Revisiting Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy

In 1990, Warren Beatty came out with yet another of his wildly ambitious projects in which he himself served as director, producer, and star. That was Dick Tracy, which arrived a year after Tim Burton’s Batman, at a time before comic book adaptations were nearly the cultural force that they would eventually become. 

Beatty’s Dick Tracy marks its 30th anniversary this week, and despite having been a Disney/Touchstone release, it’s currently available to stream not on Disney+ or Hulu, but rather HBO Max. 

Nine years after Reds, and eight before Bulworth, Dick Tracy was a very different kind of Beatty auteur project: An adaptation of a comic strip serial dating back to the 1930s, made into a movie deeply rooted in the film noir tradition, with major actors playing all the criminal roles and Madonna, at the height of her superstardom, portraying the femme fatale. It even featured, in a rarity for the movies, original music by master Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, most of it performed by Madonna herself. 

A triumph of gorgeous and elaborate visuals, thanks to production designer  Richard Sylbert and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Dick Tracy starred Beatty as the titular hero, a police detective known for his Technicolor yellow hat and jacket. Beatty’s Tracy goes toe-to-toe with a rogue’s gallery of cartoonish gangland figures, led by Al Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice, and also featuring the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Mandy Patinkin, Paul Sorvino, and James Caan. 

Tracy’s love is Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley)- none of the names in this movie are particularly subtle- and he soon becomes a father figure to a street urchin known only as “The Kid” (Charlie Korsmo.) But that’s all threatened by singing femme fatale Breathless Mahoney (Madonna, with whom Beatty famously, had a romance around this time, which can be glimpsed in the 1991 documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare. This was not long before the legendary Hollywood lothario finally got married, to Annette Bening.) 

Watching Dick Tracy for the first time probably since its release, I was taken by just how beautiful, creatively rendered, and high-effort it was, compared to most of the comic book movies that would follow in the ensuing years. Sure, the plot is a bit thin, but it gave plenty of chances for over-the-top criminal performances, especially by Pacino, at the start of the overacting phase that comprised the bulk of his output in the 1990s. The Sondheim-written, Madonna-sung songs- collected on a soundtrack album called I’m Breathless – was fine, if not quite up there with the greatest music produced by either. 

Did you remember that Dick Tracy was a cop? I think I misremembered him as a private eye, largely because he doesn’t dress anything like even any plainclothes detective I’ve ever seen. We even get a scene where a crooked district attorney questions why such a “maverick detective who keeps making false arrests of private citizens.” 

Perhaps the strangest story that came out of the movie’s all-star cast was that of Charlie Korsmo, who played “The Kid.” He was a child actor, in this film and many others. Then he became a lawyer, law professor, and occasional political commentator, although he returned to acting last year, in as a Werner Herzog-like German filmmaker in the indie film Chained For Life. 

Dick Tracy was a big hit for Disney in the summer of 1990, although due to some legal wrangling that continued for years, there was never a sequel, nor was there ever a remake or reboot, or even talk of one. But 30 years on, Dick Tracy remains a winning, fun movie, with first-rate production design and a hell of a cast. 

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