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Film: Dick Tracy

I'm on my way.

In 1990, Touchstone Pictures took Chester Gould's relatively simple crime-drama comic strip and reimagined it as a big-budget extravaganza with big-name actors, colorful costumes, special effects and plenty of music. Warren Beatty both directed the film and starred in the title role.

The setting is a Chicago-like city sometime in the early 1930s. Detective Dick Tracy (Beatty) is the most dogged plainclothes cop on the street, dividing his time between punching out mooks and making sure young delinquents get sent to the orphanage. A new challenge to his authority soon emerges in the form of up-and-coming gang boss Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino), who unites all his former rivals into a citywide gangland coalition. Now Tracy's only hope in foiling Big Boy's schemes lies with nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), who is prepared to help the detective....for a price.

The movie also starred Glenne Headley as Tess Trueheart and Charlie Korsmo as the nameless "Kid." It won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Original Song (Stephen Sondheim's "Sooner or Later"). Pacino was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor (in a Playboy interview, he actually listed it among his top 5 performances).

One of the striking features of the film was its attempt to replicate, in live action, the flat colors and limited palette of the comic strip. Every yellow thing was the same bright yellow as Dick Tracy's trademark outfit, every blue thing was the same blue, every red thing the same red, and so on. And unlike, say, Sin City, which did it with computer tinting, Dick Tracy did it by actually painting and dying the physical objects those colours.

For some reason, many people seem to be under the impression that the movie bombed at the box office, when in fact it made double its budget back in America, and triple when you factor in the rest of the world. In fact, it was actually the highest grossing film of Warren Beatty's career. However, a combination of performing under Disney's expectations and a decades-long battle over the rights between Beatty and the Tribune Co. put the kibosh on any immediate follow-ups.


Tropes include:

  • Accidental Kidnapping: Big Boy unknowingly kidnaps Tess, thanks to The Blank. Big Boy, thinking Tracy is intentionally framing him, suitably freaks out.
  • Anti-Villain: Lips Manlis, Breathless Mahoney, 88 Keys, and Mumbles are all fairly sympathetic, despite being criminals. The Blank pursues ostensibly good goals (bringing down the city's crime syndicate) through evil means, a classic Anti-Villain move.
  • An Ass Kicking Christmas: It's not immediately obvious but a good portion of the plot is set around Christmastime judging from some of the decorations seen (in particular in the clothing store). This means the party the gangsters are having at the end is a New Year's Eve bash.
    • As Big Boy uses the underground cart to escape with Tess, he mutters to himself, "What a way to start the new year."
  • Award Bait Song: All five of the songs written for the film by Stephen Sondheim. "Sooner Or Later" took home the oscar for Best Original Song.
  • Awesome McCoolname: Largely inverted. The gangster's villainous monikers are all actually rather unflattering; Pruneface, Itchy, etc. There are some exceptions, like Big Boy Caprice.
  • Badass in a Nice Suit: The majority of the bad guys, the good guys too.
  • Badass Longcoat: Being about the same color as a banana does nothing to make it any less badass.
  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: The Blank. (also good example of Villainous Rescue)
  • Big Eater: The Kid.
  • The Blank: Trope namer, in this case a faceless (literally) mystery man who undermines Big Boy's operation, and Tracy's career, too.
  • Bluff The Imposter: The villains do this to Tracy.
  • Boomerang Bigot:
    Kid: I don't like dames.
    Tess Trueheart: Neither do I.
  • Bully Hunter:
    • Tracy, when attacking a hobo who's been abusing the Kid.
    • The Blank as well, although perhaps more of a Vigilante Man.
  • Catchphrase: "I'm on my way."
  • Cement Shoes: In this case, it's an entire cement suit.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Big Boy never bothering to check his attic.
  • Co-Dragons: Itchy and Flattop. This is a big change from the comics, in which Flattop was probably Tracy's Arch-Enemy.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: How Mumbles is interrogated at the police station.
  • Cowboy Cop: And how!
  • Da Chief: Actually the District Attorney, but he fills the same role of breaking Tracy's balls. Averted by the actual chief, who is completely supportive of Tracy.
  • Dead Man's Trigger Finger: When Big Boy's minions try to break past the police cordon, Flattop comes out of his car shooting a tommy gun at the cops. He's riddled with bullets, and as he falls to the ground he continues to fire his weapon in the air.
  • Dirty Coward: Big Boy instructs all his men to gather in their cars and drive out into the street in front of the Club Ritz to meet the police in a final showdown - but himself chickens out at the last minute, attempting to flee across the river with Tess as his hostage.
  • Disney Villain Death: Subverted, as Big Boy is pushed over a ledge.
  • Distressed Dude: Tracy winds up as this on more than one occasion.
  • The Don: Big Boy Caprice.
  • Elective Unintelligible: Mumbles.
  • Enemy Mine: Ultimately subverted in the case of The Blank.
    • "The enemy of my enemy is my enemy." But....if the first enemy is the enemy of his second enemy, then that makes his second enemy his friend. But he can't be his friend, because he's his enemy. But that means....
  • The Fagin: "Steve The Tramp" has "Kid" steal for him. Dick Tracy tracks Kid back to Steve's shack and beats Steve up, freeing Kid.
  • Feigning Intelligence: Big Boy Caprice tosses out profound (but bogus) quotes from famous people to appear educated.
  • Femme Fatale: Breathless loves playing with this trope.
  • Flipping the Table: Big Boy does this at the end of yet another rant after his men fail to kill Tracy (again).
  • Follow the Leader: Although Beatty's development of the film had been in the works as long as Tim Burton's Batman, it still retained a lot of elements that drew comparisons since Batman was released a year earlier. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone noted that they both contained: "a loner hero, a grotesque villain, a blond bombshell, a marketable pop soundtrack and a no-mercy merchandising campaign." That also didn't factor in the Art Deco-insipired set design, the original working script being worked on by Tom Mankiewicz (both films would basically discard them), and Danny Elfman as composer (and Travers noted that his Tracy score was incredibly similar to his one for Batman).
  • Foreshadowing: In the movie's opening action sequence, we see five hoodlums playing poker in a warehouse. One of them draws aces and eights - the "Dead Man's Hand" - just before a car crashes into the warehouse and all five men are violently shot to death.
  • Frameup: Tracy is framed for murder.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Holy crap, for a PG film you have Breathless in a sheer nightdress, wearing barely anything at all bordering on Nipple and Dimed. Then there's the fact seemingly every line she throws at Tracy is a Double Entendre and doing things like getting on all fours on Tracy's desk.
  • Gold Digger: The nightclub song "More" pretty much says it all: "Got my diamonds/Got my yacht/Got a guy I adore/....Something's better than nothing, yes/But nothing's better than more, more, more!"
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: D.A. Fletcher uses a long black cigarette holder. No points for guessing he's corrupt.
  • Greasy Spoon: The Diner Tracy and Tess hang out at.
  • Handy Cuffs: After being framed for murder, Tracy is being moved from the police holding cell to the county lock-up. His fellow police officers handcuff him in the front, Tracy comments on the lapse in procedure. As it turns out the move was a ruse to allow Tracy the time needed to clear his name.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Not that the blonde didn't put up a hell of a fight....
  • The Hyena: Flattop.
  • Impersonating an Officer: Several of Big Boy Caprice's henchmen dress up as police officers, "arrest" Lips Manlis and take him to a warehouse to be murdered.
  • Jabba Table Manners: Lips Manlis noisily sucking oysters down his throat by the mouthful.
  • Kick the Dog: Big Boy smashes the fingers of 88 Keys in a piano when he becomes frustrated with the slow progress made by his performers during a rehearsal at the Club Ritz.
  • Kill Him Already: The Blank has the chance to drill Tracy and escape scot-free, but doesn't. This is fully justified in the context of the story.
  • Large Ham: Many of the villains have their moments, but Big Boy Caprice in particular takes the cake. Then again, it is Al Pacino.
  • Last Kiss: Between Tracy and Breathless Mahoney just before her death.
  • Lean and Mean: A number of the thugs, most notably Itchy.
  • Monochrome Casting: Except for a Chinese shop owner who gets shaken down during the extortion scenes.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Madonna.
  • Nice Hat: Tracy's unmistakable butter-colored chapeau.
  • Officer O'Hara: Okay, so the cop's name is actually "Moriarty." But he still tends to, aye, tawk loike this, boyo.
  • Oh Crap: Mumbles when Tracy slows down the interrogation recording to make his mumbling coherent: "Big Boy did it."
  • Our Monsters Are Different: So many of the criminals seen in this film are literally inhumanly grotesque. But not only do they not feel shunned or isolated from "normal" humans; they actually are quite proud of themselves, and even consider themselves pillars of the community! An especially striking example is when Tracy busts into the Club Ritz in an attempt to arrest Big Boy Caprice for illegal gambling: Pruneface acts offended, and swears that he would never set foot inside any establishment that allowed such a thing!
  • Outside Ride: Kid's specialty.
  • Perp Sweating: Tracy to Mumbles.
  • Pop The Tires: While Big Boy's thugs are trying to escape the police cordon around his nightclub, Dick Tracy fires his Tommy gun at the tires of one of their cars, causing it to crash.
  • Pretty in Mink: Breathless Mahoney.
    Big Boy Caprice: Around me, if a woman don't wear mink, she don't wear nuttin'.
    Breathless Mahoney: Well, I look good both ways.
  • Red Right Hand: Every criminal in the city
  • Redemption Equals Death: The Blank.
  • The Reveal: Turns out the Blank is really...wait, who was he again? I forgot...
  • The Roaring Twenties: The Club Ritz is stuck in this era (since it's technically supposed to be the Thirties), with Charleston-dancing flappers and illegal booz - er, gambling.
    • On the other hand, gambling, and periodical reform movements to eliminate it, were a big part of Chicago history.
  • Samus Is a Girl
  • Scenery Porn: Virtually every one of the reviews for the film, positive and negative, heaped a lot of praise on the art direction, set design, and color scheme, with some like Roger Ebert even saying it outdid Tim Burton's Batman in the eye-candy department.
  • Sean Connery Is About to Shoot You: Or rather, Warren Beatty is shooting at you with a tommy gun. See the movie poster above.
  • Soft Glass: An inversion; Tracy catapults himself through a skylight onto a roof, going through the glass head-first.
  • The Starscream: The Blank, to Big Boy Caprice. And, ironically, Big Boy himself: he betrayed his former friend and mentor Lips Manlis and took over his criminal empire.
  • Take a Third Option: Dick Tracy desperately wants Breathless Mahoney to take the witness stand when they bring Big Boy Caprice to trial, although she points out that this will probably result in her death. Caprice, meanwhile, fully expects Mahoney to stay silent, if for no other reason than sheer terror. Mahoney ultimately decides to become The Blank and set both Tracy and Caprice up for a fall.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: Itchy and Flattop.
  • Train Escape: The Kid pulls one to lose Tracy during The Chase.
  • The Trope Kid: Kid.
  • The Unintelligible: Mumbles
  • The Vamp: Breathless Mahoney.
  • The Voiceless: Played with. Mumbles CAN talk, but since no one can understand him it doesn't matter. He actually intentionally screws with people in this way, at one point giving a full confession to the cops, gleefully certain that they have no idea what he's saying.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After finding out he's being framed, Big Boy Caprice has one so severe that he ends up frantically running around while speaking nonsensical gibberish.
  • We Can Rule Together: But Tracy will have none of it.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Poor officer Pat Patton. After Dick Tracy has him jump down into the Club Ritz attic to catapult Tracy out of the locked room and back onto the roof, he's never mentioned again. We never see Tracy tell any fellow officers to go get him, so for all we know he's still trapped there...and then Subverted when he radios to Tracy when Tracy's in the diner in the last scene.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: While The Blank and 88 Keys are framing Tracy for D.A. Fletcher's murder, 88 Keys loudly protests that Tracy (actually The Blank in Tracy's yellow coat) is threatening to shoot him.

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