How fitting it is that "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," after a monthlong hiatus, follows up a film by an actor-turned-auteur (Orson Welles) with another film by an actor-turned-auteur (Warren Beatty). Of course, comparing one of the greatest films of all time to a colorful comic-book lark is hardly fair. But the coincidence is interesting, and with news that Beatty's long-gestating Howard Hughes biopic may finally see the light of day soon (it will be his cinematic starring role since 2001's Town & Country, and first directorial effort since 1998's Bulworth), it seems like the right time to look back at one of his flashier efforts.
Dick Tracy is based on the comic strip of the same name from the 1940s, centered around the titular detective extraordinaire (Beatty) in his efforts to clean up the crime in his city. When nightclub owner Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) goes missing, Tracy begins interrogating elements of the underworld to discover that mobster Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) was behind the act and is planning to take over all of the city's small businesses. As Caprice's criminal empire gains ground, Tracy also finds himself struggling to take care of a street urchin named Kid (Charlie Korsmo) - who witnessed a brutal massacre at an illicit card game - with the help of his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), as well as evade the advances of Caprice's lounge-singer girlfriend, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna).
Another parallel that can be drawn with Dick Tracy is to Batman: the film received a greenlight from Disney at least partially thanks to the success of Tim Burton's film the previous year. And much like that film's 1997 sequel that was previously covered in this series, it's a film that fully embraces its comics roots, putting together a colorful, cartoonish world that's pure style. It's substance, however, that the film struggles with.
More after the jump.
So let's get the substance out of the way first: Dick Tracy is as light as a feather, portraying its vicious violence with a PG-shrug, a world where every bullet leaves no blood and every infidelity can be resolved with a smile and a promise. The result is that no action, no death, no showdown seems to carry any weight to it. Though the performances are certainly over-the-top and fit neatly within the outlandish world they inhabit, the characters are never people, just sketches that are easily erased.
Pacino may have (somewhat improbably) scored the film's lone acting Oscar nomination (only the second performer to be nominated for a comics-based performance, after Jackie Cooper for Skippy in 1931), but the film's best performance belongs to Madonna. As Breathless, she oozes the sly sexuality that audiences recognize from the singer's public persona, but gives it just the right femme fatale edge to make her dangerous. And when she croons "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)," well, it's no wonder Tracy finds it difficult to resist her.
The film's biggest problem, then, is in the treatment of its main character. Breathless is supposed to seduce Tracy, in turn leading him to stray from Tess and follow his darker natures. However, even though they share a lusty, forbidden kiss, there's never any doubt whether Tracy will leave Tess for Breathless. Tracy is, quite simply, presented as a force of absolute good; even when he's wielding an automatic weapon, mowing down Caprice's henchmen, it's understood that he's doing so because it's an act of righteousness. When Tracy is framed by Caprice for a murder he didn't commit, it's hard to believe that the public is actually shocked and upset by the revelation (and the film is too, quickly brushing the incident aside to return Tracy to his spotless purity). For a movie so brightly colorful, its morality is strictly black-and-white.
Which brings us to the film's greatest strength: it's style. Beatty's fidelity to the source material is astounding, from the way the camera hardly ever moves during a shot - effectively making each shot look like a panel from a comic strip - to the painted backdrops that miraculously blend seamlessly with the live-action components to the five-color palette that cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is restricted to using. He doesn't shy away from making the characters look as grotesque as possible either, utilizing prosthetic make-up to ensure that being disfigured is shorthand for "evil:"
Truly, the entire film is bursting with vibrant color, even though those colors exist on a very narrow spectrum. Yet Beatty and Storaro (as well as the entire design team) do a remarkable job of making every frame pop, coming up with unusual combinations of color and noir stylings to create a striking visual motif.
Notice the staging of each of these scenes, particularly the second, third, and fourth frames above. In the second and third frames, characters are positioned in the foreground on the edges of the frame with the background in equally sharp focus. The effect is that each frame looks like the panel of a comic strip, which is further heightened by the sharp colors, cartoonish characters, and rigid camera placement.
When all of these elements converge, it makes for a stunning moment. Take, for example, the above frame. Caprice and his cronies have met in a graveyard, where he rants and rails about Tracy and vows to take him down. The camera cuts to inside the car, where Breathless quietly waits, while the others are seen in shadow outside. It's a beautiful shot, especially given the subtle lighting of Breathless to create a strong profile. This is Dick Tracy at its best: fully embracing its comics origins in a way that is at once exhilarating and complex, with just the right blurring of right and wrong.