Yellow Coat & Hat, Silver Screen: A 30th Anniversary Retrospective of ‘Dick Tracy’

by Ben Martin

As I’m sure we’re all unfortunately aware, the year 2020 has been one of unprecedented chaos. Thankfully, though, there’s one upside to living in our current age. We can find and watch just about any movie at any time within a few clicks. Despite living in the time of entertainment convenience, films that were hits back in their day slip through cracks, becoming all but forgotten. One such movie is one of the earliest filmic adaptations of a comic strip, Dick Tracy (1990), which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month.

Long before I found that VHS of Dick Tracy at Video Corner, my long-gone childhood video store; Dick Tracy began its life in the newspaper pages. Created by Chester Gould as Plainclothes Tracy, before the publisher pulled a name change, Dick Tracy started as a weekly comic book strip in the pages of The Chicago Tribune on October 4th, 1931. And, believe it or not, the strip still runs, albeit occasionally, to this day. An immediate hit with readers, the comic strip followed the titular character who’s a sharp detective and an even brighter dresser. The popularity of the comic strip quickly bore a radio program in 1934, several serials by 1937, and a toy line in the 1940s. Following those decades of success, the yellow coated detective had a brief TV series (1950-1951) and an equally short-lived animated series a decade later (1961). 

Fast-forward to the 70s when the rights holders of Dick Tracy sold the movie rights to Paramount Pictures. By this point, every major studio wanted a taste of the success Warner Bros. had with Superman: The Movie (1978) 
But, the studios weren’t the only ones interested. One of Hollywood’s shining stars of the era, Warren Beatty, was a longtime fan of Tracy since childhood and became involved with Paramount as a producer of this big-screen adaptation. Unsurprisingly, the director  Richard Donner, and writer Tom Mankiewicz were brought aboard the detective from the milled pages to the theatre screens. As quickly as development on the movie began, though, Dick Tracy proved it was going to be Development Hell.

Donner jumped ship pretty soon after stepping on deck, deciding he’d had enough of the comic genre after his tumultuous experiences on Superman and Superman II (1980). However, the other half of the Super duo, Tom Mankiewicz, did write a screenplay for the film. Alas, it was tossed aside following Donner’s departure, after which the writer left the project. (A similar fate would later befall Mankiewicz’s 1983 script for Batman.)

Despite the gentlemen who originated the earliest interpretation of the modern comic book flick stepping off the project, Beatty and Paramount remained undeterred in their quest to find a director. On the contrary, the producer and studio threw out offers to several of several legendary directors as fast as a Tommy Gun spits bullets. Except for filmmaker Bob Fosse (Cabaret), who was more well respected by his peers than known by the public, every other director approached was a household name with major successes under their belts. Then a director on the rise, Martin Scorsese was first on the shortlist after Fosse. But, Scorsese chose to pursue the classic that is Taxi Driver (1976) instead. 

Then, the opportunity to helm Dick Tracy was then pitched to perhaps the most logical candidate of them all- Steven Spielberg. The man who would go on to become one of the most renowned filmmakers in Hollywood was then fresh off the water with the first summer blockbuster, Jaws (1975). However, Spielberg chose to use his newly earned clout to make a passion project, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). At this point, I can only imagine that Paramount and Beatty were growing painfully aware that Dick Tracy and comic-based movies, in general, did not garner much respect in Hollywood, quite the opposite of where we are today. Then again, Scorsese still loathes the genre and particularly Marvel movies today.

Despite all this trouble finding a director, the developing project still needed a star to portray the legendary, titular comic strip character. Thus, Robert De Niro (The Untouchables) was offered the lead role but immediately declined. Following his refusal, the part was then extended to Jack Nicholson. However, Nicholson chose to make a different comic adaptation, Batman (1989), which would ultimately greatly influence the film in review.

By the early-80s, the developing production finally found a director to put behind the lens. A contemporary of the other helmers who passed on the gig, John Landis, was then at the apex of his career. Having proven he could balance the fun and fantastical in his previous pictures, The Blues Brothers (1980) and An American Werewolf in London (1981), Landis seemed the perfect guy to bring the iconic comic strip to life. So much so that the director managed to move forward with the challenging development of Dick Tracy. Landis had gone so far as to hire screenwriter duo Jim Cash and Jack Epps (Top Gun) to pen a new screenplay for the picture. Beyond that, Landis was courting Clint Eastwood (The Mule) to play the titular character. Alas, following a careless and fatal incident while filming his segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Landis left the project. The only thing from his development was the script by Cash and Epps.

At this point, Paramount lost all faith in their ability to get Dick Tracy from page-to-screen. As a result, Disney picked up the film rights, along with Beatty as a producer. Looking to get some steam behind his pet project, finally, Beatty approached a friend of his. Writer/director Walter Hill (The Warriors) was briefly set to direct before parting ways with Disney and Beatty over creative differences. Based on Hill’s filmography, I can only imagine he wanted to take this adaptation in a much grittier direction. 

All this time, it seems like there was an obvious answer in having Beatty pull double duty as a producer-director. However, Beatty was hesitant to get back at the helm, having had a terrible experience with his previous directorial effort, Reds (1981). (The studio might’ve also been hesitant considering Beatty’s difficult reputation as a director.) Finally, Beatty recanted on his previous position. Upon finally deciding to take the film’s reins as director, Beatty did so on the condition that he would also play the titular hero. The House of Mouse agreed to Beatty’s caveat, and Dick Tracy‘s cinematic case was finally making progress.
Moreover, the film is now moving forward with an all-star cast that includes Al Pacino, Madonna, Dustin Hoffman, James Cann, and Kathy Bates, thanks to Beatty’s earned Tinseltown clout over the years. A massive cast studded with stars was needed for Beatty’s vision of this adaptation. There are 21 villains from the comic strip who appear in this film alone, not to mention all the other characters. Beatty intentionality packed the movie chock-full of foes; on the off chance Dick Tracy did not become a franchise. His instincts were on the money too, as you probably know, this movie has never received a follow-up.

The story Beatty and co choose to tell in Dick Tracy feels somewhat like it’s taking place in the middle or near the end of a series of events. So much so that a graphic novel prequel, Dick Tracy: The Complete True Hearts & Tommyguns Trilogy (1990), was published in advance of the film’s release. In any event, the film itself finds Dick Tracy (Beatty) on a quest to take down the most notorious gangster in the city, Big Boy Caprice (Pacino), who seems to be knocking off his felonious colleges to rule the town ultimately. To get intel, Tracy uses Big Boy’s latest white-hot flame, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna). All the while, the detective is also interrogating every criminal with connections to the crime boss.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Tracy’s on the fence about settling down with his longtime gal pal, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). To complicate personal matters further, the couple also takes in a young orphan off the streets, only known as Kid (Charlie Korsmo). But, no doubt, the yellow-coated detective can handle it all.

I mentioned back at the beginning of this article, my first exposure to this comic strip hero was a VHS rental of the film in review. I’m not ashamed to admit that as a kid, I enjoyed Dick Tracy. It became one of those movies I watched multiple times, be it viewing via multiple rentals or watching this movie whenever it showed on cable. As a result, I ended up getting a couple of action figures from the film and a children’s Golden Look Book: Dick Tracy in Hot Water by Jim Razzi (1990). A picture and storybook, which I repeatedly read as a kid, particularly on a long trip to Alaska. Therefore, I have a lot of fond nostalgia for this picture. 
However, what I came to find with Dick Tracy is that looking back at a childhood favorite can not always be done through rose-tinted Technicolor glasses. What I quickly pieced together as an adult that I was not able to as a child is that this is an uneven film. Sure, this adaptation does more right than it does wrong. However, the issues Dick Tracy has are all due to its screenplay by Cash and Epps and its tone, which translates to the finished film. See, feeling like a third-act story is the least of the screenplay issues that are present here. 
Dick Tracy has an overall adult tone when it comes to the gangster portion of the story. And while those aspects of the picture aren’t gratuitous, nor graphic,  this PG-rated flick also has a body count of 27! However, had the narrative simply focused on Tracy’s professional life, I’d probably have found everything about it to be peachy. It’s the family film subplot that seems entirely unnecessary for me. 

Yes,  I realize such a subplot had to be included at Disney’s insistence, none of it works. As an adult, I recognize that Tess Trueheart would have gotten completely fed up with Tracy’s unwillingness to commit and bail on him long before the surrogate for the pediatric audience members,  Kid shows up. Ultimately, Korsmo was cast as Tracy’s grade school-aged sidekick, and he does fine in the part. Frankly, though, Korsmo isn’t the problem here. That blame goes on the character of The Kid himself. As an adult, I do not believe that Dick Tracy would’ve taken him on as a young ward for a second.

On the other hand, though, the adult cast members of this film are phenomenal! Every gangster in the picture is having a fun time chewing up the colorful scenery, and I’m having just as much fun watching them. I’d watch a whole spinoff that only consists of Big Boy Caprice (whom Pacino earned an Academy Award playing) and Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman). Then there’s Madonna, who oozes sensuality to the point where I even picked up on it as a kid. She is magnetic on camera in the part; then again, she was the ultimate sex pot at the time, so I suppose that should not be surprising.

Oddly enough, the weakest performance in the film belongs to Warren Beatty, the man playing the title character. It’s my feeling that a detective as successful and intelligent as Dick Tracy would have a little more charisma. A quality which I feel Beatty lacks in his performance. On the contrary, Beatty’s performance makes Tracy the stiffest character in the film. 
Except for my criticism of Beatty as a thespian, I have nothing but praise to give him as a director. From behind the camera, Beatty brought the comic strip from the four-colored newspaper page to vivid, candy-colored life on the screen! In conjunction with the cast, director of photography Vittorio Storaro, production designer Richard Sylbert, and art director Harold Michelson help bring Beatty’s accurate vision of this adaptation to life. The film was so well-done (at least from a technical standpoint, and possessed a pedigree that Disney thought they had the next Batman ’89 on their hands. 

Thus, Disney took its cue from what Warner Bros had done with Batman a year earlier and made Dick Tracy into a marketing bonanza. Every promotional tie-in or product that a kid, like myself at the time, might be interested in, was done for this film. While such a marketing tactic is understandable, it ultimately did not pay off for the studio who poured millions  into the marketing alone. In the end, Dick Tracy grossed $162 million on a $46 million production budget, which I’m sure did not include marketing. 

Despite these financials and being the most substantial grossing effort of Beatty’s career, it proved not to be enough for The House of Mouse. Of course, I don’t think it helped matters that this movie was initially slated to be released under the Disney banner, as indicated by a great deal of the early marketing. However, the ultimate family-friendly studio chose to distribute the picture through their Touchstone label after finding it too risqué. Perhaps this risque quality of Dick Tracy is why the film has been given little to no attention by Disney since the mid-90s to the point where it’s been all but buried. So much so that you cannot even stream it on Disney+.
Has Dick Tracy aged like a fine whiskey that a hard-boiled detective would drink after solving a caper? Not exactly, but I also think it deserves a lot more attention than it gets, 30 years later. Despite the movie’s problems, I firmly believe Beatty did justice to this comic strip and had a passion for doing so. From a historical standpoint, Dick Tracy also has a place of importance. See, it is the first comic-based movie produced by Disney. Following that, the studio adapted a comic book with The Rocketeer (1991) a couple of years later. But, after that, Disney didn’t venture back into our beloved subgenre until they acquired The MCU. If you’ve let Dick Tracy get by you in the three decades since it’s release, I suggest giving it a go!

Dick Tracy is available to stream on all Services that offer purchase/rental, Blu-Ray, & DVD!

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