Comics had been made into movies for decades but it was Warren Beatty’s production of Dick Tracy (1990) that ultimately made the perfect marriage between film and comic strip.
Beatty cast himself as the square-jawed crime-fighter – with a jazzy wardrobe of yellow raincoat and fedora and a two-way radio wristwatch – whose only fears are a desk job and marriage.
The famous faces of many of the stars (Al Pacino, James Caan, and Dustin Hoffman among many others) were heavily obscured with brilliantly crafted makeup, transforming their well-known images into the features of Gould’s original criminals – Flattop, Itchy, Mumbles etc).
The prosthetics and colouring were so skilfully applied that one critic admitted after seeing the movie he didn’t recognise some of the A-list names.
Fitted with a hunchback, padded hips and a Hitler moustache, Pacino offers a grandly conceived comic creation as the evil Big Boy Caprice. Big Boy threatens Tracy, mauls Breathless and fulminates in a manner that makes Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman look timid.
Using only the bright, primary colours of Chester Gould’s original Depression-era Sunday morning strip, the film’s bold set designs and caricatured villains won the film Oscars for Best Set Decoration and Best Makeup.
Another stunning feature of the film was Beatty’s girlfriend at the time – Madonna, playing torch singer Breathless Mahoney, a moll with a yen for Tracy.
Dressed in something black, clinging and transparent, Madonna exudes enough come-on carnality to singe the screen. “You don’t know whether to hit me or kiss me,” she tells Tracy. “I get that a lot”.
Stephen Sondheim is a figure usually associated with far more highbrow ventures than this but he acquitted himself superbly with the sultry numbers he penned for Ms Ciccone’s character. One – Sooner Or Later (I Always Get My Man) – netted an Oscar, and another – More – got a Grammy nod.
The songs both disproved the increasing assumption that Sondheim had lost the common touch, and set Madonna up for the 1996 movie version of Evita.
Big Boy Caprice
Dick Van Dyke