There was some discussion recently on Dan Carlson’s review of Toy Story 3 (2010) regarding the role of the critic and the personal preference baggage he or she brings to a film when reviewing it. Film reviews, by their nature as being based on informed opinion, have been and will always be subjective. This is a reflection of the text being analyzed; evaluating a film is not the same as grading a multiple choice test with concrete answers. As film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, “Criticism is an art, not a science, and a critic who follows rules will fail in one of his most important functions: perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see.”
Most readers of my criticism here have noted that I tend to be very self-reflexive in my writing and analysis, sometimes to the point of what could be perceived as narcissism (I hope it isn’t widely received that way though!). I do this because I take pride in the personal aspect of film criticism; I am attracted to a critic’s work when I find my sensibilities in alignment with their preferences (for instance, as much as I appreciate Manohla Dargis’s prose, I tend to take A.O. Scott’s suggestions more often because we both liked Freddy Got Fingered).
I begin my review of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990) in such a way because it is a qualified, appreciative evaluation and I had a personal motive in selecting the film. Unlike some of the other film critics here at Pajiba, I’m lower on the totem pole due to being a relatively new recruit (one year next month!), which means I’m rarely assigned films and I’m given the gift (and the curse) of selecting those I wish to review. Unlike most of the films I’ve reviewed for the site, I’m not reviewing Dick Tracy because I initially saw it as a film deserving of an appreciation. I’m reviewing Dick Tracy because I watched it during the course of researching my (hopeful) dissertation topic: the stylistic relationship between comics and film. This topic that has been dear to my heart for three years (for those comic book geeks looking for a taste, check out these two articles: Flow, Senses of Cinema) and is essentially the focus of why I’d like to throw Dick Tracy into the ring for redemption.
The plot of Beatty’s film is fairly unremarkable. Essentially, the villainous Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino) has been the source of much gangland bloodshed, sending his goons Flattop (William Forsythe) and Itchy (Ed O’Ross) to execute rival mobsters, including Club Ritz owner Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino). Big Boy takes over Manlis’s operation and girlfriend, singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), using the Club Ritz as his base of operations on a quest for power over the unnamed city’s entire criminal underworld. Of course, the city’s hardboiled cop Dick Tracy (Beatty) is doing his best to ensure those plans do not come to fruition, putting his life and the lives of his girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) and adoptive son (Charlie Korsmo) in jeopardy as well.
While the screenplay, adapted from Chester Gould’s strip by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., is fairly lackluster and Beatty allows the film to occasionally venture into an odd hybrid of comic strip noir and musical by relying on showcasing Madonna’s talent and a musical score assembled songwriter Stephen Sondheim that hasn’t aged very well in the past twenty years, the film’s redemption comes from the production design. Assembling a hell of a production team, including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor) and designer Richard Sylbert (The Graduate, Chinatown), Beatty produced one of the first contemporary comic films to attempt to go beyond adapting story and characters to the screen by translating Gould’s artistic style as well. Quite simply, the results of this philosophy are breathtaking.
First, we’re presented with a world that is completely stripped of unnecessary detail. Comics are a medium tied to caricature and the graphic arts, favoring an iconographic mode of representation over the photographic, the opposite of film. In order to bridge the gap, Beatty had Storaro and company limit the color palate of the mise-en-scène, favoring the handful of colors Gould’s strip was originally rendered in. Moreover, the cars and buildings lack any sense of dirt or grime, any superfluous detail. For instance, the only differentiating mark of Big Boy’s club is its neon sign “Club Ritz.” Otherwise, it looks like any other building on the block. Tracy’s car does not have the name of the city or “To Serve and Protect” emblazoned on its side. The paradox of the film is that the minimalist, generic rendering of the environment is one of its most memorable traits.
Secondly, Beatty often relies on static framing, favoring the comic device of “encapsulation.” Comics, unlike film, are temporally defined by space. Since the images of a comic are static, the gutter between comic panels and our ability to compromise the duration inherent in both the transition and the individual frames themselves is what provides them with a sense of temporality. Since the space of a comic is limited by how many panels the artist chooses to put on the page and how many pages the publisher will print (Gould’s strip was restricted to one page), the artist must make a choice in which moments in time to give emphasis, hoping the reader can fill in the rest via the process of closure. Essentially, Beatty attempts translate the same process by allowing an action to complete itself before he cuts to the next view point or angle (or, in comic terms, to another panel).
A final trait worth noting is Beatty’s attempt to de-empathize the depth of field that comes with any photographic medium. Comics, unlike film, involve perspective but artists often choose to keep everything in focus for the sake of providing the reader with a clear sense of space. Thus, even if characters in a comic occupy different “distances” from the perspective provided in a given panel, they are still both in focus, flattening the space in the process. A cinematographer, due to the nature of the photographic lens, has to make a choice in a similar situation, often needing to place one of the two subjects out of focus (or racking focusing mid-shot between the characters). Beatty emphasized the flatness of Gould’s compositions by forcing Storaro to work with a diopter filter, splitting the focus of the lens between background and foreground and, in the process, keeping everything in focus. (If you’re interested in more about this aspect of the film, I’d strongly suggest Michael Cohen’s essay in the anthology Film and Comic Books.)
At the time of the film’s release, Beatty’s stylistic accomplishments were noted in the press but the film was a box office flop, leaving Touchstone Pictures with an alleged $57 million dollar deficit (they thought they had the next Batman at the time) and Disney executives with a horrible taste in their mouths (Jeffrey Katzenberg regretted producing the film, declaring it a waste of time and money). Admittedly, the plot of the film and Beatty’s schizophrenic splicing of film styles backfires. However, the comic strip aspect of the film’s style is incredibly provoking of our visual senses. This may seem to be a rather superficial characteristic to praise. After all, isn’t watching a film and praising its aesthetic value the same as going on a date with an attractive woman because of her looks? I would disagree with that retort as Dick Tracy, in my opinion, does not embrace style for its own sake, as it owes much to Gould’s strip and rewards those viewers familiar with it. I have a feeling that viewers tend to ignore or take for granted the contribution Beatty’s film made towards the rather uneven terrain the comic film occupies today. Yes, without Dick Tracy we may have escaped disaster of the stylistically ambitious The Spirit (2008) but it is also possible that the visually informed adaptations of Sin City (2005), Watchmen (2009), and the upcoming Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) would have been forever lost to development hell. That said, as a lover of comic book art and film, I’m thankful for Beatty’s effort.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.