Did Dick Tracy get a bum rap?

Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty’s big screen adaptation of the classic comic strip, was considered a disappointment when it came out on June 15, 1990, especially in the wake of the mega success of Tim Burton’s Batman.

But Tracy has proven influential, X-Men/Superman director Bryan Singer is a fan, and it also played again this summer as part of the Hero Complex film festival. 

Because Beatty is so reticent about doing press, it took him years to commit to a DVD commentary. So does it deserve a second look, or for many, a first look?

As recalled in Peter Biskind’s biography of Beatty, Dick Tracy was first set up at Paramount in 1977, and it was pitched by screenwriter Floyd Mutrux (American Me) as a James Bond style franchise, where there could be a new movie every summer.

In 1985, Beatty took it over, and his approach to Tracy was different, even for the comic adaptations of the time.

It had a bold, vibrant design, because the funny pages then only used a few primary colors, and it also boasted more depth than the comic films of the time.

Bo Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Scent of a Woman, worked on the script behind the scenes, and as Beatty said, “This is not some cockamamie detective story… My Dick Tracy is human.”


Because the film went over budget, which is expected on any Beatty film, and because the toys didn’t fly off the shelves, Dick Tracy was considered a disappointment, and former Disney head Jeffrey Katzenberg didn’t help things when he wrote a lengthy memo on the state of the industry that mentioned Tracy as one of the company’s mistakes. 

The memo leaked everywhere, and Beatty was furious, claiming the movie made its negative costs back on the video sales alone. 

Former Disney executive Bill Mechanic told Biskind,”You talk yourself into thinking that the movie is going to be the biggest thing ever. I don’t think it fulfilled its ambitions, but it did what it should have done.”


The film isn’t as action packed as audiences would expect it to be, and some longer action sequences may have helped in this regard, not to mention more from the ensemble cast would have helped too (Dustin Hoffman is great as Mumbles), but overall Dick Tracy was a pretty good movie, and would probably get a better shake today. 

Personally, I think today’s audiences would welcome a comic adaptation that even by current standards bends many of the rules of the genre. Of course, they would probably also get what the production designers were going for with the film’s color scheme, production design and costumes.