Dick Tracy (1990)

I’m often reminded of Otto Preminger’s bizarre 1968 film – slash – trainwreck Skidoo, in which the director decided to make a movie that would be hip with the kids, and filled it full of people like George Raft and Mickey Rooney and Jackie Gleason. I wonder whether the nineteen and twenty year-olds of 1968 heard about such a thing and concluded that nothing else could possibly be so far out of touch as Hollywood, that year. Because in 1990, that’s precisely how nineteen year-old me felt when news of Dick Tracy‘s imminent release reached me. It felt like Hollywood was so desperate for the next Batman that a bunch of eighty year-old men asked the air, “What else is a comic book? What do kids read? Dick Tracy, yeah, that’s the ticket!” and filled their cash-in with such popular-with-kids actors as Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman.

I mean, seriously, in 1990, exactly five people on the planet gave a damn about Dick Tracy. One was Tribune Media’s accountant and the other four were Max Allan Collins.

And yet, while Skidoo is almost hypnotic in its strange, dull awfulness, Dick Tracy turned out to be a surprisingly good film, full of offbeat performances, an occasionally very clever script, and some of the most gorgeous color and cinematography of anything else in its day. You can watch Dick Tracy with the sound down and fall completely in love with it. I really like the unreal color palette and the remarkable symmetry in the framing.

So even though Dick Tracy‘s world is an unreal one, it’s a believable one because it’s so consistent. The visuals are pared down to basics, just like an artist might do in a small comic panel. So instead of a detail-packed label on a can of chili, full of words and pictures, it’s just a red can with “CHILI” in black letters. A milk truck doesn’t deliver for any specific dairy with a logo, it’s just a white truck with “MILK” on the side. Everything’s told with broad strokes, but it’s told beautifully.

Our son liked it a lot as well. I wouldn’t claim that he loved it – I wouldn’t go that far myself – but it’s full of weird and grotesque villains, a believably fun hero, a heck of a lot of machine guns, and a few very interesting twists in the script. Plus there’s a shot where Dick Tracy punches an entire crowd and they go down like ninepins. Warren Beatty may be in the center of almost every frame where he appears, but Al Pacino, William Forysthe, Paul Sorvino, and especially Dustin Hoffman effortlessly steal their scenes from our hero, as the best baddies should. Mandy Patinkin and Dick Van Dyke are also here, with comparative subtlety, so there’s a lot for people who love watching actors to enjoy. On the other hand, Danny Elfman’s music is bombastic and incredibly annoying, and you can’t help but wish that Tess Trueheart wasn’t so helpless and passive.

Speaking of Hoffman, he kind of stole the audience’s attention when I first saw this movie as well as this morning. He plays one of the henchmen, a purple-suited dude called Mumbles. That first time, after the audience chuckled and guffawed through his interrogation scene, the crowd absolutely roared when Tracy confronts him again later on. Tracy and his men storm into his room, saying “Hello, Mumbles,” and the dozens of people I saw it with went completely nuts. It was one of the best little movie theater moments ever. And this morning, our son made one of his uncommon interruptions to protest “I don’t sound like that when I mumble!” And I said “You do.”

So yes, it’s a much, much better film than Skidoo. But I still want a Blu-ray of Skidoo from Criterion, and I might even watch it more often than I would ever watch this, because I contradict myself, and contain multitudes.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

I’m wouldn’t call myself a Tim Burton fan. He’s made four films that I enjoy – all of which star Johnny Depp – and many more that I didn’t like at all, and three of the ones I liked have music that drives me completely nuts and takes me out of the experience. You have no idea how much I wish that somebody, anybody, would’ve told Danny Elfman to stick with Oingo Boingo and stay out of movie theaters. My favorite Burton film? Ed Wood, by a mile. Elfman didn’t score it.

So with the caveat that the music is so intrusive that it absolutely spoils several scenes for me, Edward Scissorhands is a charming and occasionally lovely fantasy in a pastel suburb. All of the adults are in some completely different world divorced from reality – I love how at least three of them “know a doctor” who might can help Edward but never seem to phone him – while the teenagers seem to have wandered from our world onto a film set they can’t escape.

I don’t say this next bit to dismiss the script or acting at all, because it’s wonderful, but this film is triumphant with me because of its absolutely impeccable design. It was made in a real place, albeit one whose residents agreed to have all of their homes painted one of four pastel colors, and shot in a real location – Lakeland’s Southgate Shopping Center still looks exactly like that, Publix and all – but it’s unreal nevertheless, populated impeccably by pristeenly-painted, nondescript, and horribly ugly Dusters and similar heaps from the 1970s. The homes, completely free from clutter, are all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same, inside and out, with empty spaces that are so large that they swallow the actors. This is a film where a cul-de-sac ends with the entrance to an abandoned, decrepit, “haunted” castle-mansion on a mountain, and it’s the homes below it that are the scary places.

Johnny Depp was then the teen heartthrob who people watched on TV’s 21 Jump Street while ignoring the plots, and Winona Ryder was omnipresent at the time (no, I don’t like Beetlejuice), and this weird and delightful film surrounded them with a perfect supporting cast. It’s such a neat, strange trick: the fantasy world of this neighborhood and its local TV show is so big that the main characters feel small inside it. They’re trapped by suburbia; Dianne Wiest, Alan Arkin, and Kathy Bates just naturally dominate their fantasy world while the audience’s eyes try to focus on Depp and Ryder.

About the only time that Depp starts to dominate the picture is during the scene that my son and I loved the most. While carving up some topiary, Edward notices a small dog badly in need of grooming. I don’t think Tim Burton’s ever done better. Most directors don’t. Every shot, every reaction, the place where it’s staged, the timing, the reveal, everything is just howl-inducing, and it builds effortlessly to the next shot of the neighborhood full of housewives with puppies in line for their own grooming.

As I occasionally do, I kept the reveal of the character’s look a complete surprise to our son, and deflected his question – “he has scissors for hands?” – by telling him a great big lie. “You mustn’t trust the names people give their neighbors. It’s about a young man who’s extremely good with trimming shrubbery.” And as I occasionally do in this blog, yet again, I bemoaned the kid’s inability to recognize actors. Earlier this week, before I put it in storage for his future, we dusted off War Gods of the Deep / City Under the Sea for another viewing, and the dratted kid still didn’t recognize Vincent Price, who has a small role as Edward’s inventor. This was Price’s last appearance in a major film, and even though it’s a small part, he’s completely terrific.

It’s a very good film. I don’t revisit it as often as I should. I’ll show the kid another Burton/Depp movie, Sleepy Hollow, around next Halloween.