Predating comic books as a means of popular entertainment was the comic strip. Four or five colorful square panel on a newspaper page would tell a story; frequently serialized of several weeks of months. This method of presentation was influential in the format of the traditional comic book persisting for decades. Of course the proliferation of the comic strip is predicated on distribution through newspapers. They were so popular that many comic strips were accredited with a significant portion of a newspaper’s circulation.in fact when there was a newspaper strike in New York City the mayor appeared on radio to read the Sunday funny papers to the deprived public. Part of my childhood memories was reading the full color Sunday comic in the Daily News with my father. One of the first strips we read was ‘Dick Tracy’. Besides the latest installment of the current crime story was a panel called ‘Crime stoppers' Textbook’, featuring tips and hints for the youthful readers. Of course these memories are bound never to be repeated due to the replacement of newspapers as a primary means of news and entertainment by the internet. In 1990 a movie was made to bring ‘Dick Tracy’ to the big screen. Many have derided the film for overacting and poorly defined plot but that is an unfair as well as unreasonable assessment of the movie. The problem inherent to a film based on nostalgia is it is created to appeal to the generation that experienced it firsthand but criticized by a subsequent generation unfamiliar with the nuances of the original. When viewed through this perspective ‘Dick Tracy’ is an entertaining romp through some cherished childhood memories. even though my time reading the comic strip’s golden age there was still enough of the archetypes and distinctive style remaining to better appreciate this flick. Style was of paramount importance to a comic strip with each one possessing its own distinctive artistic trademarks. This movie did a respectable job of bringing that style and the world of ‘Dick Tracy’ to life.
In order to get this movie it is critical to place yourself in the mindset prevalent for the early fans of the comic strip. It started in the thirties, the heyday of mobsters, tommy guns and speakeasies. The movie opens with a long forgotten archetype mandatory in gangster flicks of the era, the street urchin (Charlie Korsmo). Part of the function of this character is to provide a vantage point into the criminal circumstances that drive the story. The Kid witnesses a mass mob hit of some of the city’s most notorious criminals; Shoulders (Stig Eldred), Stooge (Jim Wilkey), the Rodent (Neil Summers), the Brow (Chuck Hicks) and Little Face (Lawrence Steven Meyers). The gangster gleefully behind the machine gun is a ‘Dick Tracy’ regulars Flattop (William Forsythe) and Itchy (Ed O'Ross). The format for criminals in this strip was a defining characteristic exaggerated for comic effect. Itchy was constantly scratching while flattop’s head came to an abrupt level surface. They represented a category called solider villains. They carried out orders of the behest of the criminal mastermind, in this case Alphonse "Big Boy" Caprice (Al Pacino). Like most of the notable actors in this movie Pacino’s heavy make-up renders him virtually unrecognizable. The Kid goes on the run encountering Tracy (Warren Beatty) on a date with longtime girlfriend Tess Truehart (Glenne Headly). Tracy becomes attached to boy and takes him under his protection. The hit was a prelude to a takeover by Big Boy. The next step was forcing club owner Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) into signing over his establishment, Club Ritz before giving him the lethal cement overcoat. Not only did Big Boy take Lip’s club he took his star act and girlfriend, Breathless Mahoney (Madonna). Several other regular foes are infused into the story; Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman), Spud Spaldoni (James Caan) and Pruneface (R. G. Armstrong). The makeup used for each character captures the essence of their comic strip originals. The story progresses along the same lines as it would have it been portioned out in a comic strip. Tracy catches a lead and follows it only to fall into a nefarious trap being extricated at the last possible moment. One of the best cameos of the movie happens in this context 8 (Mandy Patinkin) as the musical 88 Keys.
Beatty does well as the embodiment of the iconic lawman. Sporting the trademark fedora and overcoat in the primary color; yellow, colors were frequently used to denote a character identifying then to the reader. This practice is evident throughout the film which did take home the Academy Award for ‘Best Make-up’ and ‘Best Set Design’. In the majority of films that permit style to overwhelm the story is a case of all sizzle and little steak. Normally I would agree but this is an exception to the rule. The stories contained in a comic strip were almost always simplistic. In the thirties and forties the news was full of gang violence and the onset of another world war. The comic strips were primarily intended as a light hearted diversion from the serious events dominating the news. Style was critical to this form of entertainment. In this strip technique of reductio ad absurdum was frequently employed. The basic personality traits of a character was represented by their name and visually reinforced in their look. While most evident with the bad guys but Tracy’s allies were often included, case in point, the ever faithful, long enduring Tess Trueheart. She was a woman morally upstanding and worthy of Tracy’s love, He might have been momentarily tempted by the feminine wiles of Breathless but the audience knows he could never be completely seduced. Tracy was the epitome of the American moral center and work ethic. With his stellar arrest record he could easily be the Chief of Police but he was convinced his most effective place was fighting crime were it occurs, on the street. The movie harkens back to that simpler time when good and evil was as clearly demarcated as black and white.
The new Blu-ray release of this movie finally shows off the stylistic treatment the way it should be seen. The colors are vibrant, with details that have not been obvious before this edition. When combined with the new audio remix this movie is a fun time for the entire family.