We’re all stuck in the house, right? There’s never been a better time to dig into those retro movies that you’ve always wanted to watch, but never had the time for. Personally, I’m a bit of a retrophile and tend to watch more older flicks than newer ones. On Fangirlish, you can now look forward to a retro review from me each Wednesday in this column. I’ll be highlighting one throwback movie a week, offering a spoiler-free review of the film, any throwback thoughts from my childhood, and where you can watch the movie yourself. Sit back, relax, and enjoy #WayBackWednesday.
Dick Tracy is one of my earliest memories of seeing a movie in the theater. In fact, until I started writing this column, I thought it was my first movie theater experience until I went back and checked the dates on All Dogs Go to Heaven. Either that one or possibly The Little Mermaid was my first trip to the theater, but most of my memories of that film are related to my sister watching the VHS tape until it practically melted. However, my first vivid memories of the theater are of Dick Tracy. Seeing Dick Tracy is also the only time I ever remember going to the movies with my dad. He’s more of a John Wayne/Western kind of guy, but for whatever reason, the whole family went to go see Dick Tracy. For today’s #WayBackWednesday, I thought it would be fun to revisit a film that I believe helped to solidify my love of comics, stylized art, and slightly old things. Check out the trailer for Dick Tracy and we’ll get started with #WayBackWednesday.
Dick Tracy is based on the newspaper comic strip of the same name, originally published in 1931 by Chester Gould. The strip is still running today, which is no small feat for a nearly 100-year-old character. The strip was so popular that it also spun off radio shows, comic books, a serialized film series, four feature-length movies, a live-action television series, and an animated series as well.
A passion project for Warren Beatty, Beatty directed and starred as the titular character. While the film got middling box office returns upon release, Dick Tracy was actually nominated for seven Oscars, won three, and boasts several Oscar-winning and nominated actors. Dick Tracy received wins for Best Makeup, Best Set Decoration, Best Original Song for “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)”, and nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Al Pacino), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Sound.
One of the reasons that I return to Dick Tracy is the aesthetic. I adore the color and the sets because it makes me feel like I’m smack in the middle of a real live comic strip. I’ve always enjoyed 1930s detective noir stories. Due to the limitations of print ink at the time, the Dick Tracy comic strip has always been brightly colored, just like comic books were back then. Why else would a noir-style police detective walk around in a bright yellow trenchcoat and fedora?
Dick Tracy definitely earned its Best Cinematography nomination. Perhaps my favorite shot is a silhouette style shot of Madonna as Breathless Mahoney singing, “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man).” In one shot, it captures the noir style of the film, while also highlighting the way the film utilizes silhouettes to create the feel of a 1930s dark detective story, even with the bright color. The sets for the film look straight out of a comic as well, with several shots blending together live-action footage and animated backdrops. This perpetual blurring of the lines between comic and reality makes this film so much fun to watch, purely from an artistic standpoint.
When watching the film again for this column, I appreciated even more how much love and care went into creating the costumes and makeup for this film. Everything is note-perfect to the comic, which is no small feat considering the unusual physical features many of the rogue’s gallery boasts. Pruneface, Lips Manlis, Little Face, Flattop, and even Big Boy Caprice are so unlike their actors, that I would gasp when I recognized them or looked them up on IMDB. Dick Tracy definitely earned its Oscar nomination and win in those categories.
Speaking of the cast, what a line-up! Aside from Warren Beatty, we’ve got Al Pacino, Mandy Patinkin, William Forsythe, Paul Sorvino, the late, great Glenne Headly, Kathy Bates, Dick Van Dyke, and the queen of pop herself, Madonna, and that is only to name a few! I mentioned earlier that the film boasts several Oscar-winning and nominated actors. The winners are Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Estelle Parsons, and Kathy Bates; and the four nominees are James Caan, Charles Durning, Seymour Cassel, and Michael J. Pollard. With such a great cast, this is a film worth watching just to see some of your favorite actors in very unusual roles and makeup.
The score and original songs for Dick Tracy are the work of Danny Elfman and Broadway great Stephen Sondheim. According to IMDB, Danny Elfman was hired for Dick Tracy because of his work on Batman (1989), which is telling. The scores for Dick Tracy and Batman share certain characteristics that fit detective noir stories very well. As a near lifelong Batman fan, especially of Batman (1989) and Batman: The Animated Series, I can typically recognize Elfman’s style within 20 seconds of hearing it. I can’t imagine anyone more qualified to score Dick Tracy.
Stephen Sondheim wrote the songs performed by Breathless Mahoney, played by Madonna. Madonna is perfect in this role, playing the bad girl that wants to be good, all the while crooning for gangsters in a smoky speakeasy. “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” is a smooth and seductive song, worthy of its Oscar win. The soundtrack is worth checking out just for all the lesser-known Madonna tunes, but also for her duet with Mandy Patinkin (88 Keys), on “What Can You Lose.”
Though I only saw Dick Tracy once as a kid and didn’t see it again until I snagged an unopened VHS copy at a video store in college, memories of the film stayed with me. I had a Dick Tracy t-shirt that I wore until I couldn’t fit into it anymore. I had the trading cards, and though I never had the cool radio watch, every time I wore a watch as a kid, I was always talking into it, and yelling, “I’m on my way!” before sprinting off across the yard to get whatever bad guy I was going to foil. The marketing for this film was very well done, as I have vivid mental images of full-page ads in my comic books for the film with the iconic, “I’m on my way,” and the silhouette style art featured in its ad campaign by Johnny Kwan. Props to whoever was in charge of the marketing department for Dick Tracy. You really knew how to get a kid excited about a comic that was long before her time.
Truthfully, I can’t understand why the film did not do better. Critics did not yet have an appreciation for comic book movies like they do today, but this film, along with Batman (1989) was at the cusp of a watershed moment for comic films. It helped to pave the way later in the decade for the comic book movie success that Blade and the X-Men films achieved. For these reasons, I think Dick Tracy is worth your time. It’s a stylized comic movie all its own. I’m not sure that I’ve seen anything quite like it since. It’s clear that this film is a love letter to the character. Even if you are unfamiliar with the comic, I find it a treat to watch artists really digging in and enjoying their work. That’s the kind of love you get on your screen with Dick Tracy.
Dick Tracy is currently streaming on HBO Max.