In some ways, Warren Beatty’s 1990 adaptation of Chester Gould’s comic strip Dick Tracy is a very special film. For one, there’s the exclusive use of primary colors for the costumes and sets, creating a very authentically “comic strip” feel. And speaking of the sets, they’re all deliberately flat and artificial, again evoking the look of the source material. All of this was captured so stunningly in the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Vittorio Storaro.
Then there’s the Oscar-winning makeup by John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler. Together they created playfully grotesque appliances that all but erased the recognizability of some of the famous stars beneath them. Danny Elfman’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s original songs, which evoke the 1930s setting, are memorable as well. And the cast, led by Beatty in the title role, is a veritable who’s who: Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, Dick Van Dyke, Seymour Cassel, Charles Durning, William Forsythe, Mandy Patinkin, and James Caan. Al Pacino received an Oscar nomination for his supporting part as mafia boss “Big Boy” Caprice. Madonna turned in one of her better performances as nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney.
In other words, all the ingredients were seemingly in place for that rarest of cinematic creations: a summer blockbuster laced with artistic merit. Disney was gunning for their own Batman, the franchise that began with Tim Burton’s 1989 megahit. What they ended up with was not so much a home run, but a ground rule double. Dick Tracy did solid business that summer, finishing ninth for domestic box office in 1990 (12th worldwide). It won three Oscars (in addition to Best Makeup, it won Best Art Direction and Best Original Song). But it didn’t spawn a sequel and it didn’t wind up lingering at the forefront of many people’s memories.
Revisiting the film on Blu-ray, it’s not difficult to see the problem. No one bothered to make sure Beatty had a great story to tell. The screenplay (by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.) is a functional bore that, while hard to dislike entirely, merely provides a framework upon which to hang all the cool technical elements detailed above. After “Big Boy” Caprice makes his move to gain control of Club Ritz, killing owner Lips Manlis (Sorvino), Tracy makes his move to take Caprice down. That’s really all there is to it, when all is said and done. The result is a 105-minute running time that feels more like 125.
After seizing the club, Caprice also seizes Lips’ girlfriend Breathless as his property as well. But Breathless has her eye on Tracy, despite her full knowledge of Tracy’s best girl, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). This love triangle plays out fairly predictably, as does Tracy’s relationship with The Kid (Charlie Korsmo), a resourceful orphan. There’s also a mysterious figure known only as The Blank, whose identity and motivation remains shrouded until the end. Basically, the production team came up with a highly original and idiosyncratic film purely in terms of style, but decided to fill it up with hackneyed clichés. These elements don’t necessarily ruin the film. They just don’t make truly enjoying the film an easy task.
The cast ends up being the most entertaining non-technical element, with Pacino huffing and puffing up a storm and Madonna sounding and looking fantastic for her big numbers. Beatty plays things very straight, allowing his supporting cast to steal all the scenes (perhaps none more so than Hoffman, who makes the most of only a handful of scenes).
With award winning and/or nominated art direction, costume design, cinematography, and sound design, one would hope that Disney would knock the Blu-ray presentation out of the park. Luckily that’s just what they did. The 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer does Storaro’s amazing cinematography proud, with colors that really leap from the screen. Those primary colors really needed to pop, and they look outstanding. Detail and contrast levels are just right, leaving little to carp about.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 not only does justice to the Elfman and Sondheim music, but also the work of the entire audio department. I only recently realized the apparently well-known fact that Dick Tracy was the first ever film production to boast all digitally-recorded audio. Not only does said audio sound full, there’s quite a lot of activity in the surrounds to demonstrate the attention to detail that was invested in this mix. Turn it up and lose yourself in the music and sound effects (because, again, you’re not as likely to get caught up in the actual plot).
There are no special features, but the Blu-ray does include a Digital Copy.
Dick Tracy is a noble failure. Beatty’s ambition as producer, director, and star was ultimately sunk by an uninspired story that didn’t live up to the potential of the cast of colorful characters.