Revisiting Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty's forgotten blockbuster.

The joy of blockbusters.
June 21 2010 7:43 PM

Remember Dick Tracy?

It had Warren Beatty. Al Pacino. Madonna. Songs by Sondheim.

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Dick Tracy. Click image to expand.

On the evening of June 14, 1990, theaters across America filled with audiences clad in identical T-shirts, each bearing a cartoon rendering of Warren Beatty in a yellow overcoat and toting a blazing machine gun. The T-shirts doubled as tickets to the first public screenings of Dick Tracy. Beneath Beatty's image were the words: "I was there first," a boast to last until the thread wore thin.  

You can still find these shirts on eBay, alongside plenty of other merchandise from the Dick Tracy explosion of 1990. Such items invariably float in the wake of Hollywood blockbusters, but Dick Tracy merchandise—from the McDonald's soda cups to an Ice-T single—have the poignant quality that attaches to items announcing a phenomenon that never materializes. Borrowing tactics from the Warner Bros. promotional campaign that had turned Tim Burton's Batman into a cultural touchstone the previous year, Disney had spent months priming audiences for the movie event of the year. The rollout began in the spring. Madonna, who was to play Breathless Mahoney in the film (and was at the time Beatty's girlfriend), toured behind I'm Breathless, an album of songs "from and inspired by" Dick Tracy. (It included three new songs by Stephen Sondheim.) The message was clear: Something big was on its way.

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Where did it go? It's not that the movie has been unavailable; those so inclined can easily pick up the feature-free DVD released without fanfare in 2002. But who thinks about Dick Tracy today? Hollywood of course produces forgettable films all the time, tacky products like The Golden Child and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlesthat are destined to live only in their moment and no longer. But that wasn't the case with Dick Tracy, an adaptation of Chester Gould's venerable comic-strip. It is operatic in theme and scale, filled with stars, staffed by pros, and outfitted with all the lavish production values a studio could buy in 1990. It has, in other words, the makings of a big-budget popcorn classic in the mold of Batman or The Untouchables. What happened?

It looked so good on paper. Besides Madonna and Sondheim (who had provided the score for Beatty's Reds), Beatty lined up a murderers' row of collaborators. Al Pacino signed on as Tracy's antagonist, the gangster "Big Boy" Caprice. For the score, he hired Danny Elfman, fresh from Batman and then the most distinctive composer of action and fantasy film scores since John Williams. Richard Sylbert and Rick Simpson provided the production design, creating a dark, Deco wonderland of rain-wet streets and glowing neon, limiting their palette to seven colors, against which Tracy's yellow overcoat glowed like a beacon of light. To capture this world, Beatty turned to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who'd worked memorably with Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Ford Coppola and given Reds its distinctive golden tones. Re-creating the look of Gould's rogues' gallery of deformed bad guys, John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler headed the makeup, turning actors into criminal grotesques with self-explanatory names like Flattop, the Brow, and the Rodent.

Alas, Tracy's collection of well-crafted elements rarely works in concert. The production design is a wonder, a wholly artificial world that anticipates the immersive fantasylands that CGI would make commonplace in the decades to follow. Beatty had created what Roger Ebert called in his four-star review "a world that never could be." Yet it's a garish, unappealing world. A master of making painterly compositions out of the natural world, Storaro never gets a chance to play to his strengths here (and a few shots of a natural blue sky peaking over the tops of the buildings have a jarring effect). And the sights rarely match the sounds. Elfman's score suggests a more modern movie than the one at hand, while Sondheim's witty songs speak to depths of feeling that the one-dimensional characters will never know.

Some elements, particularly some performances, don't fit at all. Peter Biskind notes in his recent Warren Beatty biography, Star—a book as compelling, thorough, and distasteful as Biskind's other Hollywood chronicles—that Pacino's take on his gangster bad guy was imported wholesale from a production of Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. But the self-conscious Brechtian touches distract viewers' attention from the living comic strip surroundings, directing their attention instead to the sight of a famous actor who is Acting. Madonna, at the height of her fame and theoretically a natural fit as the femme fatale, delivers line readings that continually land on the wrong side of the line between suggestive and vulgar. (A double entendre involving peach ice cream is a particularly low point.)

The blame, however, belongs more to management than labor. Beatty made a film with visionary elements but without a guiding vision. As a producer and star, Beatty had helped usher in a new era of Hollywood filmmaking with Bonnie and Clydein 1967, and in the years that followed, he'd largely chosen projects that had helped to keep that inventive spirit alive, like his 1981 passion project, Reds, a witty, elegiac epic about the leftist journalist John Reed. But at the time that movie appeared, Hollywood was becoming less hospitable to costly visionaries. Between Reds and Dick Tracy, Beatty made only one movie, 1987's Ishtar, a notorious flop that's slightly—only slightly—better than its reputation. Produced by Beatty and helmed by the talented Elaine May, Ishtar was Beatty's attempt to swim with the tide in a decade that had made action-comedies like Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop hits. It didn't work out well for anyone involved—May never directed another movie—but Beatty seems to have taken the wrong lessons from it, crafting his next film in even greater deference to mainstream tastes. He'd always worked best challenging the prevailing trends; with Dick Tracy, he surrendered to them.

True, he did it in style, gracefully marrying blockbuster bigness to classic Hollywood filmmaking. (You'd have a hard time finding another movie from Dick Tracy's time as filled with swirling newspaper montage sequences and thinly motivated musical numbers.) But look for Beatty's heart and you won't find it here. His most memorable performances—the idealistic, blinkered Reed in Reds; the impotent Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde; the womanizing hairdresser who finds his soul too late in Shampoo—have been as men with complicated inner lives. He appears uneasy playing it straight in Dick Tracy; only the scenes in which Madonna's Mahoney tempts him to stray from his girlfriend Tess Trueheart draw on his strengths. The infrequent action scenes feel half-hearted at best. The film moves at a chug when it should put the pedal to the floor.

It didn't help that to match the expectations of its hype, Dick Tracy would have had to win acclaim and financial success on an almost unimaginable scale. Nicole Laporte, writing about Dick Tracy in The Men Who Would Be King, refers to the film as a "staggering disaster," but that's not quite accurate. Dick Tracy drew respectful if not glowing reviews and broke the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, then the benchmark for financial success. (It had cost $47 million, not including the marketing budget.) But, as Biskind notes, it fell short of Batman numbers and failed to move merchandise at a Batman-like clip. Its performance made Disney stock dip.

More telling, perhaps, is the fact that the film enjoyed no afterlife. It won a few Oscars (for art direction, makeup, and best song), then made its way to cable. It's not spoken of today in the same breath as  Back to the Future, Die Hard, Jurassic Park, or other near-contemporaries, nor has it enjoyed any kind of revival as an overlooked cult film, like Joe Versus the Volcano or Miami Blues, both released the same year. Inescapable in 1990, it's become at best a hazy memory.

An obsessive perfectionist if even half the stories in Biskind's book are to be believed, Beatty has no one to blame but himself. He meant Dick Tracy to be every inch a Warren Beatty film, asking credit for the script from the WGA, despite the sizable contributions of screenwriter Bo Goldman. (Credit ultimately went to Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., who wrote an earlier draft.) *The earnestness of the film's hero and the moral simplicity of its universe can't hide the calculation beneath it all. The man who'd once helped to make Hollywood safe for individual voices had decided to come in from the cold. Spurred by months of publicity, crowds paid to see it—some even stayed up late to see it first—but Dick Tracy's slow slide from public consciousness was beginning by the end of its first weekend. The lesson, one that future blockbusters have sadly failed to heed: You can make a movie into an event, but it takes more than a T-shirt to make audiences remember it.

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Correction, June 23, 2010: This article originally stated that Warren Beatty received screenwriting credit for Dick Tracy. Only Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. did. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.

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