Passionate About Pulp: Revisiting Dick Tracy (1990)

THE SUBGENRE: Comic book noir.
THE HERO: Hardnosed detective Dick Tracy.
THE VILLAIN: Crime boss Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice.
THE LOVE INTEREST(S): Loyal “Girl Friday” Tess Trueheart and gangster's moll Breathless Mahoney.
THE SETTING: A 1920's metropolis.

Pulp fiction gets a bad name in my opinion—no, not the Quentin Tarantino flick where Travolta jams a giant needle into Uma Thurman's chest and Christopher Walken has the creepiest speech ever about a watch.

When I talk about pulp, I'm talking about a brand of story that jumped straight off of 20th-century magazine shelves and WHAM!-ed and BAM!-ed their way across the big screen.

Gruff detectives, flying aces, adventurers, and early superheroes abound in pulp flicks. There are a lot of fedoras, trench coats, goggles, and impressive boots on display. Our hero carries a pistol or a knife, maybe even a magic ring or jetpack.

They travel to exotic locales or prowl dark city streets, ever on the watch for an innocent in need of saving, a damsel in need of smooching, and a baddie in need of a swift punch to the jaw.

Just because pulp stories are a little silly and over-the-top, that doesn't make the entertainment they provide any less feel-good. So, it's high time to shine a spotlight on some of these nostalgic gems once more.

Let's kick it off old school with 1990's Dick Tracy. The title hero (played by Warren Beatty, who wears several fedoras as the film's director, producer, and star) is Sam Spade by way of Batman, a take-charge cop that’s utterly devoted to his job and determined to destroy the city's criminal empire no matter the personal cost.

Tracy's essentially the perfect detective. He's sharp and capable in a fight. He's incorruptible. Getting his man is his number one priority, and he's more than willing to die to make his city a safer place.

With his two-way radio wristwatch and budding forensics technology, Tracy's quick to put the pieces together when Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) rubs out Lips Manlis (Paul Sorvino) and takes over his criminal empire. With a slew of colorful henchmen at his command, like Flattop (William Forsythe) and the incoherent Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman), it looks like Big Boy's poised to rule the city.

Meanwhile, in the midst of his crusade against the mob, Tracy's personal life gets complicated when he rescues The Kid (Charlie Korsmo) and finds himself taking on the role of father.

His devoted girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly), has long struggled with feeling like a second priority, but now she finds she's got competition for the detective's heart: Big Boy's moll, nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), has set her sights on Tracy. And, since she has information the detective's desperate to secure, perhaps her campaign for his affection will prove successful…

Dick Tracy is a pulp comic film that fully embraces its origins. The characters and set designs could be torn straight from Chester Gould's comic; in fact, Beatty made the choice to limit the film's color palette to a mere seven colors, and each of those kept to the same shade to more effectively emulate the original strip.

The goofy, inhuman-looking henchmen of Gould's design were recreated with drastic make-up and prosthetics, while the big, boxy clothes—particularly Tracy's signature yellow trench coat and fedora—look drawn straight onto the actors. Most of the city is painted backdrop, with the buildings obviously built on a sound stage to add that extra dose of unreality to the proceedings.

Almost all of the shots are static, with the action and actors crammed into a single frame, just like a square set of comic panels. Voices are dubbed over, close-ups are hyper focused, and the fist-fights and shoot-outs practically have BLAMMO! and KAPOW! stenciled above them.

In the world of Dick Tracy, the standard tropes of the genre feel natural and logical. This is definitely the sort of city where the baddies would use their Tommy guns to write EAT LEAD, TRACY in bullet holes on a wall, where a nightclub singer would be named Breathless and her pianist 88 Keys (played by the ever splendid Mandy Patinkin), and where the villain would tie the hero's girlfriend to a spinning cogwheel at the story's climax.

It's all just so delightfully…well, more—just like the Steven Sondheim-penned musical number, one of five songs he contributes to the stellar soundtrack, rounded out with music by Danny Elfman. Elfman himself has essentially defined a generation of dark fantasy/pulp adventure films with his distinctive soundtracks, especially through his frequent collaborations with Tim Burton.

Dick Tracy has zip and zing, vim and vigor. It's fun to look at, and the dialogue is overwrought in the most entertaining way. Particularly great are the exchanges between stoic Tracy and femme fatale Breathless.

This is absolutely Madonna's greatest performance to date. She's sharp and soft at the same time, a gangster's gal who speaks her mind and, yet, also lets a single, evocative tear drop when her cruel boyfriend smacks her cheek. She's desperate around Tracy and confidently aloof when she needs to be, utterly gorgeous in very little and convincingly crooning ballads she clearly doesn't believe in.

Beatty does an admirable job as the determined detective, though he has significantly less complexity to work with—Tracy's  pretty much just there to yell at henchmen, punch henchmen, shoot henchmen, and become tongue-tied around Tess when he tries to talk about their relationship.

Korsmo is cute as The Kid—he has an attitude but never becomes too annoying—and Pacino does his standard bad-guy bellowing as Big Boy; the most entertaining thing about him is his tendency to spout aphorisms left and right.

Then, there's the supporting cast, which is just insanely varied. Besides Patinkin and Hoffman, there's also Dick Van Dyke as a shady D.A., Kathy Bates has a blink-and-you-miss-it moment as a police department stenographer, James Caan speaks about three lines as a small-time mobster, longtime character actor Charles Dunning is Chief Brandon, and Catherine O'Hara and Colm Meaney both have about five seconds of on-screen time.

With all of the current hubbub around Marvel and DC films, it's a good time to revisit the older comic book adaptations that helped pave the way, and Dick Tracy is a film that I think has been unfairly forgotten.

As an adaptation, it's a resounding success. As a love letter to the spirit of comics, it's more than worth a watch. And, when you consider the great cast, the fact that Stephen Sondheim—the guy who's won just about every artistic award you can possibly win—contributed songs, and the three Academy Awards the film garnered, it should be clear that this is hardly a bad way to spend an hour and forty minutes.

So buckle on your two-way radio wristwatch, grab your fedora, and dive in for some pulpy comic book noir. Maybe you'll even get an Honorary Detective License for your efforts.

See also: Why So Serious? A Little Less Grimdark and a Little More Fun, Please


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.


  1. Lloyd Cooke

    Please tell me what’s the point of calling a newspaper comic strip “pulp”?
    Let’s respect pulp for what it was! Are you aware pulps were nothing like comic strips? Let us respect great comic strips for what they were. Why would you call something “pulp” if it wasn’t in the pulps? That just doesn’t make any sense.
    If something is a show on television, we don’t call it a radio show!
    I don’t understand this current misuse of the word “pulp” by newbies.
    Were there not enough pulps and pulp heroes that we have to start dragging in characters from other sources?

    We got this author up here in Seattle, pretty good writer, who calls his stuff pulp. Only it’s nothing like pulp! Is that how things are today? You can just declare something pulp when clearly it is not?
    Lloyd Cooke

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