Released only a year after Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Dick Tracy (1990) was caught up in comparisons of financial and audience expectations. After all, both films were based on 1930s comic creations, had big budgets, big stars, and utilized mononymous pop music icons (Prince for Batman, Madonna for Dick Tracy) to cross-promote with best-selling albums. The marketing push for Dick Tracy was enormous, with McDonald’s toys, action figures, View-Masters, kites, yo-yos, coloring books, beach blankets and more available prior to the release of the film. Even the passes for the Thursday midnight screenings were black t-shirts with a ticket printed on the front and the name and address of the theater stamped into a yellow square on the ticket. But, instead of another real-life cartoon in the Batman vein, what Dick Tracy director Warren Beatty created was a Summer Blockbuster that hewed to a fairly strict adoption of many of the formalist aspects of the comic strips the source material came from, had a healthy respect for the crime films and films noir of the 1930s and 1940s, and gave us a disturbing, yet titillating, view of Beatty’s sexual obsession with Madonna.
Not known as a visual stylist for his previous directorial efforts Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Reds (1981), Beatty nevertheless decided to bring the form of comic strips to the screen for Dick Tracy as much as the content. The most recognizable aspect of this commitment is the color scheme. In printing Sunday comic strip inserts, four colors of dye were used: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK). These dyes were used in tandem to expand the palette to greens, violets and oranges. Using Dick Tracy’s iconic yellow overcoat and fedora as a starting point, it made sense to expand this aesthetic to the rest of the production design: sets, costumes and lighting all look as if they stepped out of Chester Goulding’s original illustrations. But Beatty took it one step further by insisting that each of the eight colors created (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, fuchsia and black) was restricted to the same hue, further limiting the palette and making the look stand out as unique. There are no grays in Tracy’s world, at least not on the outside.
Not as conspicuous is what Beatty does with the frame. He worked with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to use as many short lenses as possible, providing a large depth of field for each shot, keeping much of the image in focus. This mimics the panels of a comic strip where very little is included that is not seen, or seen clearly. Sometimes to get this effect Beatty would composite two in-focus shots together – one a close-up in the foreground, the other a more distant medium shot – to get the information he wanted in the frame. The camera is also straight, with no canted angles and very few high or low shots.
Then Beatty wanted to keep the camera in one position. Just as the panels of a comic move from shot to shot, so too does Dick Tracy try to keep the camera still and work all movement within the context of the frame. There are still pans, mostly used for establishing place, but very infrequently does the camera itself move on a track or zoom in or out. The three of these elements together accomplish much of what Ang Lee tried to do with 2003’s Hulk in bringing comics, in both form and content, to life in moving images.
Beatty is also very self-aware in his approach to representing the characters and narrative of the film, hearkening back to the gangster films, adventure serials and films noir of the ’30s and ’40s. There are little nods, such as the under-cranking of fist fights to make them look faster (which also had the effect of making the 53-year-old Beatty a more acceptable action star) and the ubiquitous use of tommy guns for shootouts. The styles of most of the costumes, despite being overly colorful, are as much directly influenced by the 1940s as the cars are by the 1930s. The diegetic music – songs by Stephen Sondheim – recalls the chorus numbers and torch songs of the era. The low-key lighting, use of silhouettes and shadowed faces are a direct reference to film noir.
Then there are the actors. The large cast of grizzled characters gave Beatty the opportunity to honor Hollywood’s criminal past by giving smaller roles to some of the actors of the classic period who were still alive. Perhaps the most prominent, although in non-speaking role, was Mike Mazurki. A Hall of Fame wrestler-turned-actor, Mazurki was seen as Moose Malloy in Murder, My Sweet (1944) and The Strangler in Night and the City (1950), as well as Splitface in the 1945 Dick Tracy. Beatty also cast Ian Wolfe (They Live by Night, 1948 On Dangerous Ground, 1951 and 99 River Street, 1953); Bing Russell (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955); and Hamilton Camp (Dark City, 1950). There were also great "faces" like Henry Silva and R.G. Armstrong. Beatty even managed to pay homage to the next generation of gangster films by re-teaming with his Bonnie and Clyde (1967) cast mate Michael J. Pollard, re-uniting Godfather (1972) brothers Al Pacino and James Caan in a brief scene, and casting William Forsythe (Once Upon a Time in America, 1984).
By most accounts, Beatty didn’t start dating Madonna until they were shooting Dick Tracy but, based on the costumes devised for her to wear, he obviously had an appreciation for her physical beauty prior to their relationship. She is dressed primarily in black, clearly setting her apart as the femme fatale of the piece. It is not a black of hiding or obfuscation, but a black of revelation, as the outfits leave little to the imagination. We first see her singing in a floor-length dress so tight you can see her diaphragm pressing the notes out. This scene also features one of those few camera moves, as it first takes her all in, and then slowly pushes toward her, invading her personal space, until we are in extreme close-up, kissing distance. When her character, Breathless Mahoney, first meets Tracy she is wearing a barely-there black dressing gown, nipples shaded through the gauze, and a pair of black panties. When she goes to Tracy’s apartment her dress starts at the floor but ends at her upper arms and laces in the back.
But her sexuality doesn’t end at her body. Her double entendres and overtures also set her apart from "good girl" Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). When Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) tells her, "If a girl don’t wear mink, she don’t wear nothin’" she replies, "Well, I look good both ways." She also tells Tracy at various times: "I sweat a lot better in the dark;" "I was beginning to wonder what a girl had to do to get arrested;" "What I’m looking for is a driver – preferably one with some mileage;" and "Fresh peach – better eat it right away, it’s starting to run a little." With the revealing costumes and suggestive language it’s a little surprising the film managed a PG-rating.
This ramped-up temptation is important to the most interesting part of the film, itself a callback to film noir – the temptation of the protagonist. Dick Tracy had always been a straight hero, physicalized by his square jaw, a staunch determination in the triumph of good over evil. Beatty’s characterization humanizes Tracy, calling into question his black-and-white worldview with shades of gray introduced by the two new people in his life: Breathless Mahoney and The Kid (Charlie Korsmo).
Tracy meets The Kid first as an enemy combatant when he steals a diner patron’s watch and Tracy chases him back to the urban squalor he calls home. Tracy rescues him from the monster-man that had been using The Kid to steal and feeds the hungry child, discovering him to be an orphan. His conclusion is to call the Welfare Society because "It’s the law... Look, Kid, if you don’t have a home with a mother and a father you go to the orphanage. It’s the law." Beatty plays it with a sense of remorseful capitulation, but when Tracy gets called away to a crime scene, he’s left with the problem of what to do with The Kid. After some internal debate he asks Tess to take him back to Tracy’s apartment, creating the first chink in his dogmatic armor.
After questioning some suspects Tracy arrests Big Boy at the Club Ritz where he meets Breathless for the first time. Intrigued, he goes backstage to question her and offer her protection, where she adopts a sexually aggressive stance, itself an ambiguity. "I know how you feel," she tells Tracy, "You don’t know if you want to hit me or kiss me. I get that a lot." By offering both The Kid and Breathless protection, the parallels have been drawn and the two will work in ignorant tandem to pull Tracy into the world of relative morality.
Tracy returns to his apartment to find The Kid sleeping in his bed. He and Tess take the following day to provide for The Kid, the way parents would. They buy him clothes and a baseball mitt. They take him to the park, play games with him and feed him to his heart’s content, all the while ignoring the need to call the Welfare Office. The day even leads Tracy to awkwardly attempt a proposal to Tess. The Kid is still in his life, not by following the law, but by following his heart.
It is no surprise that the next scene finds Breathless visiting Tracy at his office, where she continues her seduction. "Are you gonna make a move?" she asks him, "Or do I have to do everything?" He doesn’t deny her. He never denies her. "I’m on duty," he says, refusing to look at her.
The Kid is still staying at Tracy’s apartment when a welfare officer presumably shows up at the door. As The Kid escapes through a window, Tracy is talking through the door, unwilling to let The Kid out of his life just yet. "Let’s discuss this," he says, and "If you’ll just leave this situation to me..." before discovering that the welfare officer is actually a pair of thugs who have come to pick Tracy up and take him to Big Boy. Enamored of the family atmosphere he has been enjoying, The Kid helps save Tracy’s life, showing the type of bravery and gumption that ingratiates him even more with Tracy. The police department gives The Kid an honorary detective certificate and badge, bringing him closer to Tracy and making him an equal, of sorts.
Breathless visits Tracy again, this time at his apartment, the same place where The Kid is staying, and where his guard has been lowered. "If I testify against Big Boy he’ll have me bumped off," Breathless tells him.
Tracy: "They’d have to bump me off first."
Tracy: "Because I’d be protecting you twenty-four hours a day... That’s my job."
Breathless: "Do you always put so much of yourself in your job?"
Tracy: "You’re not gonna know that until you testify."
She kisses him. It’s the first time they touch.
Threatened, Tess leaves town and leaves Tracy without his emotional anchor. Tracy has Big Boy on the run, but can’t find anyone to testify against him. Professionally vulnerable, he turns once again to Breathless, who has other things on her mind:
Breathless: "You want me. Don’t you?"
Tracy: "You’re right. I do want you. In court, where you can tell the truth."
Breathless: "You’re lying. You want me the same way that I want you. You want me to take a risk? I want you to take a risk."
The conversation continues as Breathless says, "I only know what I feel. If you can’t tell me how you feel, Tracy, then I can’t trust you."
"Wait a minute," Tracy replies. "What do you want me to admit? That I think about you? Okay, I admit it. Testify."
Breathless: "You want my testimony? Tell me you want me. If you do that I’ll do anything you say... Tell me you want me. Tell me you want it all. But tell me now."
Tracy: "If I say that, I’m gonna hurt somebody I don’t wanna hurt."
Breathless: "You trust her."
Tracy: "I love her."
Offered ultimate professional success and submission to his carnal desires, Tracy instead opts for love, as the hero should, here equated with trust. He presumably could never love Breathless because he doesn’t trust her.
At his most vulnerable, Tracy leans on what he knows to protect himself from the temptations to subvert his moral code. He allows the welfare office to take The Kid to the orphanage, keeping his distance from both of the people who have obfuscated his worldview. Separated now from everyone he cares about, Tracy is framed for murder and shares the same fate as The Kid – locked in an institution with no escape in sight.
Ultimately, it’s The Kid that reaches out, through the Chief of Police, to tell Tracy he’s chosen a name to make his detective’s certificate permanent: Dick Tracy, Jr. The Kid has made his desires known and has put his trust in the name of Dick Tracy. Having repaired this relationship, and allowing his fellow detectives to bend the law Tracy himself upholds, Tracy has the strength and ability to track down who set him up and finally go after Big Boy.
The chase leads to the Club Ritz. Big Boy, who is now holding Tess hostage, has escaped through the club and Tracy comes across Breathless, who had been performing through the raid.
"He took her through there," Breathless tells him. Tracy deliberates, and then starts to move in the other direction. Breathless stops him. "Tracy – don’t you trust me?" He does trust her. He turns and follows her original direction. And through this fact, and this action, he proves that he loves her. It’s as close as he’ll come to admitting it. She nearly expresses the same sentiment as he chases after Tess.
The final shootout dispatches both Big Boy and The Blank (Breathless in disguise), who is revealed to be behind the machinations of Tracy’s arrest. Dying in Tracy’s arms, Breathless asks him, "Tell me the truth. Could it have ever happened between us?" Again, Tracy doesn’t deny her, but he doesn’t answer, either. He does, however, allow her to kiss him one last time.
The classic hero has had his convictions challenged and has come out the other side. He faced two incursions of gray into his black-and-white world: a sexual, criminal woman that he may love; and a young boy who should legally be put in an orphanage, despite Tracy’s protective feelings toward him. Though the true romance of the film is with Breathless (he actually kisses her more frequently than Tess), Tracy ultimately accepts the compromise of accepting a son into his life, despite the legal limitations. His morality has slipped along arbitrary, emotional lines, but it is a morality that still supports trust and love.