Dick Tracy

Pictures pretty, story inert
Warren Beatty
Warren Beatty, Madonna, Al Pacino, Glenne Headly, Dustin Hoffman
The Setup: 
Adaptation of the once-popular comic strip that flamboyantly misses the mark.

Oh dear, I’m not quite sure where to start. So Warren Beatty was in the waning years of his starhood, and was dating Madonna. He and other directors had fond memories of reading Dick Tracy as kids, and Beatty ended up with the job, and asked to play Tracy himself. In order to approximate the look of the four-color comic strip, every prop and set was painted in bright primary colors and their secondary mixes. Everyone expected it to be a massive hit. Madonna released an album with songs “from and inspired by” the movie, which had the unrelated hit “Vogue” thrown on. Then the movie came out, bewildered everyone, flopped fairly hard, and vanished soon after. So let’s dredge it up and pick it over!

The movie begins with an illegal card game, played by several thugs popular from the comic. They are wearing makeup that makes them look like the comic-inspired grotesques of 20s and 30s goons, with big, exaggerated foreheads and hands, here one with huge lips, there one with a flat head, there one with giant head and small face. It’s quite odd-looking, and though maybe you get what it’s trying to do, it’s still quite strange-looking and off-putting. Especially since most of the makeup looks quite fake—and the majority of the audience will not have read the original comic, and will only know in a vague way what these characters refer to.

Then we pull out to this matte painting of this colorful fantasia of a city, expressing sort of a 40s idea of an uber-city rather than any real actual city, and it looks really neat—while monstrously fake at the same time—and is arguably the best thing about the whole movie. While this is going on we have the credits, during which we find that this features new original songs by Stephen Sondheim, and has music by Danny Elfman. Keep in mind that Tim Burton’s Batman had come out the year before, and much of this may have been quite influenced by the success of that.

So this gangster with big lips owns this nightclub the Ritz where his girlfriend Breathless Mahoney [that’s Madonna] is the star. Al Pacino as some other gangster steals the Ritz and Breathless. There’s a bizarre scene where he is relentlessly driving the entertainers to continue rehearsing, which includes him acting like a showgirl and doing the whole routine himself. Meanwhile Tracy and his devoted girlfriend, Tess Trueheart, have come into possession of this orphan boy. Tess is played by Glenne Headley and she, Madonna and Beatty [and the boy] are the only ones who don’t get some sort of makeup. There is a “joke” that goes on way too long about how the boy is always saying “When do we eat?” and eating relentlessly when he does eat. But by now it’s apparent that all of the story is going to fall flat and all drama inert.

No more so than the scenes between Beatty and Madonna, who will not do anything here to dissuade those who say she cannot act. They are positioning her as a Marylin Monroe type, and, especially in retrospect, it just doesn’t fly. Personally, I have never found Madonna remotely sexy, and have never quite understood why she was always positioned that way. Here, almost 20 years later, she kind of comes off like that sad, insecure woman we all know at least one of who is constantly dressing a little too sexy and relentlessly insisting that we all think of her as reallllly sexy and hot. Her scenes with Beatty, which are supposed to generate heat and really form the backbone of the story, such as it is, are inert to the point that you can’t follow them! There is just no heat whatsoever. Beatty also makes the strange decision to never let Madonna sing a complete song—perhaps to avoid the impression of some form of nepotism in casting his then-girlfriend in this role? I don’t know, but he could have gotten at least a little energy for his movie by letting her perform a song, but they are all broken up by editing, killing off any momentum they may have helped create.

While we’re on the topic, perhaps we should note that this film [and soundtrack] contains the flattest note of Madonna’s career, in which she is singing a Sondheim song called Sooner or Later, part of which goes “…Baby and then… I’m counting to TEEEEAAAAHHHHHHNNNNN,” that last part sounding like the grinding of a tanker hull against an iceberg. It happens at about 54:20… check it out!

So it seems clear that they wanted to create stock, comic-book characters with simple motivations and even more simple short, declarative dialogue, to go with the look of the film, the whole goal being to really move the experience of the comic onto the screen. The problem is that while that may work for a four-panel comic that you read once a day, a 90-minute movie is an entirely different form, and works best with a story that has a little depth and characters one can get involved with. You’ve got to fill 90 minutes and keep an audience interested, and a concept alone isn’t enough to do that. Here, the drama is flat-out dead inert by 15 minutes in, leaving you an hour and 15 minutes to go! And curiously, the dialogue is so flat and stylized, I had trouble finding the interest to even FOLLOW the story, simplistic as it is. The last half hour becomes just a parade of pictures to be endured until the allotted time limit is up, as any and all interest in the story has completely evaporated.

So it turns out that the mysterious person behind the whole plot was Breathless, even though it sure seemed like we were seeing her performing and at the nightclub while her masked self was supposedly out doing evil deeds, but one doesn’t care enough to go back and check. Regardless, she was supposedly doing all this so she and Tracy could be together and it’s all supposed to hinge on the feeling she has for him—imperceptible—and the conflict he feels over his attraction to her—equally imperceptible. So you have these two stars walking through these motions, and all these images floating by onscreen, which the entire story turns upon, but by now you’re just wondering what you’re going to eat afterward.

So watching this movie made me pull out my old I’m Breathless CD and re-listen to the only two songs I really like on it: “He’s a Man” and “Something to Remember.” Both of these songs are sung in the persona of Breathless and written about her feelings for Tracy, and not only are they some of Madonna’s best-ever songs in terms of SONGWRITING [i.e. not getting your feet to move], they contain a characterization of MARKEDLY greater depth than anything that appears in the film! “He’s a Man” expresses Breathless’ admiration of Tracy because his moral fiber makes him much stronger, more attractive and more masculine than any of the lowlife thugs in her immediate world. “Something to Remember” again expresses Breathless’ love of Tracy, the only one to tell her to “Love yourself, or nobody else can.” The song is good in that it roots Breathless’ admiration for Tracy partially in the very fact that he won’t be with HER, which expresses the very self-loathing he is telling her to get over. These songs make one wonder what kind of character relationship Beatty and Madonna may have originally discussed that got watered-down by the time the film actually neared completion. If their on-screen relationship had the poignancy and depth of these songs, the entire film might have worked! It just makes you wonder what might have been.

So it’s too bad, because a lot of thought and effort obviously went into this film, it’s just that it was all so misguided. It is based on the idea that people COULD really get into a purely visual experience with a simple, comic-book story, without really thinking about whether they really DO. Any number of other movies since then have lived or died by the same principle: 300 had an entirely synthetic visual look, but had a story to tell, so it remained interesting. Sin City is a close analogue, and was busy with stories to tell, but even so the unreality of the visuals began to make the entire thing boring by the end. The Spirit also used a highly-stylized comic book style and tried to have the dialogue be a knowing rehash of comic dialogue, and it almost coasted by on its atmosphere of silliness, but was still dramatically inert by halfway in, leaving the rest of the film as just something to be endured. So I guess in retrospect, Dick Tracy comes off as the warning sign that all of those films [save 300] should have learned the lessons of—and didn’t.

Should you watch it: 

Not unless you’re a big Madonna fan or are forgiving of nice visuals without a story.