DICK TRACY (1990)
Directed by: Warren BeattyWritten by: Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr. (Characters by Chester Gould)
DICK TRACY in one sentence:
Yourself: What better way to ring in the '90s than a superhero detective slathering tie-dye Tim Burton onto Sam Spade?
Golem: The system of justice is a childish game of tug-of-war, where one side bests the other by use of a comical montage (and tommy guns).
Here's a story about me and DICK TRACY:
Yourself: As a child I thought Dick Tracy was the Phantom, for reasons so obvious I won't explain.
Golem: This is the first I've seen of him!
Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: The reveal of No-Face's secret identity kinda pancakes it. Mahoney is dead before she's even unmasked; you couldn't get a more Scooby-Doo moment if you tried.
No-Face is this black-suited literally faceless nihilist, intent on decimating order - be it the rule of law or Big Boy's criminal empire. And blanch-faced Mahoney does bring that to Tracy's doorstep, threatening to ruin the order of his life by pulling him away from Tess and the Kid. Functionally, the link makes sense.
But that's stuff you think about three days later. I don't get how the two gel and I definitely don't get Mahoney as a character. What the hell is "Tracy, we can rule this city together", aside from just being a line from EMPIRE STRIKES BACK? Why does she sit around singing in a club taking Big Boy's shit all day? If constant abuse at the hands of Big Boy turned her into a nihilist, I need five more minutes of movie to understand that. No-Face is a regular Superman: eventually you start to wonder why Kal-El takes time out of his day to be a foppish reporter.
Golem: I thought Kal-El enjoyed being a foppish reporter.
Mahoney sings over the montages where one side overcomes the other, which maybe kind of suggests she's pulling strings? It vaguely works as a figurative gesture, but it has little if any basis in the plot.
No-Face frames Dick Tracy for the murder of D.A. Fletcher, getting Dick out of her way. Dick's buddies break him out, and that's the end of it, not even a confession from 88 Keys (perhaps offscreen?). While it's not a critical bug, it still leaves me itching after the credits roll.
The aesthetic was basically:
Yourself: Hey, you got your Skittles in my Humphrey Bogart! Call an ambulance! The rainbow color thing is almost too bizarre - there's no rhyme or reason to what color anything will be, and it starts to feel like a '60s Batman episode gone off the rails. I think, and this might just be me making shit up, that the level of color contrast ultimately made it hard for anything to be particularly effectively lighted and instead of washed out like Batman, the movie looks a bit dim.
Every outside scene is a matte painting. Clearly that's a thing, but it's a thing I never fully got into.
Danny Elfman did the score, which shows in the theme that I couldn't distinguish from BATMAN's, but the aural mood is overtaken by the flapper kicky-legs musical numbers. All for the better; Elfman toodle-oodling is not what this movie needed.
Golem: The high contrast and often-dim lighting make DICK TRACY a treat just to look at. There was one point where Yourself and I were wondering why there was such a big streak of yellow in the street.
You've got exaggerated personalities running around in an ultimately kind of sad world. I think it was Yourself himself who remarked that the acting felt more theatrical, overstated so that you can hear it from the nosebleed seats. You can tell who's bad and who's good from a mile away. The movie is a mess of personalities the same way it's a mess of colors. And, combined with the painted exterior shots, the whole world felt fake (a strange thing to say when I watched this the same weekend as THE MATRIX). The system of justice is portrayed as a childish game of tug-of-war, where one side bests the other by use of a comical montage.
On the other hand, Mahoney is out of step with the rest of the film, always clad in black with freakishly pale skin. To match, her acting is some of the most sober (although comical when set against Dick himself), and her alliances are the most difficult to sort out.
Performances to speak of?
Yourself: It's hard not to like Al Pacino (so much so that the avi file I snatched advertised itself as "Dick Tracy Al Pacino Action"). Aside from his ridiculous fat suit I thought he made the most of the grotesque make-up, playing up body language and facial expressions. That weirdo scene with him producing a dance number is unseasonably fun. I like the way he puffs up his chest for a big angry-Pacino speech early on and then gradually peels down to a zany blowhard as the film winds down.
He wasn't amazing, but child star [whoever] did a perfectly entertaining job as The Kid. It is rare to be able to tolerate a main character under age 17.
Golem: I'd watch more Warren Beatty. Dick's stone-faced response to everything from his buddies to Mahoney is always entertaining if not funny. I have a hard time imagining what he would be like in a normal movie.
A really cool shot or sequence:
Yourself: Considering my distaste for the painted backdrops, I'll have to go with the climax with Tess tied to the gears of the... uh... I think they were under the drawbridge? You've got some spooky PHANTOM OF THE OPERA shadows being cast, and getting crushed in clock gears is a pretty horrific fate. Plus it reminds me of Castlevania (64) AND Castle of Illusion. Considering that Big Boy is pretty much a hunchback, etc. etc. Interestingly, this is not a particularly colorful scene - order is breaking down! No-Face is gaining control and sucking the color out of the world! This is starting to feel like a children's cartoon!
Golem: When Dick Tracy finds Kid, he dukes it out with Kid's... caretaker. Most of the fist fights in the movie are just Dick wailing away on someone, but here, the film cuts outside, and we get an animated shot of a flimsy old shed rocking back and forth with each punch thrown. It's far from my favorite shot or sequence, but it's among the most notable and distinct.
What does it all really mean?
Yourself: Probably my favorite aspect of the movie is the way it sets up our heroes as the core family unit that doesn't realize it's a family unit. Your husband'll get a desk job before he gets a girlfriend, the wife likes living alone, and their son, well, he's an orphan. It's really satisfying the way the relationships are built up dynamically before our eyes. They don't stick up for each other because they're a family - they're a family because they stick up for each other! There's genuine emotional payoff when The Kid shows off his certificate reading "Dick Tracy Jr." or when Tracy tosses that ring to Tess. The juxtaposition of the would-be sap with the wry characters makes for the best possible kind of laugh.
Golem: On the other hand, Big Boy forces a family. He usurps henchmen, and he arm-twists his fellow thugs into partnership with him. And then there's Mahoney, who slips from relationship to relationship; at first ready to join Big Boy's side, later trying to force a relationship on Dick. She plays the opposite of Kid, who resists family with all his might only to find himself happily in one.
But what it all comes down to is: when Dick asks a buddy to jump, he replies, "On what part of the wooden plank?"
Note to future self on watching DICK TRACY:
Yourself: Give up on color theory. Close your eyes when The Kid is eating. Watching Dick Tracy be Dick Tracy is enough to enjoy.
Golem: Try to remember all of the crazy thug names.