Dick Tracy (1990)

dick tracy

“Whatsamatter? You bums forgot how to kill people? Doesn’t your work mean anything to you anymore? Have you no sense of pride in whatcha do? No sense of duty? No sense of destiny? I’m lookin’ for generals – what do I got? Footsoldiers! I WANT DICK TRACY DEAD!”

The Scoop: 1990 PG, directed by Warren Beatty and starring Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Mandy Patinkin, Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo, William Forsythe, Ed O’Ross, Seymour Cassel, James Keane, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Sorvino and R.G Armstrong.

Tagline: I’m on my way.

Summary Capsule: Dick Tracy fights crime. Technicolored, heavily disfigured crime.

Deneb’s rating: After seeing this movie, if anyone ever sneeringly asks if you’re “yellow”, you can proudly answer, “why, yes. Yes, I am.” It is a proud color! Bananas and rain slickers salute you, Dick Tracy!

Deneb’s review: I did not see Dick Tracy until I was in college. In fact, I came close to never seeing it.

Why? Because of a helicopter.

Let me explain. Somewhere in the misty depths of my childhood, I got it into my head that a helicopter was involved in Dick Tracy’s plot – and not just any helicopter. A helicopter-mobile. Which meant, in point of fact, not a helicopter at all – a car that was designed to look exactly like a helicopter, but not actually do anything helicopter-ish, i.e, fly.

How on earth did I get such a hair-brained notion? I’m not really sure. I think I got it from a toy of some sort. I have a clear memory of (most likely) some variety of toy commercial that had this faux-helicopter in it. It involved what I thought at the time was a clip from the film, which featured the helicopter-mobile driving down a city street at night at the head of a column of cop cars, while the rotors rotated ve-e-e-ry sl-ow-ly, to emphasize the fact that this bizarre vehicle could not, in fact, fly, despite the fact that it looked exactly like one that should. I also remember catching a glimpse of the toy in its packaging (maybe at the end of the commercial, I don’t know), and it was basically just a cheap toy helicopter with a Dick Tracy sticker on its side.

I honestly have no idea if this thing was real, some bizarre dream or fantasy, or what. The point is, I was convinced that yes, this was a part of the movie, and therefore I had no intention of seeing it. It’s not like I was obsessed with realism or anything – what kid is? – but good grief, a helicopter that couldn’t fly. That wasn’t designed to fly. I refused to be a witness to such monumental stupidity.

So, despite the fact that Dick Tracy came out just as I was inching into its age bracket, for many years I did not see it. It sat on the shelf of the local video store, and every now and then I’d pick it up and consider renting it, but then my subconscious would mutter “Bleh!” and I’d put it down and go get something else. I remember thinking often that it was kind of a shame – the pictures on the back of the box did look pretty enticing – but no. A helicopter-mobile. That would not stand.

And yet, this very aspect of the film that kept me from seeing it could not help but pique my curiosity. Just what kind of movie could have such an insane contraption in it, anyway? Probably a stupid one, but – hmmm…

Eventually, I caved into temptation and watched the thing – and guess what? No helicopters, flying or otherwise. I could not help but be mildly disappointed. Where was my helicopter? Where was it? I waited years to see the thing, and now it doesn’t exist? That’s dirty pool!

You will note that I said “mildly”, though. This is because, despite my expectations, Dick Tracy actually proved to be a pretty decent flick. In fact, I’d probably rate it among my favorite films.

So, OK – plot stuff. First off, you all know who Dick Tracy is, right? Tough cop? Square chin? Two-way wrist radio? Wears a bright yellow hat and overcoat? Yes? Good, ‘cause you’re not getting any more background than that. Let’s move on.

As the movie opens, Tracy (Warren Beatty) is having a tough time of things. The nameless city in which he resides is faced with the menace of one Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino), big-time gangster and Tracy’s arch-nemesis. This gives Tracy plenty of work to do, especially given that he appears to be the only real detective on the force – the other cops are pretty much there to call him up on his wrist radio, say things like “Gosh, Tracy, looks like he got away!” and get killed in shoot-outs. This leaves him little time for his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley), and their relationship is starting to show the strain. Understandably, he’s a little stressed out.

He does manage a date with her every now and then, though, and on one of those rare occasions, he intercepts a street kid (Charlie Korsmo) trying to pinch somebody’s watch. This kid – who’s just called “the Kid” – rapidly becomes Tracy’s unofficial ward and sidekick, which is inconvenient, because he doesn’t really have time for such things. See, Big Boy has plans up his sleeve – he’s bringing together all the city’s top crooks under his leadership, forming a veritable juggernaut of crime. The only way to stop him might be the testimony of Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), his moll – the trouble is, she seems more interested in getting into our hero’s tommy-gun patterned boxers. Meanwhile, the mysterious Blank (living proof that a Question movie would work – are you listening, DC?) has plans of his own – plans that may or may not be to Tracy’s benefit. I tell ya, it’s a hard life wearing that yellow hat.

So, yeah, plot is not exactly this movie’s strong suit. The majority of it is simply Big Boy and his gang trying to wipe out Tracy, Tracy trying to put them in jail, Breathless slinking around in foxy dresses, the Kid poking his nose into everything, and Tess wondering just when her man is going to take off that darn radio and pay her some closer attention. Rinse, repeat. Add Blank where necessary.

It’s a good thing, then, that its strengths lie elsewhere – the first and most obvious of which is its look. Every review I’ve ever read of this movie mentions this first, and I can’t blame ‘em. This movie looks incredible. When it came out, it was immediately compared to the Tim Burton Batman, only bright instead of dark, and yeah, that’s a pretty good way of putting it – like Batman, it’s set in a similar but very different world from our own, only while Gotham City was brooding and gothic, this burg is a Technicolor wonderland. The buildings explode with primary colors, and so does everything else. Dick Tracy’s yellow regalia fits right in here – it doesn’t look gaudy at all in a place where people are just as likely to be wearing bright orange, lime green, or fire-engine red.

And speaking of the people – oy yoy yoy. This film won Best Makeup at the Oscars that year, and I can understand why. Dick Tracy is known primarily for his array of freakish villains, and the gang’s all here, each one looking more bizarre than the last. You’ve got Flattop, with his head you could stack books on, Pruneface, with a mug like a shriveled raisin, Lips Manlis, with a pout that belongs on a codfish, and on and on. Even the more regular folks are liable to get saddled with some exaggerated facial feature or other – a pointy nose, huge ears, etc. It’s like the whole movie is peopled with the shallow end of the gene pool.

Basically, the point was to make everything look as close to the source material as possible, and boy howdy, did they ever succeed. This flick comes as close as any movie I’ve seen to replicating the overall feel of a Golden Age comic book. It’s an approach few others have tried, which I feel is a shame – screw realism, says I; it’s comics, let’s have some fun!

Anyway. That’s all very well, but you can’t have a movie, no matter how pretty, without actors. This is where I differ from some reviewers, who turn up their noses at the performances given here, saying that they’re flat or without complexity. To this I reply “so what?” or, alternately, “who cares?”

True, the actual characters are not the most multi-layered of all time – the most complex one is probably Breathless, and all she ever does is come on to poor old Tracy. (They have kind of a weird relationship, really, because there’s no real reason for it to exist – her motivation is basically “hot dog, a MAY-un!”, his is more like “gosh, she’s pretty, but no – I am promised to the law. Oh, and Tess.”) But you know what? This is Dick Tracy – it’s an adaptation of one of the most clear-cut good guy VS bad guy series of all time. Introducing shades of gray would not only be unnecessary, it would be irresponsible.

Good thing that the actors involved don’t seem to need them. I know I trot out the “so-and-so is having the time of his/her life” line an awful lot, but it really fits here, because you’ve got a veritable actor’s who’s-who in this movie, and most of them seem to relish their roles.

Tracy himself is not exactly the most difficult of parts – Beatty plays him as a sort of ultimate embodiment of the Lawful Good archetype, which fits the character very well. He has a bit more depth to him than in the comics, but not by much. In the other main roles, Korsmo is appropriately full of youthful enthusiasm as the kid, and Tess is, well… sweetheart-ish. The real draw here, though, is Big Boy Caprice, who sinks his teeth into the scenery with relish (and possibly mustard and ketchup, too). Pacino has thrown any semblance of restraint out the window here, and the role is all the better for it – this guy is hilarious to watch. He’s never still, pacing and growling and waving his arms, jittering and fidgeting and bellowing every other line – which, more often than not, seems to be a misquotation of someone he’s heard about, but obviously never actually read. He’s basically one big motor-mouthed bundle of nervous energy and explosive rage, who on some level seems to be terrified of his own success – while he’s the first to hoot with joy when things go right for him, he completely falls to pieces when they don’t. He’s not in the least bit scary as a villain, but boy howdy, is he ever watchable.

Another standout is Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, a minor character who completely steals every scene he’s in. He gets his nickname because he’s completely incoherent – he speaks in a sort of blurred mutter that sounds something like what you’d get if you took normal speech, sped it up, then removed every other letter from the words. It’s really not the sort of thing one can explain adequately (or quote, unfortunately) – Hoffman’s a genius, is all I can say.

Flaws? Yeah, sure there are flaws – they’re kind of inevitable in any film that focuses on image and downplays story as much as this one. The main one is Madonna. I don’t have anything against her as an actress, and she does a pretty good job here, but as I said above, there is no reason for her to come on to Tracy as strong as she does, and the subplot suffers for it. I mean, I’m not talking persistent flirting here, I’m talking “I will land this man if I have to dynamite the water for him”-level obsessiveness. She seems to be genuinely attracted to him, but on the basis of what? He’s better-looking than Big Boy? It’s just a teensy bit weird. Also, the wrap-up has a few pacing issues, and there’s a significant plot twist that is never really wrapped up to my satisfaction.

So if you’re looking for a complex, realistic drama, you might want to steer clear of Dick Tracy. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for an old-fashioned cops and robbers story where a man in a canary-colored overcoat takes on sneering bad guys who look like they got pasted one by the ugly stick, then Dick Tracy is the only show in town. For pure escapism, there are few films that match it.

No helicopters, though. Dammit.

“And for the last time, take off your hat when I’m talking to you. I… What? What do you mean ‘hypocrite’? I have to keep this on. It’s the franchise.”


  • The film’s ‘continuity’, such as it is, seems to be very different from that of the strip – although it is seemingly set in the ‘30’s, it features few of the villains from that era, who were mostly run-of-the-mill gangsters. Instead, most of them are from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, which is when the strip’s trademark gallery of grotesques really got started. Also, they all seem to be typical gangster-types by profession, as opposed to the more varied roles they got in the comic – for instance, Flattop was a freelance hitman from out of town, and the Brow was a Nazi spy.
  • Dick Tracy has two partners in the movie, Pat Patton and Sam Catchem. Both of these characters were also his partners in the comic – Pat from ’31 to ’48, and Sam up to the present day. Their both being his partners at the same time is basically a mythology gag – it doesn’t make much sense in real-world police terms.
  • Steven Sondheim wrote five original songs for the movie (the ones sung in the nightclub, and one of the ones on the radio). One of them, ‘I Always Get My Man’, won an Oscar for Best Original Song.
  • The regular Dick Tracy is easily identifiable by his hawkish nose and squared-off chin. Warren Beatty was originally going to wear prosthetics to create this effect, as was done with the villains, but the studio balked at having their leading man’s face rendered unrecognizable.
  • The gathering of crooks that wind up working for Big Boy are primarily male, but there is one noticeable female, an elegantly-dressed woman sporting a cigarette holder. This is Texie Garcia, one of the strip’s earliest villains. Her presence is appropriate, since she was originally Big Boy’s moll.
  • The color palette used in the movie’s sets and costumes was intentionally limited to just seven primary colors – the ones used in the old Dick Tracy Sunday strips. Moreover, they’re the exact same shades of color every time.
  • The character of Big Boy Caprice was originally given his nickname due to his size – he was a large, fat man. Al Pacino decided that he didn’t want to play the role that way, and instead worked with makeup artists to create his own version of the character. The revised version consisted of an artificial hunchback, enlarged hands, nose and cheekbones, a prosthetic upper lip, and accentuated ears.

Groovy Quotes:

Big Boy Caprice: You gotta tell ‘em everything. They crave leadership.

Dick Tracy: OK, tough guy, now d’you want to give the kid a piece of chicken?

Big Boy Caprice: Very upsetting.

Charlie: How about running for mayor, Tracy?
Dick Tracy: I’m a cop, Charlie, I don’t want to take a demotion.

Pruneface: What are you, a fortune teller? Whaddaya mean, the future?
Big Boy Caprice: Pruneface, what I mean is, the future is me.

Kid: Go suck an egg!

Big Boy Caprice: The way I see it – and Plato agrees with me – is that there is what is, and then there is what we would like it to be.

Dick Tracy: Take the bad men away – they scare me.

Big Boy Caprice: A lotta people like walnuts. They’re good for the liver.
Dick Tracy: Yeah, but they’re bad for the brain.

Dick Tracy: Whose side are you on?
Breathless Mahoney: The side I’m always on – mine.

Big Boy Caprice: Around me, if a woman don’t wear mink, she don’t wear nothin’.
Breathless Mahoney: Well, I look good both ways.

Dick Tracy: Is the enemy of my enemy my friend, or is the enemy of my friend my enemy?
Sam: What?
Dick Tracy: Or the enemy of my enemy my enemy?
Pat: What’d he say?
Dick Tracy: The enemy of my enemy is my enemy.
Sam: He said the enemy of his enemy is his enemy.
Pat: Oh.

Big Boy Caprice: Aww – look what you did to your pretty tuxedo.

Breathless Mahoney: I get sick when you eat.
Lips Manlis: You didn’t used to.
Breathless: You didn’t used to be a zeppelin.

Big Boy Caprice: “Law without order is as great a danger to the people as order without law.” Jefferson.

Tess Trueheart: Tracy, when you play in the street, it’s part of the game; I know that. Just don’t ask me to like it.

Big Boy Caprice: You have just said goodbye to oxygen. You silly, stupid cop! You refuse me? I offer you the keys to a kingdom, and you tell me you’re an officer of the law! I am the law! Me!

Breathless Mahoney: What’s your day off?
Dick Tracy: Sunday.
Breathless Mahoney: It’s a big world – must be Sunday somewhere.

Big Boy Caprice: Wait a minute. Wait. I’m having a thought. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I’m gonna have a thought. It’s coming. (long pause) It’s gone.

Itchy: Thirty seconds, no more Dick! Thirty seconds, no more Dick! Thirty seconds, no more Dick!

Breathless Mahoney: I know how you feel; you don’t know if you wanna hit me or kiss me. I get a lot of that.

Big Boy Caprice: Ya get behind me, we all profit! Ya challenge me, we all go down! There was one Napoleon! One Washington! One me!

Kid: I don’t like dames.
Tess Trueheart: Good. Me neither.

Big Boy Caprice: You know, sometimes I wonder why I try to improve things. Nobody seems to care.

The Blank: Relax, Tracy – just smell the flowers and go to sleep. It won’t kill you. It won’t even hurt you. But your big career is over.

Big Boy Caprice: Whatsamatter? You bums forgot how to kill people? Doesn’t your work mean anything to you anymore? Have you no sense of pride in whatcha do? No sense of duty? No sense of destiny? I’m lookin’ for generals – what do I got? Footsoldiers! I WANT DICK TRACY DEAD!

Pat and Sam: (in unison) Great Scott!

Big Boy Caprice: We are for the people. And “if you ain’t for the people, you can’t buy the people”. Lincoln.

Kid: Ya know, Tracy, for a tough guy you do a lot of pansy things.

Big Boy Caprice: You’re dirty, Lips – ya need a bath.
Lips Manlis: Not da bath! Not da bath; Big Boy, not da ba-a-ath!

Breathless Mahoney: Aren’t you gonna frisk me?

Big Boy Caprice: You’re a piano player. Whaddaya wanna be – a radish?

Dick Tracy: Tess, you’re one in a million.

Big Boy Caprice: It’s not so much that I have to hurt someone – it’s just don’t make me do it!

Dick Tracy: (repeated line) I’m on my way.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Batman
  • Who framed Roger Rabbit
  • The Rocketeer


  1. I’m glad I did get to see this one in the theaters when it came out with my mom and sister. We all loved it so much, my sister and I played “Dick Tracy” with the local kids for the rest of that summer. I have the video now. It’s still a fun movie, especially if you’re into ultra-stylized action/superhero tales.

    • Which, if you ask me, is the best way to tell said tales. Nobody’s going to mistake these stories for reality anyway, so why not have some fun with it and get really creative?

  2. I hate to think what a latter-day Dick Tracy remake would look like! It would probably be all dark and brooding without any ‘unrealisstic’ bright colors or fun. The rogues’ gallery wouldn’t be deformed, the two-way wrist radios would be walkie-talkies, and there’d be a shaky-cam just cuz. Hans Zimmer would write the music.

    • Well, luckily for us, Warren Beatty has recently sewn up the rights to the franchise after years of uphill battling – so if anyone does make another Dick Tracy movie, it’ll be him, and he’ll most likely bring the same sensibilities to it. So we don’t have to worry (much) about such things.
      I will say, though, that much as I enjoy the movie, and spot-on as it was with replicating the look and feel of the comic, it didn’t really accurately capture the tone. I can’t speak to the more recent strips, but classic Dick Tracy was DARK in some ways. Sure, the good guys always won and the bad guys always lost, but all sorts of intense violence occurred on a regular basis, innocents died, bad guys tortured people and double-crossed each other, and were much more likely to die in a hail of lead at the end of a case than ever get arrested. I have no problem with the movie being PG and family-friendly, and would gladly watch more of the same, but a more accurate portrayal of Dick Tracy’s world would likely be a hard R.

  3. The Blank sounds EXACTLY like Leia when she was disguised as a bounty hunter. I kept expecting him to describe himself to Tracy as “someone who loves you!”

    • That’s one thing I’ll give the film credit for, though – the big reveal at the end (which shall NOT be discussed here, please, because spoilers, shh!) is a genuine surprise, because there’s a distinct lack of hints as to just who he might be. I mean, there’s only so many CHOICES, but then, that’s the case in a lot of films – besides, we’ve seen so many grotesques by that point that one feels that there’s a faint possibility we’re dealing with a genuine faceless man. We’ve seen a man with a face like a rodent, a man with a face like a prune, a man with a teeny-tiny face in the middle of a vast expanse of cheeks, chin and forehead – why not a man with no face at all?

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