A recent listen to the amazing Purple Stuff podcast served as a reminder that 1990 was truly a remarkable year when it came to film. While the year prior may have brought audiences the much-anticipated sequels to Back to the Future & Ghostbusters in addition to Tim Burton’s Batman and the year following gave me personal favorites The Rocketeer & Hook, it was 1990 that unleashed a veritable torrent of excellent cinema, with some titles more underrated than others-the runaway success of that year’s Home Alone may have overshadowed the excellence that is Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and the quirky emotionalism of Edward Scissorhands along with the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ big screen debut more than likely caused some moviegoers to pass up on a showing of another of 1990’s great offerings-Dick Tracy.
Much like the Turtles, Dick Tracy began life as a comic strip, eventually transitioning into radio, television & other media before, finally, the adaptation directed & produced by Warren Beatty, who also cast himself in the title role, hit theaters in 1990. Set in the 1930s, Dick Tracy centers around the eponymous character, a tough-yet-determined detective who attempts to bring down a criminal empire consisting of Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino) and his army of colorful hoodlums while juggling relationships with his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), a homeless boy known as “The Kid” (Charlie Korsmo) and the seductive club singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).
What sounds like every other period piece crime drama takes on a different, exciting form in the visuals presented by Dick Tracy, as well as the stellar acting of the entire cast. Following a troubled production, which at one point had Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese attached to direct, the finished product is a wonder to behold, with an overall look that makes use of a limited color palette and minimal camera movements so as to bring about the feel of a comic along with the Art Deco/German Expressionism present throughout the entire film. Onscreen, it’s more than a heightened reality-it’s a home run in terms of adapted material in the world of pulp history.
Plus, that cast…oh, what a cast. Beatty nails Tracy perfectly, while Headly as his girlfriend Tess holds her own very well. In a two-year run that would give Charlie Korsmo this and a large role in 1991’s Hook, I can’t say enough about how well he does, and how much I looked forward to further work from him-yet, aside from Can’t Hardly Wait, what else has he done? I must know at once.
As mentioned above, no better word describes Dick Tracy than colorful, especially when it comes to the henchmen in Big Boy’s crew. With names like Flattop, Itchy, Pruneface & The Blank (the latter of whom figures heavily into the plot) and some truly outstanding makeup work to help transform these characters from men into real-life monsters, how could one go wrong? Furthermore, the actors who portray these characters represent a Who’s-Who of mob movie royalty, what with Goodfellas’ Paul Sorvino as Club Ritz owner Lips Manlis and The Godfather’s James Caan as Big Boy traitor Spud Spaldoni. Mandy Patinkin does an about-face from Inigo Montoya to play 88 Keys, a lounge pianist who finds himself involved in Big Boy’s misdeeds and even gives Patinkin a chance to show off his excellent singing voice. Even Dick Van Dyke’s a part of the cast, and that’s just swell.
However, when it comes to the standouts, the spotlight should squarely shine on Al Pacino. As Big Boy, he’s simply phenomenal, dominating every scene he’s in with a voice at which one can’t help but grin, a hunch to his gait that contributes to his intimidation & makes him all the more endearing to the audience and an instantly quotable line emerging from his curled maw nearly every time he speaks. Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney deserves almost equal mention as well-no one else could play the part better, nor sing the earworm of a soundtrack more unforgettably than her. Finally, Dustin Hoffman is still hysterical as the aptly-named gangster Mumbles, who shines despite his role existing as, essentially, a glorified cameo.
Oh, and I just realized that Hoffman and Korsmo would reunite a year later in Hook. That may very well have just made my day.
Circling back to that soundtrack, Madonna not only helps to supply the voice to the fantastic ‘30s-era lounge music, but Danny Elfman has composed what I believe is one of his best scores, by far. Although it might be difficult to picture him doing anything apart from Tim Burton, his contributions to Dick Tracy feel right at home, successfully capturing a thrilling mood through a series of individual themes that not only elevate the love scenes but provide Tracy with an exciting motif that wouldn’t sound out of place in Batman.
Make no mistake, Dick Tracy has its moments of violence, but when viewed in the context of a comic strip come to life, the violence takes on an almost whimsical tone, keeping in line with the style of the movie and the world in which it’s set. It may be hard to believe that Disney had a hand in releasing Dick Tracy, as the film fell under the studio’s Touchstone Pictures banner, however when the purposely over-the-top villains, exceptional cinematography and Elfman’s orchestrations are factored in, that decision doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Dick Tracy represents true creativity and excellence in the world of filmmaking, along with a cast of talented people willing to commit 100% to bring their characters to life. A sequel has allegedly been in the works for decades, however even if a Dick Tracy 2 never comes to be, I won’t be upset. Some films are just fine on their own.
This, truly, is one of them.