Madonna’s voice only elevates them. That’s exactly why Sondheim won the Oscar for Best Original Song, which is just one of three awards they received from the Academy, the others being for Best Art Direction and Best Make-Up.

Speaking of make-up, artists John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler and their whole department deserve endless praise for making some of Hollywood’s biggest names and well-known character actors into unrecognizable mobster caricatures. In addition to Al Pacino hamming it up as the cartoonishly villainous Big Boy, there’s R.G. Armstrong as Pruneface, Chuck Hicks as The Brow, Paul Sorvino as Lips Manlis, William Forsythe as Flattop, James Caan as Spaldoni, Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, and more. Each of them has their face totally covered in prosthetics with a signature trait that inspires their names, giving them various deformities to instantly recognize them as the bad guys.

On top of that the movie also features supporting roles and bit parts for the likes of Dick Van Dyke, Charles Durning, Seymour Cassell, Mandy Patinkin, Kathy Bates, Catherine O’Hara, and Colm Meaney. Plus, Glenne Headly as Dick Tracy’s neglected girlfriend and Charlie Korsmo as The Kid give Dick Tracy some sweet charm to go along with the colorful mobster antics.

Dick Tracy brought comics to life on the big screen in a way that Batman didn’t the year before, and it’s a shame audiences didn’t appreciate it as much back then. Even though it wasn’t as successful at the box office and was misunderstood by some critics at the time (though thankfully Roger Ebert recognized this movie’s achievements), Dick Tracy deserves a place in comic book movie history among some of the most influential and revered titles from the subgenre, and Warren Beatty should be praised for going over budget to bring this audacious vision to life.

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