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.