Back when Dick Tracy first came out, I went to the opening night event. The tickets were T-shirts with tickets printed on them (left), and each theater had a permanent stamp they used to mark the yellow block at the top. I remember thoroughly enjoying that night, but perhaps it was more due to the company I was in that night than the film itself. After watching the film recently, I am sure of it.
After a long and tortuous path, Warren Beatty directed and starred in this homage to the classic detective comic strip. He created the film with a limited color palette, just like the original strip. The lighting in the film put everything into sharp contrasts with plenty of shadows, just like in the original strip. Also like the original strip, the story was extremely basic and two dimensional, lacking the depth needed for a good film.
The best acting in Dick Tracy was by Glenne Headly as Tess Trueheart and Charlie Korsmo as the Kid. I absolutely loved Headly in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and she did the best she could in this film. Like Olivia Newton John in Xanadu, every scene she was in was made better because she was there. She fairly sparkled, outshining even the bright color palette. Korsmo brought an earnestness to his role that made him very endearing. He was down on his luck, and you wanted him to catch a lucky break.
Beatty, as Dick Tracy, seemed more concerned with getting camera angles and lighting right than creating a character that appealed to the audience. It was almost like watching an art gallery move by slowly, with each scene mounted on the wall for my consideration. Very rarely, a little personality would creep through the tough facade until it was noticed, and then it was back to the stony, film-noir dramatic look.
Madonna was totally wasted in Dick Tracy. She can act (I loved her in Evita), and she can sing. Whatever was going on here—whether it was the script, the direction, or a combination of the two…I don’t know—made her performance bad on all levels. Her acting was very stilted and overdone, and didn’t feel natural at all. The songs she sang were just really, really bad—sorry, Sondheim, I often love your work, but these were just awful. Even the score by Danny Elfman felt off much of the time. It was disappointing all around.
Another part that was frustrating was how the film couldn’t seem to make up its mind what it was. It seemed to vacillate between a serious noir film and a goofy 1960s Batman craziness. It was as if the script had multiple personalities, and they were constantly battling over which one would show up. It made for a very confusing feel to Dick Tracy.
I applaud the art direction and production design in the film. They were going for a look that evoked the comic strips (especially the Sunday strips), and they really captured it. Every scene felt like it was taken directly from the strip. It was a visual feast. Perhaps this was one of the things my subconscious remembered liking, and I still do.
The stilted storyline and pacing, the lackluster music, and the inconsistent acting and direction led to a film that tried to do too many edgy things, and didn’t do most of them very well. I can’t recommend Dick Tracy unless you are watching only for the design. What a disappointment.
Release Date: June 15, 1990 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG
Alcohol/Drugs: 2 (some smoking and social drinking)
Nudity: 1 (full breasts briefly but clearly visible through sheer fabric)
Sexuality: 2 (frequent double entendre, very revealing outfits)
Violence: 2 (mob gun fights, murder, fisticuffs)