I know how you feel. You don’t know if you want to hit me or kiss me. I get a lot of that.
Somewhere, deep in a vault, perhaps the same one where the cryogenically preserved body of Walt Disney has been stored, the Disney company had a stash of Dick Tracy DVDs, where they had been stored for the last five years. I suppose someone finally found them, dusted them off, and figured, “Hey, it’s cheaper than doing them again” and put them out on the streets. The poor attempt at DVD presentation makes you long for an eventual special edition, but the movie is good enough that you might not care.
Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) is the ultimate good guy cop of the 1940s trying single-handedly to bring down the mob. As the movie opens, he has his sights set on Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino), the boss who’s trying to unite the bosses — behind himself, of course — to run the city. He’ll get his man, even if it means going through frame-ups, assassination attempts, even sultry singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).
Okay, confession time. This was my first time seeing Dick Tracy. For some reason I had never been interested in seeing it until a couple turns of events. First, my wife made me realize that Madonna really wasn’t all that bad. Second, during some recent awards show they were doing a tribute to either Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman, I can’t remember which, and I saw a sampling of their performance and was wowed by the makeup design. And I’m glad I finally had the chance.
I don’t know when some nameless studio executive greenlit Dick Tracy, but my guess is it was shortly before or after the release of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. The two films are remarkably similar from a production design standpoint; the nameless city of Dick Tracy and Gotham City of Batman are remarkably similar with their stark angles and stylized skylines. Both films have scores by Danny Elfman. Both take their freakish comic book worlds very seriously, without the irony that would pockmark later comic book adaptations. Heck, both heroes even crash through a skylight pursuing their nemeses.
Whereas Batman borrowed from the comic’s gothic origins, Dick Tracy‘s visual aesthetic took a page from…well, from the funny pages. The color palette is compromised nearly exclusively of the handful of colors you would see in the old comic strips upon which it was based. Freeze frame at nearly any point, and it is composed like a panel of a strip. It’s even claimed that Beatty, who also directed, composed the film to take advantage of the full 1.37:1 aspect ratio of the Academy Flat filming standard, which would not only seem more like a pre-1950s film, but would also seem more like the square panel of a comic (but more about that when I discuss the DVD below).
Beyond the visual style, what also makes the film hearken back to the good old days is the lack of irony or anachronisms. Too many movies today smirk at the audience, let us know that they’re in on the joke that it’s only a movie. Scream perhaps popularized the trend, but there’s also the influence of the pop-culture name-dropping of Pulp Fiction. At the very worst, you get movies like The Last Action Hero. You even get jokes like the mobsters of The Sopranos trying to watch bootleg DVDs of The Godfather. There’s none of that here — Dick Tracy plays it perfectly straight. Even the addition of a legit pop culture icon, Ms. Material Girl herself, doesn’t derail its enthusiasm for staying true to its inspiration. It doesn’t contain sex or graphic violence or profanity — anything that would distract from the wholesome Hays Code days of filmmaking. The only “questionable” dialogue is the sort of double entendre that clever writers worked into films back in the day. I kept waiting for someone to make a “dick” joke that inferred something other than a nickname for Richard or a slang term for detective…and it never came. Bravo. It saddens me that this mini-revival of the action films and serials of the 1940s started here and ended with The Rocketeer only a year later, though at least the Coen Brothers tried to revive the screwball comedy in 1994 with The Hudsucker Proxy.
Warren Beatty plays it straight, just as you remember Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade of Philip Marlowe. Madonna has been justly vilified for her lack of acting talent, but here, shortly after the release of her album Like A Prayer and at the height of the “blonde ambition” phase of her career, she’s the perfect match for a sultry nightclub singer femme fatale. If there’s one drawback to the movie, it’s that the acting is perhaps a little too comic book over the top. The big bad is Al Pacino, who plays Big Boy with the sort of relish Jack Nicholson brought to the Joker in Batman. Still, his wild histrionics are sometimes a little grating and a little out of place next to Beatty and Madonna. Some of the thugs — William Forsythe (Raising Arizona) as Flattop and Ed O’Ross (Lethal Weapon), in particular — stretch the bounds of their roles perhaps a little too much, coming across as too cartoonish. Hidden behind the amazing makeup of John Caglione and Doug Drexler, you’ll see a panoply of other stars and character actors. A partial list: Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), Seymour Cassel (It Could Happen To You), Mandy Patinkin (The Princess Bride), Dick Van Dyke (Mary Poppins), Paul Sorvino (Nixon), Charles Durning (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and James Tolkan (the Back To The Future series).
Like I said, Dick Tracy is a completely bare-bones disc. There was talk as late as October 2001 that Buena Vista would release this as part of their “Vista Series” line of premium DVDs, so perhaps we can hold out hope that it will happen at some point, because there is so much material that could be covered about the filming of this movie. All we get now is the movie. It is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Now, as I alluded earlier, this is a controversial choice, because Beatty has gone on record saying that he intended it to be shown in the full camera negative size of 1.37:1, even if it was shown theatrically in widescreen. I’ve always been of the opinion that films should be shown on DVD in their theatrical aspect ratio (see my comments about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining), but in situations like this perhaps it would have been best if Disney had given us both presentations. But I digress to another digression. I’ve come under fire at least once for using a 27″ television to review DVDs. Sure, I know it’s not the best, but it’s good enough for me (and my budget). Sometimes you can see picture flaws in larger displays that you can’t on a smaller set. In this case, the opposite is true. Dick Tracy is filled with bright, garish colors, and it looked like a horrid bleeding mess on my TV. However, when I moved it over to my computer, which can display at a much higher resolution, it looked much better. The transfer still isn’t perfect; it can be grainy at times, and there’s a couple scenes that have truly awful compression artifacts (watch the pixels dance across Warren Beatty’s face when Breathless first visits his office). These compression artifacts come despite the transfer’s high 6.82Mbps average bitrate, which places it up in Superbit territory, but the bitrate varies much more than other charts I’ve compared — it yo-yos between the mid-5s and the high 8s with alarming frequency. The colors are true and accurate to their theatrical garishness, but because of their brightness and depending on your display device you might see them bleeding together. The effect can range from minorly distracting to incredibly irritating (in virtually every scene, Glenne Headly’s lipstick seems to float above her face). Edge enhancement is visible frequently, but is not a strong effect like on the Phantom Menace transfer. Audio is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. I didn’t notice the rear channels used for much else than adding extra presence to Danny Elfman’s score, though the LFE is given plenty to do during the film’s frequent explosions and gunfights.
I have just a couple complaints. One is with Glenne Headly as Dick’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart. The role is written as a strong, confidant female, kind of like a Barbara Stanwyck, but Glenne’s voice (like Melanie Griffith’s, only with a little more presence) just doesn’t lead itself to that. I also didn’t care much for Charlie Korsmo as “The Kid,” but that may be because I hated him so in other films, like Hook or What About Bob? (and hmm, that’s just about his entire filmography). The other complaint is with Danny Elfman’s score. I never thought I’d say that, because he is my favorite film composer. However, his score here bears more than a passing resemblance to his Batman score. The music for the action scenes, in particular, sounds nearly identical to the Batman theme. Like many great film composers — John Williams in particular — Elfman sometimes is best at writing themes, not complete scores, which sometimes become redundant.
I picked up Dick Tracy for only $12.99. You might be able to find it for a similarly low price. If you do, it might be worth a purchase, but otherwise, I’d give it a rental and wait for the inevitable special edition double-dip.