On June 15, 1990, Entertainment Weekly writer Owen Gleiberman wrote this in his review of Dick Tracy:
“For over a decade — ever since Star Wars, in fact — American movies have been edging closer and closer to comic books. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Warren Beatty’s attempt to ace the summer-movie sweepstakes finally takes us all the way. More than Batman or Superman, Popeye or Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy has been fashioned as a live-action comic strip — a lavishly eye-popping Day-Glo gangster movie.”
We have come even closer to the comic book film as Gleiberman predicted. They are almost the norm, with success like The Avengers and the upcoming Man of Steel. Dick Tracy was a different kind of comic book movie for its time. Warren Beatty directed and produced this 1990 film adaption of Chester Gould’s classic comic strip. Beatty’s re-imagining is classic in style.
The film is shot in primary colors to reflect the comic strip which could only be printed in primary colors. The bold reds, blues, greens, purples, and don’t forget yellows, stand in contrast to the grotesque characters. The bold colors and the grotesqueness of characters is even sharper on Blu-ray. The colors had to jump off the comic strip to be noticed and to catch the reader’s eyes. They do the same here in the film.
There is rarely a scene without some kind of artificial effect. In addition it was completely studio made. It created a world that could never be, taking us away from reality into the world of Dick Tracy. It took us beyond our theater seats into the comic strip. The physical appearance of the characters in the strip and in the film, mirrored what kind of person that character is. Take, for example, Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman). Mumbles talks so fast that no one understands what he is saying. Flattop (William Forsythe) has a flat head.
Dick Tracy reminds us of the innocence of Gould’s comic strip where we did not live in suspense because Tracy always wins! In the film Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) pulls all the gangs in town together to create a unity in crime against Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty). But, there is a new boss in town. A mysterious figure with no face is working hard to frame Big Boy for kidnapping Tess Trueheart, Tracy’s girlfriend. In the meantime, Faceless has framed Tracy for the murder of D. A. Flecther (Dick Van Dyke). Tracy is arrested and put in the city jail. His buddies are “transferring” him to the county jail when they make a detour to rescue Tess.
Pacino’s performance as Big Bog steals the show. But, are we really surprised? I had totally forgotten Pacino was in this movie. Pacino is one of the greatest actors of our time. Pacino proves that his skill in acting is not always Scarface worthy. In fact the whole film proves to be a worthy film even with a PG rating. There is no obscenity, no blood, and no realistic violence. It all fulfills the innocence of the Gould comic strip.
The heart of the film belongs to the Kid. At the beginning of the film, we see the kid pick-pocketing when he can. He steals a watch from a man in a diner that Tracy and Tess are about to walk into. Tracy runs after the kid who eventually runs home to a shanty where his abusive father is not impressed with the stolen watch and denies his son chicken. Tracy arrests the father for abuse, and takes the kid back to the diner for dinner.
Beatty’s Dick Tracy is perhaps more human than other portrays of the hero. We see this mostly through this father-son relationship that grows between Tracy and the kid. The kid helps Tracy out of more than one situation. The kid gets an honorary detective certificate from the police force because he helps save Tracy’s life. The certificate says “The Kid”, and comes with the promise of getting a new one when he chooses a name.
The kid is an orphan searching for meaning and purpose in life. Before Christ, we are orphans like the Kid. The writer of Ephesians writes this, “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:5-6, NRSV). John Wesley preached that through Jesus Christ we are removed from bondage into adoption. This adoption is apart of the salvation story. The emotional heart of the film comes when the kid chooses a name for himself and shows his new certificate to Dick Tracy. The certificate is made out to Dick Tracy, Jr. The kid feels adopted by Tracy and chooses his name as his own. As Christians, we do the same when we accept the adoption of Jesus Christ. The translation for the greek word for Christian is loosely translated as “little Christ.” We become little Christs when we accept the Lordship of Jesus.
The Temptation of Dick Tracy
If you watch closely you will see the three temptations of Dick Tracy. First, Big Boy, in his words “offers you to the keys of the kingdom.” Tracy, of course declines. Later, Breathless (Madonna), the lounge singer, tempts with her seductive powers. This temptation is a little harder for Tracy to resist. He kisses Breathless and as it would happen, Tess walks in to witness this moment of weakness. Tess leaves town Tracy, and Tracy just is not himself. Madonna’s performance is possibly the most questionable one in the film. In a film of unique characters, Madonna’s Breathless seems to channel Marilyn Monroe, possibly from Some Like It Hot.
The third temptation comes when Tracy is rescuing Tess. The mysterious figure with no face offers Tracy a place of authority in his city if only he kills Big Boy. Tracy again resists the temptation and we learn that Faceless is really Breathless. (For the Biblical account of Jesus being tempted three times in the wilderness, take a look at Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 3:1-13.) While Tracy represents innocence as good triumphs over evil, we are reminded that even a hero like Dick Tracy has to face temptations. And if Tracy has to face them, we know we do too. How will we respond?