Screen Gems

Diva Birthday Bash Part II: Who doesn’t sweat a lot better in the dark?

Dick Tracy

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Forgotten: Dick Tracy

Continuing our Diva Birthday Bash here at Screen Gems, we honor Madonna who turned 63 this week by reviving one of her most successful–and most forgotten films.

Nobody back in 1990 would have ever believed that the world would have all but forgotten Dick Tracy some 30 years later. The movie, produced by Disney, arrived in theatres amid a media blitz designed to rival that of Batman the year before. Toys hit the shelves, clothes hit the racks, and video games hit consoles. McDonald’s sponsored a tie-in game hyping the film, and Disney also announced a sequel as well as a major theme park attraction based around it too.

And yet, today, Dick Tracy exists mainly as a footnote in comic book/blockbuster movie history, and on the filmography of director Warren Beatty. Beatty also stars in the title role of the famous comic book detective, hot on the trail of local crime lord Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino). When several local crime lords turn up dead and Big Boy takes over Club Ritz, Tracy begins to suspect a larger criminal enterprise at work. The squeaky-clean detective also finds his own affections torn between his longtime girlfriend Tess (Gleane Headly) and the nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna, in one of her best performances).

Dick Tracy boasts an impressive all-star cast. In addition to the aforementioned, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan, Kathy Bates, Estelle Parsons, Charles Durning, Mandy Patinkin, Catherine O’Hara and Dick Van Dyke all turn up in roles both big and small. The movie also features an eye-popping production design, channeling the 1930s in just seven bright colors. The plot, which involves a shadowy figure known as The Blank, plays like a great detective story with ever-shifting loyalties, backstabbing, strange motives and double-crosses designed to keep viewers guessing as to just who is trying to do what, and why.

As for Ms. Ciccone–a woman as known for her rotten performances as much as for her good work–she acquits herself well here. Madonna has a good time slinking about as the sultry vixen Breathless, and even gets a chance to show off her vocal gifts courtesy of new Stephen Sondheim-penned tunes. She and Beatty also dated while filming, and it shows: the two have strong chemistry together.

Dick Tracy scored strong reviews on release, and would go on to nab seven Oscar nominations, winning three: Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Original Song (the Sondheim tune “Sooner or Later”). And yet, today it remains obscure. Why?

Suffice it to say Hollywood learned the wrong lessons from Batman, at least at first: rather than produce other superhero films in short order, the bosses of the time thought “comic book films” should come from newspaper comics. Like Dick TracyThe Shadow, The Phantom, and Dennis The Menace all failed to capture the same fire as Batman. Legal disputes between Beatty, Disney and Tribune Media Services (the company which owns the characters) also complicated production on a sequel. Those woes, along with a lower-than-expected box office, kept the franchise from moving onward.

Viewed today amid the superhero franchise onslaught, Dick Tracy has a refreshing quality to it. The film dares to have a strong identity, artistic vision and to tell a self-contained story rather than one made to hype sequels, crossovers or sell toys. That Disney has never produced a special edition Blu-Ray loaded with extras, commentary, behind-the-scenes footage and a rumored 30 minutes of deleted scenes only further damages the movie’s already dwindling legacy. Perhaps Dick Tracy would continue to find an audience if Disney would just let it.

For now, though, we recommend revisiting the film to celebrate Madonna’s birthday, as well as to enjoy its entertainment and artistic achievements. We’ll take this over another Marvel movie any day.

Streams on Amazon, YouTube & VUDU.