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Dick Tracy was unlike any other movie made in 1990 — and any movie made today

Warren Beatty starred in and directed Dick Tracy, released 25 years ago, which is a colorful, inventive spin on what the comics-based film can be.
Warren Beatty starred in and directed Dick Tracy, released 25 years ago, which is a colorful, inventive spin on what the comics-based film can be.
Touchstone Pictures
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Believe it or not, there was a time when the comics-based movie wasn't considered a surefire moneymaker. But when director Tim Burton unleashed the grand, Gothic sweep of 1989's Batman, it was unlike anything that'd come before — and, honestly, unlike very little that's come since.

The movie's huge success first suggested to Hollywood that comic book adaptations could be a big business — and that created high hopes for another hyperstylized, comics-based work that was already filming. The result was released in a swirl of hype on June 15, 1990, only to fail to catch fire in the same way Batman had.

That film, Dick Tracy, which turns 25 this week, is a weird footnote in the history of comics-based movies. To study it right now is to find it anachronistic, to label its approach to making comics-based movies as one that just didn't pan out.

And yet there's much to enjoy and even treasure in Dick Tracy. It's nowhere near the best movie of its type, but it's a frequently audacious, stunningly beautiful ride through a four-color universe.

The film's color scheme is second to none

Big Boy in Dick Tracy

The colors of the reporters' coats mimic the bright splashes of color in newspaper Sunday comics.

Touchstone Pictures

Director Warren Beatty (who also played the titular detective) collaborated with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (winner of three Oscars for other films and a nomination for this film) and his top-notch design team to create a world that existed primarily in the brightly hued splashes of the Sunday paper's comics page.

This is a world swathed in red and green, in purple and yellow — a look that newspaper publishers adopted in order to print color as cheaply as possible. But Beatty went way, way over-budget trying to capture the lush look of Chester Gould's old comic strips.

Every single scene is bathed in luminescent tints, and the film frequently pauses to take in the colorful grandeur of its fictional universe. If there's one reason to revisit Dick Tracy today, it's that the movie's visuals are wholly different from those of any comics-based movie of today.

All the visual effects were created practically

The city of Dick Tracy

This vivid cityscape was created practically. That gives it a handcrafted feel.

Touchstone Pictures

Computer graphics imagery (CGI) was still in its very early stages in 1990, so Dick Tracy is a fun trip back to the era when visual effects technicians had to actually make something in a workshop if they wanted to see it on screen. That's most evident in the film's use of matte paintings — handpainted backdrops that suggest the backgrounds of scenes — which often take on the look of intricate cardboard cutouts.

Dick Tracy's physical environment is further enhanced by the Oscar-winning makeup design created by John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler. The two take on the task of literally creating Gould's often repugnant rogue's gallery onscreen, and they do an incredible job. Nowadays, these sorts of effects would be generated via computer, but that wasn't possible in 1990. To watch this movie is to witness the height of a craft from a different era, one that was about to be replaced.

The songs were written by living legend Stephen Sondheim

Madonna in Dick Tracy

Madonna performs "Sooner or Later, I Always Get My Man," which won Sondheim his Oscar.

Touchstone Pictures

One of Dick Tracy's most important characters is Breathless Mahoney, the femme fatale Dick Tracy encounters at a club run by the movie's main villain. Played by Madonna, Breathless needed songs to sing, so Beatty recruited Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist responsible for Company, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods, among others. You can read more about Sondheim's work on the film here.

Sondheim's music underscores some of the movie's best sequences. (In general, when Beatty isn't woodenly reciting its dialogue, Dick Tracy gets much better.) It doesn't hurt that each song is performed by Madonna and longtime Sondheim interpreter Mandy Patinkin (who portrays a piano player known as 88 Keyes), either.

Sondheim wrote about the experience of working on the film in his book Look, I Made a Hat:

Not only was it for a movie based on a cartoon I had grown up with, it was set in the 1930s and thus invited pastiche, something I loved writing. Better yet, the songs were to decorate the plot rather than enhance it, which made them easy to write, and when Warren hired Madonna, no less, to play Breathless, I thought it might even be my chance to have a hit record. In the fullness of time, I didn't get a hit, but I got an Academy Award.

Kathy Bates is in this movie

Kathy Bates in Dick Tracy.

Ladies and gentlemen, Academy Award winner Kathy Bates. As a stenographer.

Touchstone Pictures

One thing many people do remember about Dick Tracy is that it boasts a surprisingly all-star cast. In addition to Beatty and Madonna, Al Pacino plays the film's main heavy, while Dustin Hoffman plays a memorable supporting role as Mumbles, a gangster who only speaks in, well, look at his name. Charles Durning, Dick Van Dyke, and James Caan also pop up in smaller parts.

But one bit player from the film is now famous in her own right. In a single, minor scene, Kathy Bates appears as a stenographer who tries to make sense of Mumbles's distinctive patois. Dick Tracy captures the actress on the cusp of far bigger things. At the same ceremony where Dick Tracy would win Oscars for makeup, original song, and art direction, Bates would take home the trophy that launched the career she has now — for the movie Misery.

The film is surprisingly violent, considering its PG rating

Dick Tracy's third act features some amazing action.

Explosions and gunfights dominate the film's third act, which is somewhat unexpected for a film rated PG.

Touchstone Pictures

Though Dick Tracy routinely cuts away from the consequences of its abundant violence, it features frequent, gigantic gun battles between the cops (led by Tracy) and the criminals (led by all those odd, misshapen gangsters). Tommy guns rattle, stuff gets blown up, and the whole thing is a lot louder than you would expect from a PG movie released today.

It's not difficult to imagine a version of this story that clocks in at a hard R, with slightly less judicious cuts. As it is, though, the violence has all the depth of, well, a comic strip panel. It's mostly suggested, never shown.

Dick Tracy's failure to commit to his girlfriend is a gag on Beatty

Dick Tracy and Tess Trueheart in Dick Tracy.

Dick Tracy never knows how to ask his girlfriend, Tess, to marry him. Her last name is "Trueheart," though. You'd think that would be a sign.

Touchstone Pictures

For those of us who primarily know Beatty as the longtime husband of the actress Annette Bening, it's easy to forget that at the apex of his fame, he was as well-known for all the famous women he slept with as he was for the movies he starred in.

In that sense, the scene where Tracy finally, haltingly proposes to longtime girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) is a meta-gag on Beatty's own bachelor status — one that makes less sense now, as he's been happily married for decades.

A number of big names almost directed this film before Beatty did

Warren Beatty is Dick Tracy

Beatty's use of dissolves to keep several images onscreen at the same time, superimposed over each other, gave the film a vintage, period feel.

Touchstone Pictures

Beatty first attempted to adapt Dick Tracy in 1975, and various studios' ensuing efforts to turn the comic strip into a movie could fill a book of their own. Along the way, directors as varied as Steven Spielberg, John Landis (The Blues Brothers), and Walter Hill (48 Hrs.) were invited to put their stamp on the material, before eventually falling away from the project for various reasons.

The final director courted before Beatty decided to just make the thing himself was Martin Scorsese, who was experiencing a bit of a low period in the late 1980s, when he was making daring, adventurous work that nobody was watching, like The Last Temptation of Christ. After failing to land the Dick Tracy job, however, Scorsese would go on to make Goodfellas, so everything turned out okay.

The movie doesn't really deserve its flop status

The final shot of Dick Tracy

The final shot offers more evidence of the film's gorgeous matte paintings and production design work.

Touchstone Pictures

Dick Tracy is mostly remembered for how it didn't live up to the considerable fanfare that greeted it upon its release. And indeed, the huge marketing campaign mounted by Disney (which released the film under its Touchstone arm) resulted in only middling returns. Dick Tracy only managed to make a little under $104 million domestically, with another $59 million coming in from overseas. Details of the film's final budget differ (with Variety suggesting it had topped $100 million), but most sources agree that it only crawled to profitability on home video.

The problem was that Disney was expecting another Batman, and had instead delivered a smaller-scale hit that it hadn't properly budgeted for. But Dick Tracy, ultimately, did perform respectably. It even landed in the top 10 films of 1990. In 2015 dollars, it would have made just under $200 million domestically, and while that's not a smash, it's still respectable. There's a reason Beatty kept trying to produce a sequel — he had every reason to think he might be able to.

Beatty's attempts to hang on to the rights to the character resulted in one of the weirdest TV specials ever

Dick Tracy Special

Brilliant television.


In 2009, Beatty recruited Leonard Maltin and two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot a half-hour television special that would later air on Turner Classic Movies. The program features Maltin earnestly reciting a bunch of facts about Dick Tracy, while Beatty occasionally interjects — in character as Tracy — to describe the famous detective's exploits. It's super weird, and you can watch it below.

Why did Beatty do this? The rights to the character were about to revert to Tribune Media Services (which owns the comic strip), and the stubborn actor still wanted to make a sequel. In order to retain those rights, Beatty produced this special, and a judge later ruled this proved he had a vested interest in continuing to make movies with the character. Beatty continues to hold the rights for all future Dick Tracy movies, and Tribune will just have to continue to wait.