It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when comic book characters had little to no hope of success in Hollywood. Films adapted from comic magazines or newspaper “funnies” were few, given that the properties were seen as substandard material suitable only for children (or worse, thanks to Frederic Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” book, part of a general anti-comic movement in the ‘50s). It wasn’t until producer Ilya Salkind saw the potential to combine the biggest money-making genres of the late 1970’s (the disaster movie, sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure) with an already popular character that Superman: The Movie (1978) changed the perception of comic book material. Even then, Superman was still seen as a fluke (its uneven sequels didn’t help matters), and it would be another decade before the second comic book movie juggernaut, 1989’s Batman, cemented the idea that such material could be highly successful. After Batman, it was clear big name comic characters had a future in movies, but what about those less well known? Would the big budget comic book blockbuster only work for characters that still had relevance, or could a filmmaker’s craft, style, and passion for a second-tier character be enough to achieve success?
Warren Beatty attempted to answer that question with making Dick Tracy, released 30 years ago this month in the summer of 1990. Beatty began looking into a Tracy film in the ‘70s, and found that he was not the only one seeking to utilize the character, who hadn’t been seen on movie screens since the ‘40s. The rights to the comic passed through a variety of production teams and studios– everyone from United Artists to Paramount to John Landis, Bob Fosse (!) and Steven Spielberg. The musical chairs seemed to end when Walter Hill and Joel Silver gained the rights, approaching Beatty to star, but when that fell through, Beatty acquired the rights for himself, and the production moved from Paramount to Walt Disney Studios. By that time, it was the end of the ‘80s, and Beatty made the decision to just make the film himself, taking the script Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. had written years earlier and doing an uncredited rewrite with his partner Bo Goldman. After waiting for so long to make the movie, and having gained a reputation as an Oscar-winning director with his films Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Reds (1981), Beatty put all his muscle behind the picture, stuffing it with a huge name cast and crew members like cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
While it’s been said many times over that Dick Tracy built upon the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, Tracy started shooting in February of ’89, months before Burton’s film hit cinemas. While Batman was undeniably an influence on the film, especially in post-production (Beatty hired Batman’s composer Danny Elfman, who essentially continues the same themes and style he’d begun in Burton’s movie), Tracy was initially concocted as a tribute to its source material. Beatty and Storaro chose to shoot the film in only seven colors, each color the exact same shade in every use, so as to evoke the look of the ‘30s comic strip. The restricted camera movement was not only chosen to help with this aspect, but to also make sure to not break the illusion of the dozens of matte paintings by Michael Lloyd and Harrison Ellenshaw. Pushing the unreality of the movie further are the makeup designs by John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler, putting characters on screen that mutate the human form so much they’re almost Cronenbergian. Even more than Burton, Beatty made it his mission to translate the visual look, feel, and language of comic books to the screen.
Beatty was also well aware of Dick Tracy’s connection to Prohibition-era pulp fiction, and the film, like Batman, was the next step in propagating that style’s revival in the early ‘90s. The action sequences in the movie evoke not just the ‘30s Dick Tracy Republic serials starring Ralph Byrd but also the gangster films of that period by Warner Bros. and Universal. In addition to Elfman’s score, Beatty commissioned Stephen Sondheim to write original songs for the film, most of which would be sung by Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), making the movie, in part, a ‘30s-style musical. The witty banter laced with double entendres calls back to screwball comedies, and both the numerous sequences of shadowy figures lurking in the dark as well as the entirety of Breathless’ character (being a consummate femme fatale) reference film noir. Such nostalgia and noir were already seeping into pop culture during the ‘80s, with films like Pennies From Heaven (1981), Body Heat (1981), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). One of the biggest influences on the look and feel of Tracy is another kind of live action comic strip: 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which successfully combined real actors with cel animation in a noir setting—not only does Tracy seem one brushstroke away from looking like Roger Rabbit’s Toontown, but the film’s theatrical release had an original Roger Rabbit cartoon short attached to it, Roller Coaster Rabbit.
By combining the source material with all these elements and genres, Dick Tracy proved that the comic book movie could be more than just superheroes in capes, and could push the visual limits of the medium in spectacular and entertaining—even artistic—fashion. For various legal reasons, Tracy never had a sequel, though it influenced a large number of films. Burton’s Batman sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, had a bolder look, featuring villains both unabashedly neurotic and sexually explicit, as Al Pacino and Madonna are in Tracy, respectively. Joel Schumacher’s further Batman films continued to push their visuals into unreality, while producers started taking chances on other second- and third-tier comic book heroes like Blade (1998). More immediately, a whole pulp comic revival began, as characters old and new like The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1996) and The Rocketeer (1991) as well as more kid-oriented fare like Richie Rich (1994) and Casper (1995) attempted to gain the same level of popularity as Tracy had.
Yet none of these quite made the same impact, revealing to Hollywood one of the true lessons of Tracy—Disney took a large page out of Batman’s playbook in marketing the film, which helped Dick Tracy look not like a stodgy old character but a buzzworthy and cool one. The company licensed action figures, wristwatches, lunch boxes, beach towels, comic books, magazines, and three (!) separate soundtrack albums (compared to Batman’s mere two)—and that’s just what was at this writer’s house in 1990. It’s fitting and prophetic that Dick Tracy’s end credit roll is not scored to Elfman’s music nor one of the many songs about Tracy or Breathless; instead, it’s Sondheim’s chorus-girl tribute to greed entitled “More.” For better or worse, that song pointed the way for comic book movies and Hollywood for the foreseeable future.
“Dick Tracy” is streaming on HBO Max.