Cinema: Extra! Tracy's Tops

Tracy's Tops Warren Beatty creates the best comic-strip movie yet

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On Mandy Patinkin's first day on the Dick Tracy set, a bizarre apparition walked up to the actor -- it looked like Olivier's Richard III in a turquoise pinstripe suit -- and urgently confided, "He has a vision. He has a vision." The hunchbacked creature was Al Pacino, in makeup and costume as the archfiend Big Boy Caprice, and the object of his admiration was Warren Beatty.

In the tabloid headlines of popular perception, Beatty may be typecast as the roguish movie actor, or the legendary roue, or Shirley MacLaine's current brother, or the man who persuaded Gary Hart to make one last humiliating run for the presidency. But he is also, over the past quarter-century, the movies' most distinctive producer-star, with Bonnie and Clyde, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait and Reds to his credit (and Ishtar to his debit). As the only person to have been nominated for Oscars in four different categories on two separate occasions -- for acting in, and producing, writing and directing Reds and Heaven Can Wait -- Beatty has to be more than an indefatigable stud. He could be a man with a vision. And he is.

He had never faced a sterner challenge than Dick Tracy, his adaptation of Chester Gould's comic strip about the big-city detective with a right-angle jaw. Batman, the comic-strip blockbuster of 1989, had entranced moviegoers with its dark, brooding take on urban corruption. Would the brighter, perkier Dick Tracy seem of less heft? More to the box-office point, would young people want to see the movie? Who is Dick Tracy anyway? The strip runs in only about half the 550 newspapers that carried it in the Eisenhower years. And who's this Warren Beatty? He hasn't had a big hit since Heaven Can Wait in 1978, a lifetime ago for the new movie generation. If kids knew him, it was mainly as Madonna's 53-year-old boyfriend.

Fortunately, Beatty had the vision thing for Dick Tracy. As he expressed it in code to his longtime collaborator, production designer Richard Sylbert, Beatty wanted a live-action comic-strip movie with a "super-real" feel. The style would be "going to the edge and not falling off." A 1930s city would come to life, not on location, where reality must be counterfeited, but through mattes, combining live action with painted backdrops, which would lend a "magical" air and keep the budget at a bearable $30 million. The final decision was radical: to shoot the picture in seven primary and secondary colors that would define the characters and story while adding a unique visual humor. "Love it or hate it," Disney movie boss Jeffrey Katzenberg kept saying, "Dick Tracy will look unlike any movie you've ever seen."

Love it. Dick Tracy's look surely does merit rapture, but the movie also has wit and grace in a film era of witless gross-out. Scan the bold sweep of the narrative, which poses ripe dilemmas of career, love and family for a loner sleuth. Hum the songs written by Stephen Sondheim in his (hummable) Follies mode and splendidly performed by Madonna and Patinkin. Attend to the bold filigree work of the film's supporting cast of rogues, most of whom are devil- dolled up in grotesque prostheses and outlandish mannerisms but are given ample room to strut their stuff. Their leader is Pacino, who as Big Boy gives Batman's Jack Nicholson a lesson or two in how to play a comic-book villain: as part psychotic mastermind, part Hollywood dance director -- a Bugsy Siegel who wants to be Busby Berkeley.

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