Why Warren Beatty's 'Dick Tracy' Deserves More Than a Half-Forgotten Fate

Twenty-five years later, maybe it's time to revisit the comic strip adaptation.
Courtesy Everett Collection
'Dick Tracy'

In the summer of 1990, Dick Tracy was everywhere — ads for the Warren Beatty vehicle, based on the long-running newspaper strip created by Chester Gould, were omnipresent. Even if you could escape the sight of Beatty's silhouette wearing a fedora and talking into his watch on countless posters all around you, you'd find yourself faced with Madonna's I'm Breathless album, any number of Dick Tracy toys, even a newly created Roger Rabbit cartoon promoting the movie. All of which leads to one simple question: Why, 25 years later, does it feel as if the movie that never happened?

The most obvious answer is that the movie flopped. Despite having the third-highest opening weekend of the year, it was judged to have underperformed with a worldwide gross of $162.7 million after costing $100 million to make (By comparison, the most successful movie of the year, Ghost, made $505.7 million worldwide with a budget of $22 million). More troublesome was the critical apathy that met its release, with many complaining about the movie's focus on visuals over story (The movie sits at 64 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).

And yet, the movie looked amazing; its design was dazzling, with prosthetics transforming a cast that included Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and James Caan into real-life cartoon characters that looked more like Gould's sketches than their own faces and costumes as colorful as any four-color newspaper page could produce. The music, too, was breathtaking — no pun on Madonna's character, Breathless Mahoney, intended: Danny Elfman, fresh of his success with the Batman soundtrack the previous year, wrote the score while Stephen Sondheim contributed five original songs. It's not as if there's no reason for this movie to be remembered; so, where did it go?

As invisible as it may seem, traces of Dick's DNA can be found in modern-day comic book movies. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy has a similar energy veering between melodrama and camp, and oddly enough, the most obvious movies to carry its influence — intentionally or otherwise — are the Sin City movies. Like Dick, the world of Sin City is a purposefully unrealistic environment filled with recognizable actors rendered less so with prosthetics and effects, offering an over-the-top version of noir. If you added some torch songs and a little bit more humor, you could easily imagine Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's efforts to be a black-and-white tribute to what Warren Beatty had attempted years before.

Dick's greatest legacy is somewhat less tangible, however; despite its ultimate fate at the box office, it acted as proof of concept for non-superhero comics to be the subject of a big-budget movie adaptation. That the movie was profitable at all, even if not the hit that everyone wanted, lent legitimacy to the idea of using non-superhero comic material for movies and indirectly led to projects like 300, Hellboy and, well, The Phantom. (Okay, they can't all be winners.) This isn't to argue that it's a lost classic — Disney's lost comic classic is actually the following year's The Rocketeer, which should be revisited as soon as possible if you haven't watched it recently — but it is something that deserves to be remembered more fondly (or just remembered, period) than it currently is.

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