Dick Tracy (1990): Warren Beatty’s Sumptuously Produced Version of Comic Strip


Buena Vista (Touchstone Production)


Warren Beatty’s screen version of the popular comic book “Dick Tracy,” is sumptuously produced with handsome production values and some terrific cameo performances by the secondary characters.  And while Beatty himself is credibly cast as the lead, the enigmatic private eye, something is missing, perhaps a unified vision, to make the movie more impressive.


Disney allocated a modest budget of $23 million for such an enterprise and demanded that Beatty, known for his slow pace of working, thoroughness, and perfectionism complete the film on time and on budget.


The story centers on Tracy, as a straight hero, nemesis of the gangsters, who’s dedicated to his career.  He leaves his loyal lover Tess Trueheart (well-played by Glenne Headly) and almost succumbs to the sexy gang moll Breathless Mahoney, played by Madonna (Beatty’s real life girlfriend at the time).  In the end, goodness conquers evil and Tracy returns to the arms of Tess, with the Kid changing his name to Dick Tracy Jr.


Ace Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shot the movie in rich, primary colors (yellow, red), and though the settings are composed with deliberate flatness, the overall look is properly stylized and lavish.  Some critics charged that Beatty and his writers have over-romanticized Chester Gould’s sparer, grittier, harsher original comic strip of 1931, in which the criminals were depicted as narrowly conceived monsters and Tracy as intrepid, square-jawed one-dimensional private eye.  At 53, Beatty might also have been too old to play the titular part.


Beatty, however, knew that in order to appeal to viewers of 1990s he had to present every element in a more stylized and overwrought way. He also tailored his and other roles to the specialized talents and screen images of the respective actors who played them, and the cast is a feast to the eye. The whole movie assumes a too cold and detached cartoonish look and tone. 


The plot is just a skeleton in a movie marked by opulent style brilliantly imagery, and inventive sets and costumes.  Beatty plays the character square, but gives him charm and other elements that humanize his character.  Glenne Headly (who replaced Sean Young) is equally effective and quite sympathetic as Tess Trueheart.  Madonna is ravishingly sinister and amazingly sexy as a mean dame, who belts out a couple of erotic Sondheim songs.


Charlie Korsmo plays well a street kid who becomes Tracy’s symbolic, and later actual, son.  Superbly grotesque, Al Pacino steals every scene he is in as Big Boy Caprice, a gang lord of vulgarity and ruthlessness, whose duel for supremacy with Dick Tracy occupies a major subplot of the movie.


Other good performances include Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles; Mandy Patinkin as the bemused pianist; Charles Durning as the police head-honcho; Paul Sorvino as a gang brute whose reign is short-lived. Estelle Parson and Michael J. Pollard, who had appeared in Beatty’s 1967 “Bonnie and Clyde,” are also here.


Beatty regarded the long-gestating project as labor of love and conviction, and the critics, audiences, and Academy voters responded with a favorable response, Oscar nominations and awards (see below).


Oscar Alert


Oscar Nominations: 7


Supporting Actor: Al Pacino

Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro

Sound: Chris Jenkins, David E. Campbell, D. M. Hemphill, and Thomas Causey.

Art-Direction-Set Decoration: Richard Sylbert; Rick Simpson

Costume Design: Milena Canonero

Song: “Sooner or Later: (I Always Get my Man), music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Makeup: John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler


Oscar Awards: 2


Art Direction-Set Decoration



Oscar Context


In 1990, Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves,” swept most of the Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and Cinematography (Dean Semler) and sound.  The Supporting Actor Oscar went to Joe Pesci for “GoodFellas,” and the costume Oscar to Franca Squarciapino for

The French costume drama, “Cyrano de Bergerac.”




Warren Beatty (Dick Tracy)

Madonna (Breatheless Mahoney)

Glenne Headly (Tess Trueheart)

Al Pacino (Big Boy Caprice)

Dustin Hoffman (Mumbles)

Charlie Korsmo (Kid)

Charles Durning (Chief Brandon)

Mandy Patinkin (88 Keys)

James can (Spaldoni)

Paul Sorvino (Lips Manlis)

Kathy Bates (Mrs. Green)

Dick Van Dyke (DA. Fletcher)

Estlelle Parsons (Mrs. Trueheart)

Mary Wornov (Welfare Person)

Lawrence Steven Meyers (Little Face)

William Forsythe (Flattop)

Chuck Hicks (The Brow)

Stig Eldred (Shoulders)

Neil Summers (The Rodent)

Ed O.Ross (Itchy)

R.G. Armstrong (Pruneface)

Seymour Cassel (Sam Catchem)

Henry Silva (Influence)

Michael J. Pollard (Bug Bailey)




A Touchston-Buena Vista Picture.

Director: Warren Beatty.

Producer: Warren Beatty.

Produced in association with Silver Screen Partners IV.

Co-Producer: Jon Landau.

Associate Producers: Barrie M. Osborne, Art Linson, Floyd Mutrux.

Screenwriters: Jim Cash, Jack Epps, Jr.

Based on characters created by Chester Gould for the Dick Tracy comic strip.

Photographer: Vittorio Storaro.

Editor: Richard Marks.

Music: Danny Elfman.

Songs: Stephen Sondheim.

Sound (Dolby Sound): Thomas Causey.

Production Designer: Richard Sylbert.

Art Director: Harold Michelson.

Set Decorator: Rick Simpson.

Costume Design: Milena Canonero.

Visual Effects: Buena Vista Visual Effects Group.

Special Character Makeup: John Caglione Jr., Doug Drexler.

Staging of Music Numbers: Jeffrey Hornaday.

Assistant Director-as-Associate Producer: Jim Van Wyck.

Second Unit Directors: Billy Burton, Mark Osborne.

Second Unit Photographer: James M. Anderson.

Casting: Jackie Burch.

Color by Technicolor.


Opened June 15, 1990.

Running time: 105 minutes.