Movies Reviews

Why Dick Tracy was the Best Ensemble Film of the 1990s

The 90s started with a bang. It’s the year many timeless classics debuted. Goodfellas, Total Recall, Misery, and more heavy hitters flooded movie theaters. But there was one movie that stood out from the rest. With a star-studded cast, vibrant cinematography, and iconic music, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy was a crime thriller that brought together some of the biggest names in Hollywood to portray multiple iconic characters from the beloved comic strip.


Beatty had a particular vision for the character and was so committed to making this film a hit that he went out of his way to hire the best talent in town. That’s how he landed Madonna, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, Al Pacino, and many more to bring this fantastic story to life. The ensemble cast delivered some of the best performances ever, with many still resonating with audiences today.

Join us as we explore why Dick Tracy was such a big deal in the 90s and why Disney buried this film.


What is Dick Tracy, and Why Was it a Big Deal in the 90s?

Buena Vista Pictures

Dick Tracy has been an American staple in many newspapers since 1931. Chester Gould created the comic strip series, still being published to this day by Tribune Content Agency. The world of Dick Tracy is set in the 1930s, the story of a tough detective determined to take down crime. In the film adaptation, Warren Beatty plays the titular character waging war against mob boss Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice and his gang.

Dick Tracy was a big deal in the 90s thanks to one of the most widespread marketing campaigns ever seen in the story of cinema. Like Batman the previous year, Dick Tracy’s profile was all over billboards. Each trailer was fast-paced and dynamic, advertising the film as a period action piece. The campaign also made a big deal out of the star-studded cast, with Madonna being the main attraction. This would be her first significant role, playing Breathless Mahoney, a sultry lounge singer entangled with Tracy.

Related: Best Comic Book Movies from the 90s

The Star-Studded Cast: Who Played the Iconic Characters in the Movie?

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Buena Vista Pictures.

Dick Tracy made a splash with the press thanks to an all-star cast of actors. The ensemble was iconic because it featured many of Hollywood’s past and present stars. Warren Beatty leads the charge while producing and directing the film. Madonna turned heads as Breathless Mahoney, a love interest for our leading man. The couple played the press like a fiddle since the two had been dating for a year before the film’s release.

Al Pacino was brought in to play Big Boy Caprice. The actor delivered an unforgettable performance as one of Tracy’s arch-nemeses with a fast-paced delivery on every line and an almost manic personality. Dustin Hoffman played Mumbles, the right-hand man for Caprice. James Cann makes a cameo as fellow Mob Boss Spud Spaldoni; this would be the only collaboration Cann had with Pacino after The Godfather. Mandy Patinkin plays 88 Keys, a fellow collaborator of Breathless Mahoney. He showed immense talent by signing along with Madonna on the film.

Other actors include Dick Van Dyke as the corrupt District Attorney Fletcher, Paul Sorvino as Lips Manlis, and perpetual bad guy William Forsythe played Flattop, one of Dick Tracy’s most memorable foes. Beatty made a point to cast people familiar with the strip, as this was his passion project. Each actor brought their flair to their respective roles. Pacino’s over-the-top portrayal perfectly balanced Beatty’s stoic portrayal of Tracy, while Madonna excelled at sex appeal each time she interacted with Beatty on screen.

The Vibrant Cinematography: The Use of Colors in Dick Tracy

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Buena Vista Pictures.

One of the most visually striking aspects of Dick Tracy is the colorful cinematography. Beatty opted for a unique approach to bringing the world of Tracy to life on screen. He chose to work with primary colors: red, green, blue, yellow, black, and others to make the world seem intense, vibrant, and full of life. Since the film is based on a Sunday strip with static images, the camera play was limited to zero movements. All the action happens in single frames to add more nuance and a comic feel to the story.

The heavy use of classic film techniques, such as matte paintings for backgrounds, gives the film an old-school flair that’s pretty hard to replicate. The result is a unique visual style of the era that helped transport audiences to a surreal world. All costumes and sets were designed with bold hues in mind. The bright colors offer an established identity to each character in the movie; for instance, Tracy always wears the signature yellow trench coat, while Big Boy Caprice wears greenish suits. Mumbles and Pruneface, on the other hand, always wears magenta.

The Soundtrack: The Iconic Music That Accompanied the Film

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Buena Vista Pictures.

One of the most significant selling points to this adaptation of Dick Tracy was the noir-flavored score composed by Danny Elfman. The composer was riding high on the wave of popularity thanks to the timeless masterpiece he created for Batman. The music in Dick Tracy plays a prominent role with ambivalent tunes that range from playful to dramatic. The score mixes jazz, swing, and big band sounds to transport the audience straight to the 30s era.

Madonna plays a significant role in making the music stand out. Beatty himself went on to hire acclaimed songwriter Stephen Sondheim to write and compose five specific songs for the film to be performed by Madonna. The album “I’m Breathless,” published by Sire Records, was marketed uncannily, as each one of the songs was released as a separate single aside from the official album release. Songs such as Sooner or Later and Back in Business earned the film an Academy Award, cementing its place in pop culture history.

Elfman has stated that the music created for this film makes him incredibly proud since Beatty gave him a lot of leeway to create something unique, mainly because of the unrealistic nature of all situations portrayed. It makes sense, given how Dick Tracy feels like a period piece, but it’s not a straightforward representation of the 30s era. As time passed, the score was released as a two-disc set and two separate OST albums compiling music inspired by the film.

Related: The 12 Best Soundtrack Moments in Movies, Ranked

Legacy: How the Film’s Success Became a PR Nightmare

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Buena Vista Pictures.

It’s been 30 years since we had a chance to watch this film at the theater. The unique blend of vibrant visuals, captivating music, and a star-studded cast has made it a classic that still resonates with audiences today. Beatty cites it as one of his most significant accomplishments, yet the film became entangled in legal proceedings after release. Dick Tracy grossed $167 million against a budget of $46 million. Disney ruled the box office for the film a modest success and scrapped any plans for future sequels.

Beatty bought the Dick Tracy rights from Tribune Media Services in 1985. He optioned said rights to Disney for the production of the film. After Disney was done with the movie, Tribune Media Services claimed the rights back from Disney despise their existing contract with Beatty. The actor wouldn’t let this situation fly and started producing a TV special one year before the lapse of his rights to keep the property in his hands. To this day, Beatty keeps the rights, but there haven’t been any negotiations between the involved parties.

Dick Tracy made a mark in the world of cinema. It was the first movie to take a cue from the high concept promotion strategy created by Warner Bros with Batman ’89. The colorful and intricate makeup and the costume design have been praised for offering some of the most comic-accurate looks ever portrayed in film. The ensemble cast format became big with many properties during the 90s, with movies like Saving Private Ryan, Pulp Fiction, and Boogie Nights cramming as much A-list talent as possible to tell great stories.

Dick Tracy is an exceptional piece of filmmaking that pushed boundaries and broke new ground using classic filmmaking techniques. The iconic portrayals of outlandish characters, stunning visuals, and memorable soundtrack will continue to inspire future generations for years to come.

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