Cinema: Extra! Tracy's Tops

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

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And Beatty's Tracy is the generic detective, ever resourceful and ramrod- righteous, with the stolid, compact expressions and heavy pancake makeup of a B-movie hero. Every other character, including "normal" ones like the wonderfully engaging Tess and the Kid, fills the picture frame with personality. Tracy empties it. He has a less complicated, less interesting inner life. He is his job. Only when Breathless threatens to tilt his world away from duty and toward desire does Tracy begin to resemble the actor playing him. Says Sylbert: "I have always thought that the appeal of Dick Tracy to Warren was the man conflicted between two women. A guy who has a job that is more important than anything in life. He has a girlfriend whom he has never committed himself to. Then he finds a kid, and now he has a family to take care of. And then he meets another woman. Emotional parallels were what he was looking for. That, and the fun of it."

What is fun to Beatty can be preproduction torture to the gifted artisans in his employ. His method is somewhere between Socratic and demonic: he keeps asking questions and butting heads until all inspiration breaks loose. The Dick Tracy dream, with its endless demands for color precision, took some doing.

Vittorio Storaro, the brilliant camera mind behind Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor and Reds, explains how he devised a "dramaturgy of color" for the film's characters: "Tracy, with his yellow raincoat and yellow hat, represents one side of the color spectrum: light, day, sun. Tess is mainly represented by orange, a warm color. Red is the Kid. They face the opposite side -- Big Boy, Breathless, Pruneface -- who belong on the inside of our subconscious, which is blue, indigo, violet. So the story of Dick Tracy and Breathless is really an impossible communion between the sun and moon, day and night, good and evil."

For an actor, evil is spending 3 1/2 hours a day getting your face baked into elaborate makeup. "We didn't want to obliterate the actors," says Doug - Drexler, who with John Caglione Jr. supervised the torture. "What's the use of having Al Pacino in the movie if you don't recognize him? So we split the difference between fantasy and reality." The true difference was between the fantasy villains and the real star. Says Sorvino: "This film is Warren's dream come true. Every other actor is as ugly as sin, and he looks just beautiful."

Cut to the final scene. The detective sits in a diner with Tess and the Kid, trying to give voice to an important domestic decision. For once, Tracy can't get a word out. He stammers and pauses until Tess, the Kid and half the audience want to strangle him. Here, Tracy might be Beatty, the obsessive auteur who worries each of a movie's million details, driving his colleagues bats until he gets it right.

The man with the vision can stop worrying now, because this time he got it marvelously right. Dick Tracy may not be a great movie -- save that superlative for a bigger theme than comic-book crime fighting -- but it is surely great moviemaking. And if there is any justice under the yellow summer moon, it will earn B.O. plenty.

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