As bizarre genre blends go, you could scarcely find one more bizarre on the surface than Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990). An adaptation of the 1950’s comic strip, it’s an over-the-top crime melodrama about a yellow trench-coated detective with fedora to match who takes down the criminal element in the City nearly single-handedly. An amalgamation of tropes from film noir and gangster movies, with just a sprinkling of backstage musical elements thrown in for good measure – indeed, the film appears to include everything plus the kitchen sink – the film is one big, bold stylistic flourish from the get-go, a baroque gangster film in a year wrought with contemporarily iconic gangster films of all kinds (from the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing to Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III and Scorsese’s GoodFellas).
According to Thomas Schatz, the notion of the baroque in genre evolution signifies “A genre’s progression from transparency to opacity – from straightforward storytelling to self-conscious formalism – involv[ing] its concerted effort to explain itself, to address and evaluate its very status as a popular form” (Schatz 38). The film finds its villain and then some in baroque gangster extraordinaire “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino). In the world of Dick Tracy, none of the characters appears to be much more than a symbol of themselves – a cartoonish representation of a generic type occupying a vast, stylized fantasy world that draws more from film and comic strip history than from reality.
Near the film’s beginning, “Big Boy” forces club owner “Lips” Manliss (Paul Sorvino) to sign over the deed to his club, right before having him taken to a remote warehouse to be covered in cement, locked in a steel compartment and dumped into the water. This sets “Big Boy” up as a threat before solidifying his baroque status just moments later.
Indeed, Al Pacino’s performance as “Big Boy” Caprice is an over-the-top parody masking a vaguely ethnic stereotype which recalls the vaguely anti-Semitic rendering of rat-like Count Olaf in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) with his pronounced chin, round but sunken eyes, long hook nose and hunchback. Like the classical gangster writ even larger, he’s a ghetto-born miscreant infesting the City through his quest for power and money.
Early in the film, however, he appears to temporarily transition from gangster to choreographer as he fascistically “whips” the chorus girls and their lead torch singer “Breathless” Mahoney (Madonna) into shape. Dancing, repeating the lyrics and finally singing along, in a sense “Big Boy” is performing just as much as “Breathless” and the chorus girls are. He is the star of his own life.
Further, the song they sing, “More”, suggests not only Breathless’ materialism (how fitting that she be played by the so-called “Material Girl”) but also Caprice’s level of gangster ambition – discontent with what he has, he doesn’t just want to be another gangland boss in the City, but the gangland boss of the City. His conduit, as he informs poor, unfortunate “Lips” before killing him, will involve “going into show business.” “Big Boy’s” running of the Ritz Club and “Breathless’” performances of songs written for the film by Stephen Sondheim (interspersed though it is with a Batman-esque musical score by Danny Elfman just one year after that franchise’s freshman effort) appear to be the sum-total of gangster-musical fusion in the film – but look again.
Even the film’s physical production design seems to recall not just film noir and its influence on Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) but such highly-stylized cityscapes as those represented in musicals such as West Side Story (1961) and in the “Girl Hunt” film noir homage sequence of The Band Wagon (1953). As Ebert pointed out in his original four-star review, the film is “a masterpiece of studio artificiality, of matte drawings and miniatures and optical effects. It creates a world that never could be…the distillation of the idea of City – of the vast, brooding, mysterious metropolis spreading in all directions forever, concealing millions of lives and secrets” (Ebert). With strong, bold primary colors, blatantly artificial set design that seems ripped from the very pages of the original comic strip, and the sheer style of Beatty’s mise-en-scene, the film is neither a musically-infused gangster film nor a gangster-infused musical, but rather lies somewhere in between.
For that matter, the line between baroque gangster and otherwise is not so clearly drawn. “Big Boy” is surrounded on all sides by both his own co-horts and his opposition, all of whom have, as Roger Ebert points out, the physical appearance of having “been mutated by the same cosmic rays …always mirror[ing] their souls, or occupations” (Ebert). Indeed, William Forsyth’s performance as Flattop physically seems to suggest some deformed parody of James Cagney’s appearance in White Heat (1949) – wide forehead, flat hair style and all.
Furthermore, Dick Tracy himself shares some of the same characteristics as the classical gangster – at least when it comes to women. Utterly consumed by his rising career as a detective, Tracy badly undervalues the affection of girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenn Headley). Seemingly more interested in doing the work of the people through his part in the Justice system, Tracy virtually ignores Tess until the plot requires her to get his attention through either her jealousy of her classic femme fatale competition “Breathless” Mahoney or through a bizarre kidnapping that draws him into a twisted criminal web.
Yet the earlier portions of the film suggest what Tracy has that the classic gangster – and certainly Pacino’s baroque gangster and company in this film – don’t have: the unrecognized potential for domesticity. In the world occupied by Tracy and “Big Boy,” violence and crime, law & order rule the world. For Tracy, the true love in his life is special but can scarcely compete – especially with a dangerous woman like “Breathless.”
Indeed, late in the film, there is a fairly subtle harkening back to Beatty’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967) heyday through the casting of Estelle Parsons as Tess’ mother, who warns her, “He’s torn between love and duty…It takes a lot of understanding to love a man like that.” Parsons of course played one of the accomplices picked up over the course of that titular couple’s criminal joy ride and, thus, she knows of what she speaks.
Yet the quasi-surrogate family that has been created by the end between Tracy, Tess and the semi-adopted “the Kid” (Charlie Korsmo), a homeless pickpocket doing the bidding of a dirty, Fagen-esque character near the film’s beginning, suggests the potential for finding a balance between “settling down” and duty that is within Tracy’s grasp – and like a musical, the underlining of the value of family and traditional values is cemented by the film’s final drive into the sunset – extremely artificial though it may appear.
This harkening back both to older gangster films and even to musicals like The Band Wagon and West Side Story that had their own level of genre evolution at play is part of the film’s baroque quality. To some extent, self-consciousness of this type, coupled with over-the-top characterizations bordering on parody, and hyper-stylized mise-en-scene comes with the territory.
The Band Wagon. Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Perf. Fred Astaire, Cyd Cherise. Warner Brothers,
Dick Tracy. Dir. Warren Beatty. Perf. Al Pacino, Warren Beatty, Madonna. Touchstone Pictures,
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. New York:
Random House, 1981. 38.