What can it be this time?
Gini is tackling two takes on the same detective, one from Turner Classic Movies’ noir caper grouping, 1945’s version of Dick Tracy, and one from my own vault, the 1990 version starring Madonna.
Dick Tracy (1945) and (1990)
By Gini Koch
Dick Tracy has had a long and successful life. He started out as a comic strip created by Chester Gould – which is still running today – and also had radio, recordings, comic books, books, movies, and television shows. That’s one damned successful character, that is.
Dick Tracy is an honorable and smart detective, who uses science, deduction, and some advanced gadgetry to solve crimes, most of which revolve around mobsters with weird names who look even weirder. He has a team of similarly dedicated officers, plus his love interest, Tess Trueheart, and also gets an adopted son, Dick Tracy, Jr. aka Junior. Tess and Junior both do their best to help, and both – Tess in particular – get menaced a lot, just to prove the situation is serious.
The 1945 film plays all this extremely straight, without attempting to “be” the comic strip, including creating a new villain. Morgan Conway is Dick Tracy, Anne Jeffreys is Tess Trueheart, Mickey Kuhn is Junior, and Mike Mazurki is Splitface, the serial killer Tracy has to track down and stop.
The story is interesting – a serial killer killing seemingly unrelated people and without a “type” while the police try to track him down before he kills again could have been trite but it was well done. I honestly expected to be bored but I wasn’t. I don’t care that the actors don’t “look like” the comic strip characters, I care that they inhabited the roles well.
The film is definitely noir – not only is it in black and white, but the serial killer slashes his victims horrifically, there are femme fatales around, and things are kind of grim. However, the point of Tess is that she’s the bright light for Tracy, the reason he’s willing to work in this way, to protect her and people like her.
In this version, Tracy’s already adopted Junior, and Junior does play a role, being more than just a precocious kid but a kid who wants to prove himself to be as good a detective as his adoptive father. There’s also a running joke about Tess never getting to actually eat a meal because something’s always dragging Tracy away that actually gets funnier each time.
Because the film is played straight, this is really a noir police procedural utilizing familiar characters to tell its story. It’s not long movie – 61 minutes – because it was done to be the B film, the film running before and/or after the main movie. The hubs and I both found it far more entertaining than we’d expected and, highest praise, we’d both watch it again.
The 1990 film was directed by and stars Warren Beatty as Tracy, during the time he was dating Madonna, who plays Breathless Mahoney. Glenne Headly plays Tess, and Charlie Korsmo is the Kid, who becomes Junior.
This movie has an all-star cast in addition to the ones already mentioned: Al Pacino, Mandy Patinkin, Charles Durning, John Schuck, Paul Sorvino, Dustin Hoffman…the list goes on. Most of the roles are small, essentially cameos, but there are a heck of a lot of them. If you enjoy spotting stars, this is definitely a movie for you.
In this version, Tracy’s dealing with a mob war, as Big Boy Caprice (Pacino) is trying to take over all the mob action, but a mysterious new player is causing havoc and disruption, pitting everyone against each other. Meanwhile, mob-controlled singer Breathless Mahoney is coming on to Tracy, while Tess is questioning their relationship, and Tracy has this Kid he’s found and saved who he has to take care of.
This movie is definitely doing its best to make the actors look like the comic strip characters – other than Beatty, who presumably decided he was better looking that his comics counterpart and chose not to wear any prosthetics. Madonna and Headly don’t wear any, either – their looks are all done via costuming – making them the most normal-looking people in the movie.
The story is rather twisty, with that mysterious someone playing all the mob bosses against each other and against Tracy. Or is this person trying to help Tracy? Or someone else? The reveal was a cool surprise in 1990, but if you haven’t seen this movie before and watch it now, you’re likely to guess who the ultimate manipulator is.
Because Madonna is in this movie, it’s got a lot of musical numbers in it. All of them are uniformly great, and the scene where Big Boy is trying to teach Breathless and her backup singers and dancers new moves is pretty funny.
When it was first released I loved the songs – and bought the soundtrack – but really hated the rest of the movie. I felt that everyone either under or overacted, and while I enjoyed the twist of who the bad guy was, the rest of it left me disappointed. And I really hated the Kid.
Watching it now, though, what Beatty was trying to do actually works. It just needed a couple of decades to go by to show that it works. Now that everything is CGI and motion capture means anyone can look like anything, having actual actors in makeup being the characters seems novel and brilliant.
I still find the Kid to be just a bit too much. In the 1945 version, Junior gets the right amount of screen time. In this version, though, because it’s the Kid’s origin story (essentially), we get a ton of him, and a little of Mr. Gratingly Precocious still goes a long way, even when he’s being heroic. Though I do have to admit that it’s still a tender moment when the Kid chooses his new “real” name.
This is a very stylized film, color plays a huge part in this movie as does costuming and makeup, and the colors pop like they do in the Sunday comics. There’s humor as well as romance, pathos and action. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s fun and entertaining and I’ve now been happy to watch it for more than the music.
All in all, with a character as long-running and versatile as Dick Tracy, you can always find a version that’s right for you or whatever mood you’re in. Played straight or as a heightened reality, Dick Tracy always gets his man.
Dick Tracy 1945: 4 stars out of 5
Dick Tracy 1990: 4 stars out of 5
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