“Dick Tracy”: a piece of comic book movies history

In the current deluge of comic book movies it’s kinda hard to remember that a little over 10 years ago we rarely ever got a diamond like the Batmen from Nolan, tolerable Spidermen from Raimi or mostly acceptable X-Men. Mostly, though, we shouldn’t have had expected anything above the abysmal level of your Fantastic Fours, Elektras or Green Lanterns. And the decade before that was even worse, with the Dark Knight deteriorating right before our eyes from the gothic vision of Tim Burton to the bottomless pit of Joel Schumacher (whom I still respect as a director for some of his other work – I’m going to defend Falling Down and Phone Booth to my dying breath). It’s sometimes hard to remember the comic book cinema had so many attempts before to rise to the level it only now achieved.

The verge of 80s and 90s was an interesting moment in this narrative, because we just got the first actual cinematic Batman and it collectively blew everyone’s minds. For the first time in over ten years (when the first two Superman movies happened, only to deteriorate with later installments akin to the Dark Crusader later on) people saw a truly engaging comic book adaptation on a big screen, envisioned by the aforementioned Tim Burton in a dark and gothic quasi-1940s American city, staying true to the character’s comic stip origins.

And in 2018 it’s also easy – despite the amount of money Disney pumped into marketing, and I even remember my teenage at that time sister to have a poster on her wall in very-recently-not-Communist Poland – to not remember a movie that followed it in a similar vein. Warren Beatty’s 1990’s Dick Tracy could almost be seen as a sister flick to Burton’s year prior Batman in the way it’s stylized. You could even mistake some stills (and the camera in the movie is purposefully still in all shots – save for scene transitions – to mimic the feel of a comic strip) for those from Batman, only painted over with some vivid primary colors. I have to admit, after almost thirty years the movie still looks amazing: the 1940s sets and props, the use of colors in sets, cars and especially costumes, the magnificent matte paintings – perfectly balanced between realistic and artictic to blend the reality with comic book fiction – and their masterful composition with live action and finally the audacity of bad guys’ make up and prosthetics. All the plastic faces and impossible skull shapes are taken straight from the comic book pages and shamelessly placed on faces with really big names (Al Pacino, James Caan, unrecognizable Dustin Hoffman, among others) with such disarming certainty that you can’t do much but applaud. Somehow this all works, because the style is just so deeply rooted in its medium of origin that you buy it – the colors, the faces, the ridiculous names and gadgets. 1978’s Superman was advertised with the line “You’ll believe a man can fly”; neither Dick Tracy nor his year prior cape-clad brother would expect you to believe anything you see on screen with the gothic artificiality of what they show, but they create their worlds with absolute dedication to the style.

madonna-dick-tracy-movie-promo-0042
I dare you to recognize some of these faces.

Unfortunately, in case of Dick Tracy the style much surpasses the substance. Even three decades ago the plot lifted as faithfully from the detective comic strip from 1940s with as the visuals were was already pretty dated. The always-second-to-the-job girlfriend (why the hell is she still with him? And even if she isn’t, going back to mommy is her default backup? Doesn’t she herself have a job?), the femme fatale (am I only one in the world to not find Madonna attractive? Even her 32 years old self?), the street urchin (he’s not even a witness to a crime, why the hell is he in this movie?), the damsel in distress (how long was she kidnapped for, exactly?), the – ugh – “love” triangle (whaaat?) – the movie started great, when I was busy absorbing the style, but the cliche-ridden and trope-overdosed (and they’re stale tropes at that) plot quickly made me completely lose interest in the story.

That’s a pity, because with how this movie looks – even by modern standards – this could really be something amazing. I can understand that, though. Hell, the movie was nominated for 7 oscars! And got three! Granted, mostly in technical categories (and deservedly so), but Al Pacino got nominated for his performance (and Madonna was praised for her, which, again – whaaat?). In that era of comic book movies we didn’t know much better.

But we didn’t. The plot to Batman, if we look closely, is actually just as formulaic, only the formula wasn’t as stale back then as Dick Tracy‘s already was. Who knows? Maybe a modern retelling, with just as uncompromising visual style (Guardians of the Galaxy showed us it’s possible… as long as some right-wing dickhead doesn’t tweetbomb your career out of spite) and a story more to current standards could bring the yellow trenchcoat-clad detective back to public view again?

You can read this and other reviews on my Letterboxd profile.

PS. In my research about Dick Tracy I found this:

On February 15, 1945, Command Performance presented “Dick Tracy in B Flat,” or “For Goodness Sakes, Isn’t He Ever Going To Marry Tess Trueheart?” Billed as “the world’s first comic strip operetta”, it starred Bing Crosby as Dick Tracy, Dinah Shore as Tess Trueheart, and Bob Hope as Flattop Jones. The cast also included Jerry Colonna (police chief), Frank Morgan (Vitamin Flintheart), Jimmy Durante (The Mole), Judy Garland (Snowflake Falls), The Andrews Sisters (The Summer Sisters—May, June & July), Frank Sinatra (Shaky), Cass Daley (Gravel Gertie), and Harry Von Zell (narrator).The storyline has Dick Tracy’s wedding with Tess Trueheart repeatedly interrupted by major villains putting Tracy in elaborate deathtraps.

This. Must. Have. Been. FUCKING. Amazing.

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