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Frame to Frames: Dick Tracy

There have been some phenomenal comic book-to-film adaptations. Even in the earliest days of the age of superheroes there have been filmakers who understood how to take the characters from a few panels per page to 24 panels-per-second. There are some pretty kickass serial movies from the forties; Spy Smasher (1942) and Batman (1943) come to mind. Some of these adaptations are so good that original aspects from them are incorporated into the comics. The Fleischer cartoons still influence Superman (and the DCU at large to a lesser extent) to this day. There have been times were the number of adaptations waxed and waned but before the current post-Spider-Man renaissance of blockbusters there was an era that almost was. The early 1990s had entertaining, action-packed, and often-flawless adaptations of off-beat and non-superhero comics galore. Going down the list there's Rocketeer, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Batman Returns [DISPUTED], the Crow, the Mask, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles just to name a few. As the opening salvo in this cavalcade of cinematic awesomeness we have:
Dick Tracy was originally by Chester Gould who was a genius for taking a pulp hardboiled noir detective and simply splashing him with scads of color. Gould understood all the strengths of the comic strip: the caricature, the silliness, the brightness and life and glorious color. He also keenly understood what made the dick characters of the era cool. Tough as nails, crime-stomping, kick in the door and beatdown the crooks cool.
"Calling Dick Tracy! Come in Tracy!"
There is also the unique and pulp-y two-way radio watch, a gadget worthy of James Bond but distinctly Tracy. Beyond the watch and the rogues Dick Tracy does not stray far from a straight crime-buster story. His heroics are human.
Pulp Detective + Comic Strip = AWESOME
Warren Beatty was not only a fan of the comic strip but a passionate fan. He successfully wrestled almost all control over the project to himself (he had a concept to do a Dick Tracy film in '75 and pursued it as it came up in various iterations for following 15 years).
"There was one Napoleon! One Washington! One me!!"
By 1988 he managed to become producer, director, and star of the project. He even agreed to deduct budget overages from his own salary just so he could do what he wanted. You've got to admire his gusto. You can see some of it in both principal characters of the film, in fact.
There are few men of such unparalleled ambition even in Hollywood and Beatty was really into Dick Tracy. Most men harbor a deep and abiding affection for some comic from their childhood. Even cool movie stars. I like that about him.
"Keep your dirty mitts off the stuff I like, you hacks!"
Fortunately for all of us Beatty isn't just a nerd but a great filmmaker. At the most basic element of design he did just what Gould did: he and art designer John Caglione took a 30's cops and robbers movie and splashed it in color. The whole thing is drenched in bright and vivid tones that perfectly reflect the glory of Gould's strips.
The buildings, the furniture, the clothing, and the people are all colorful
The entire world is a gaudy display and it immerses the viewer entirely and pulls you into the setting like Alice down the rabbit hole. With tones of art deco and strong lines in stark colors the characters are often framed in boxes and the viewer is looking at a comic panel without even knowing it.
Dick Tracy is sneaky that way.
That's just the beginning though. Beatty surrounded himself with people who took his vision and breathed wondrous new life into it. The script is by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr, one of two they wrote for John Landis to direct in the early 80's. Beatty had hoped to star and that is how he got involved in the production. He liked one of the scripts and when the production fell apart Beatty bought the film rights for himself. He took his style and the Cash and Epps script to Disney.
Beatty was nothing if not persistent
Cash and Epps weren't the only thing that Beatty thought the failed production got right. He also agreed with their choice of star: him!
Hell yeah, 'Tracy Triumphs'
And I happen to agree. Beatty has the hard-nosed detective aspect of Tracy down pat. He is unflapped by both bribes and the threat of explosion. He throws punches and will gun down a crook without blinking.
Another pulp image: the protagonist tied and in peril but cool as a yellow cucumber
That's not to say that the violence is the point of the character. Far from it. A lighter spirit tends to prevail. Tracy's awkward and shy relationship with Tess, his upright tutelage of the Kid, and unerring righteousness keep Tracy squarely in the comic book realm. As for who would oppose Tracy's quest for law and order there was only one choice in the director's mind.
Beatty said he always envisioned Pacino playing Big Boy Caprice since his initial concept in '75. The two of them had been in competition for arch-gangster Michael Corleone and Beatty saw Pacino as having the potential to be the greatest realistic, introspective gangster as well as the greatest over-the-top caricature of a gangster. He had no idea.
Pacino delivers the line "I AM THE LAW" with more gusto than Sly Stallone ever could
Al Pacino transformed Alphonse Caprice into a character worthy of the name Big Boy. Smarmy, violent, and arrogant Big Boy has long been overlooked for how phenomenal he is as a villain. Doug Drexler's makeup (especially the chin and the mole) transform Pacino into the face of a criminal Napoleon. Added to this is Pacino's hunched, manic, and fidgeting physicalities. Big Boy is unrepentantly greedy and crooked. He kills friend and foe alike - He blows up competitor gangster James Caan and has the corrupt DA Dick Van Dyke shot in an attempt to frame Tracy. And as for Paul Sorvino's character boss Lips Manless...
"The Bath" - An AMAZING pulp way to off someone
Big Boy's plan in the film is to orchestrate the unionization of the crime rackets (it's the 30's after all) and he even goes so far as tying Tess Trueheart (Tracy's sweetheart) to the moving gears of a drawbridge.
I guess there weren't any train tracks around...
The host of bizarre and outlandish rogues that are encountered throughout the film are another essential element of the Dick-verse that this film hits a home run with.
No Face is a character from the strip with a unique twist for the movie

One of the only mistakes this movie makes is not enough Little-Face
To add to this Beatty (a pianist himself) got the creme de la creme of the scene to do the music for Dick Tracy. Fresh off of Batman and Darkman Danny Elfman was a natural choice for the score. Beatty worked with him on the themes (though Elfman wasn't too happy about some of his input) and the result was a resounding success. Bold and unique, the melodies ring true in both tone and in accenting the era. In my humble opinion it stands out as brilliant accomplishment in a career of many fine successes for Mr. Elfman.
It even makes this blogpost cooler!
And as if that weren't enough Stephen Sondheim was brought on for four songs. They are catchy, unique, and with the unparalleled clever and emotive flare of Sondheim. One is sung by Mel Torme and plays on the radio for a montage of Dick, Tess, and the Kid. The other three songs are all sung by Madonna, including Sooner or Later, arguably the most famous number from Dick Tracy.
Madonna performed it at the Oscars that year
And the vocal performances of Madonna are the third element which gives Dick Tracy a sound that is almost unheard of in film.
Get it? UNHEARD of!
Madonna was dating Warren Beatty at the time which is fortunate for him because A- he got to sleep with Madonna at the height of her sexiness and B- she was Breathless Mahoney. Just like Big Boy is the quintessential gangster Breathless is unmatched in the category of moll.
Plus, like I said: the absolute height of her sexiness
The story is engrossing and compelling. It is rife with sentiment and suspense and the kind of violence that modern audiences expect. Make no mistake- this movie can go toe to toe with any gangster or action movie as far as action violence is concerned.
The final shootout is a bloodbath as all of Big Boy's henchmen as gunned down in a hail of tommy gun fire. The reason that all of this is rendered somehow less bloodcurdling is due to the fact that it's all so bright and colorful. Also, the movie holds the same taboos: killing is ok but showing blood isn't.
Now THAT'S some PG family entertainment
But it's effective nonetheless. It achieves onscreen what the Dick Tracy comic strip did - Making these violent adult adventures suitable for everyone. Though perfectly suitable for kids Dick Tracy can be viewed and enjoyed by adults just as well. The fact that's it's a quasi-musical also adds to the perception that it is somehow less violent than it is.
Beatty adds the 'Badass' subtype any time he is equipped with a Tommy Gun
Plus, there are great performances from the entire star-studded cast. Seymour Cassel, Charles Durning, Glenne Headley and so many more talented, big-name actors clutter the screen. All of them deliver and garbed in gaudy colors and bathed in bright lights they seem to belong to the world and never distract from the drama. If anything, their performances are so unique that the performers disappear into the over-the-top four-color characters. Remember Dustin Hoffman for example?
Oh yeah, and that's Kathy Bates in the background as the stenographer. Seriously.
Somehow, critics and audiences alike managed to miss all of this. Dick Tracy's profits were lackluster and the reviews mixed.
Pictured: Roger Ebert's Review
How the entire population and most of the critics can completely whiff on such an awesome film is beyond me. I guess Dick Tracy just used up all it's awesome on the movie itself.
Al Pacino undressing Madonna: What more did they want?!
Despite this the Oscars recognized the accomplishments of Dick Tracy and justly rewarded them. Dick Tracy got more nominations and more wins than any other comic book movie (eat it Dark Knight). Art Direction (John Caglione), Make Up (Doug Drexler), and the song "Sooner or Later" by Stephen Sondheim all took home Academy Awards. In addition, Tracy had four other nominations.
Including a well-deserved nomination for Al Pacino
Dick Tracy remains one of the greatest examples of how to adapt a comic book (or any source material for that matter) to the big screen. Passion and prestige need to be guiding elements. Staying true to the original subject is important but not as important as staying true to the spirit of the subject. Major aspects of the film should be informed by the source and the more that the world of the comic is embraced then the better the movie will be. And as Fred Greenburg used to say "they're just funnybooks" - so above all have fun!

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