If you asked box office prognosticators in late 1989, early 1990 what the biggest film of 1990 would be, they would not hesitate to tell you that it would be Dick Tracy. Why? Because, in the simplistic brand of thinking Hollywood typically employs, it closely resembled the top box office hit of the year before, Batman. Both characters came from comics. Both were crime-fighting detectives with costumes and gruesome rogues galleries. Both had a cadre of helpers on their side and both fought crime with nifty gadgets. Both films even had Danny Elfman on score, for goodness sakes. But while Batman had the relatively green Tim Burton at the helm, Dick Tracy would be directed by Hollywood legend Warren Beatty, who would also star in the titular role. That would be what put Dick Tracy over the top/
However, those prognosticators would be wrong on a number of accounts. Dick Tracy got his start in comic strips in 1931, eight years before Batman first appeared in comic books. No only did Tracy have almost a decade head start on the Caped Crusader, he appeared in newspapers every day where Batman would only appear in comics a few times a month. Also, Tracy worked inside the legal system as a member of the police force while Batman worked outside the law as a vigilante. Tracy’s villains might have been as colorful and interesting as Batman’s, but they didn’t stick around long. With few exceptions, they were often killed off at the end of their first storyline, while Batman’s came back again and again to trouble him. Batman’s supporting cast was rich and strong enough to support comic books of their own, while Tracy’s was basically there to, well, support him. And Batman had more gadgets than Dick Tracy, and arguably better ones too (The two-way wrist radio, then TV, is cool, but is it better than a boat, a cave, a plane and the rest of Bat-goodies the Dark Knight has?).
So there wasn’t a lot of weight behind the hopes that Dick Tracy would do as good as Batman due to their similarities. But what really kept it from becoming a massive hit might have Beatty. While Burton was a essentially a novice when he got Batman, his dark and moody vision was just what that film needed, and it meshed well with the story being told. Beatty, supposedly a fan of the comic strip, created a film built on contradictions, the main one being that tried it to be both and art film and a summer blockbuster but couldn’t really pull the trigger on either.
Beatty had been attached to the project since 1975, when Hollywood first came sniffing around the comic strip as a potential film. Squabbles with the strip’s creator, Chester Gould, landed a Dick Tracy film in a decade of development hell. Beatty was considered for the lead back in 75, soon joined by actors such as Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere, and Harrison Ford in consideration for the role in the years that followed. Directors such as Steven Spielberg and John Landis were considered for the director’s chair. Beatty eventually bought the rights himself in 1985, the same year Gould passed away. Gould’s heirs were easier to deal with than Gould himself, and the project moved forward. Disney gave the film a greenlight in 1988. Walter Hill was chosen to direct Beatty in the movie, but Hill wanted a more serious, gritty take on the character and Beatty wanted one more like his memories of the comic strip. Hill left the project and Beatty added the job of director to his resume for the film, and the project was off and running.
Beatty’s vision of keeping true to his memories of the comic strip was noticeable from the onset. The sets looked like Gould drew them–simplistic, yet evocative of a big, crime-filled city. Beatty insisted on a color theme using only primary and secondary colors plus black and white. Furthermore, like in the Sunday comics of the day, you would have the same shade of red or blue every time the color appeared in the film–be it on a passing car or on a bad guy’s suit or on a piece of furniture. The makeup department worked overtime to make sure Tracy’s rogue’s gallery on the screen looked identical to their comic strip counter parts.
Well, for the most part that is, and here is where the contradictions come in. While makeup designers John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler designed the rest of the villains, Beatty allowed Al Pacino to create the makeup design for his character, the main villain, Big Boy. Pacino’s design resulted in a character that looked nothing like the Gould version and more like an uglier version of the actor himself.
But at least he went through the makeup process. Beatty eschewed any makeup to try and make him resemble the original character’s trademark squared nose and lantern jaw. The reason Beatty gave for staying out of the makeup chair was that the makeup artists couldn’t find a way to make the makeup work on screen. I always found this reason hard to believe because these are the same men who made The Brow and Little Face work on screen, so doing accurate Dick Tracy makeup should have been a breeze. Regardless, having the meticulously made up villains going up against their main nemesis who does not have his trademark profile of his comic’s page inspiration spoils the illusion just a bit.
The cast is terrific. It is top loaded with Oscar winners (Beatty, Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Estelle Parsons) and nominees (Charles Durning, James Caan), with the rest of the cast filled with familiar faces from your favorite movies and TV shows. A lot of these actors appeared in the film in glorified cameos, but even still, this amount of star power was impressive. However, the closer you got to Beatty as a friend, the more leeway you had to ham it up. Al Pacino must have been picking plywood out of his teeth for months after filming due to all the scenery he chewed doing this role. Considering that Beatty was going with a stoic, more reserved performance as Tracy, Pacino’s over-the-top performance served as a contrast that harmed instead of helped the film.
The one exception to the film’s “The Closer You Got To Beatty The Worse The Performance Was” rule was Madonna, who was dating Beatty at the time. Never one to be considered to be a great actress, she gives arguably her best film performance here as Breathless Mahoney, a femme fatale not far from the role she was playing in real life.
What might have also hampered Beatty is that he appeared to be the servant to two creative masters. Disney obviously wanted this to be a kid-friendly, summer blockbuster. The film was originally housed under the its Walt Disney Pictures shingle and the merchandising push was aimed squarely at the younger set, with a McDonald’s tie-in, coloring books, trading cards, and the by-then requisite toy line (done by Playmates as seen to the left, which took the film’s characters and turned them into short, squat figurines, all apparently experiencing a great deal of pain from a bowel obstruction of some sort.) But it was hard to sell the film as family friendly fare when it featured characters getting machine-gunned down or sealed in concrete and dumped in the river or when Madonna oozes sexuality every time she is on the screen. Beatty was trying to make a film that the audience that made him a star would like to see, but also one that they’d bring their kids (or grandkids) to. He didn’t really succeed on this point. Disney moved the film over to its more mature Touchstone Pictures arm due to the content and the film became something that parents wouldn’t let their kids see alone and wouldn’t take them to more than once.
The film shows flashes of brilliance and teases of what a great movie it could have been if Beatty showed a stronger directorial hand and was able to blend all things the film needed to be into a more cohesive whole. As it stands, it’s an entertaining movie if a somewhat disappointing one.
All this added up to Dick Tracy failing to reach the box office success that Batman did. While the latter was 1989’s domestic box office champ, the former was only the ninth highest grossing film of 1990. When the dust settled, Batman ended up making over $411 million worldwide. Dick Tracy could only muster over $162 million. Beatty still retains the film and TV rights to the property, rights that he protected by rushing a one time only TV special featuring the character to air on TCM in 2009 before his rights expired–fending off a lawsuit from the Tribune Company seeking a return of the rights. Beatty has said as recently as 2011 that he intends to make a sequel, but at 78, he’s getting a bit long in the tooth to be donning the fedora and overcoat. However, as Tron: Legacy and Mad Max: Fury Road have proved, 25 years or more between sequels is not unheard of.