Deus Ex Machina and Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy Poster

(Possible Spoilers Ahead! If you haven’t seen Dick Tracy by now, then go watch it)

Today it seems that comic-inspired-movies rule in Hollywood; it only took a couple decades for the trend to develop. And of all the studios, Disney is reaping the most rewards. After acquiring Marvel in 2009, Disney has released a steady stream of superhero films, culminating in The Avengers. However, this wasn’t Disney’s first foray into the comic book market. In 1978 Warner Bros released Superman, to much critical and public acclaim. It was followed by the arguably betterSuperman II, before entering the realm of absurdity with the painfully bad Superman III in 1983. There was a lull in comic book movies being released, with the exception of smaller properties like Howard the Duck. Warner Bros tried to revitalize Superman in 1987 but it was a critical and box-office failure. Superhero films seemed to be dead. And then Batman happened. Tim Burton’s Batman was such a huge success that other studios started to take notice, one of those being Disney.

Since the 70’s, Warren Beatty had been trying to get Dick Tracy made, and after many stalled attempts, with Paramount Pictures coming the closest to developing the film, Disney came on board. Jeffery Katzenberg was President of Production at Paramount Pictures when Dick Tracy was being developed, and after moving to Disney with Michael Eisner in 1984, became interested in Dick Tracy again after Paramount failed in bringing the movie to the big screen. Warren Beatty decided to direct and in 1988, Dick Tracy was greenlit. With Beatty’s films tending to go over budget, and the recent flop of Ishatar, Disney worked out a contract that would hopefully deter Beatty to not waste money, having him foot the bill of any money over the $25 million budget. This of course did little to stop the film ballooning to about $47 million, with Disney, Touchstone Pictures, Silver Screen Partners IV, and Beatty’s production company, Mulholland Productions, financing the film. But in the end, the film reached theatres on June 15, 1990. And after seeing the success of Batman in 1989, Disney modeled it’s marketing off of Warner Bros. using high concept promotion. It seems that Disney and Beatty were so eager to make an equally big hit, they brought in Danny Elfman to score the film after hearing the score for Batman. (If you listen to the score for Dick Tracy you can immediately hear musical cues and motifs used in Batman)

All this brings us to the film itself. It has been 23 years since Dick Tracy came out and after revisiting the film, it’s definitely one of the most unique comic book films ever made; one could argue that it’s one of the most unique films ever made. Beatty chose to use a limited color palette, consisting of red, green, yellow, etc. to give the film a comic look and two-dimensional quality. From Tracy’s yellow hat and jacket, to “Big Boy” Caprice’s obnoxious suits, the whole wardrobe and set design consisted of solid bold colors, giving the film a dramatic saturated effect. But it wasn’t only the color palette that contributed to the comic-book look of the film. The prosthetic work of John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler also helped in giving the characters the stylized look used in the original Dick Tracy comics. By far one of the more impressive aspects of the film are the amazing matte paintings. According to Wikipedia, over 57 paintings were used. Even with today’s overindulgent use of CGI in films, the use of matte paintings is still implemented in films, however they’re now done digitally. I know the original idea behind matte paintings was to naturally expand the scope of a scene without looking to obvious, but it seems that Beatty purposely pushed that scope to an insane level. It’s almost like he wanted the use of matte paintings to clearly be visible, to help enhance the feeling of a two-dimensional world.

One of the many Matte Paintings used in Dick Tracy

One of the many Matte Paintings used in Dick Tracy

It’s all these elements of the film I enjoyed most after revisiting Dick Tracy all these years later. The story, however, is not what I remembered. It’s interesting to think that Disney hoped this would be their Batman. The movie is 105 mins, which isn’t that long to begin with, and yet feels like forever. This is mainly due to the fact that hardly anything happens. How did Disney hope to compete with a movie like this. Beatty does his best, but it just feels like so much is lacking. Which brings me to my biggest gripe about the film. But first, a little background on the term, Deus ex Machina. In taking a theatre class way back in college, I learned of Euripides, a Greek Tragedian, who often would wrap up the conflicts near the end of his plays by having a greek god character randomly show up and resolve all issues. He apparently did this so many times, that he is often credited with coming up with this method, though who really knows. The term deus ex machina means god from the machine and gets its name from the machine or device that would either lower the god onto the stage or make him appear otherwise. It latter became attached to the plot device of having a seemingly unsolved problem suddenly solved. All this leads me to the ‘Kid’ as he calls himself. The kid in the film plays the role of deus ex machina; not only once, but multiple times he saves Tracy’s life. Maybe this is how the comics transpired; I don’t know as I’ve never read them, but it just seemed like a copout. Oddly enough, a couple years earlier, Star Trek Next Generation (ST:NG) had just started, and the whole first season is filled with little Wesley Crusher seemingly solving all of the Enterprise’s problems and saving everyone from certain death. Many criticized ST:NG for the use of that plot device, and I understand why. Like in ST:NG it seemed forced and lazy, as it does in Dick Tracy. But what’s interesting is that as the film progresses, Tracy seems to accept the ‘kid’s’ ability to save him in a pinch, and in the end can be seen leaving with Tracy to go catch the next criminal on the loose. I understand that Tracy is supposed to be some sort of father figure to the ‘kid’ (who later in the film excepts the name Dick Tracy Jr., foreshadowing their partnering up to fight crime), but what kind of father would let a 10-year old tag along while they fight crime? I guess this kind of thing wasn’t taboo back in the time when the film takes place (30’s?) , or maybe it’s some alternate universe where these things are the norm.

How could Tracy resist that face?

How could Tracy resist that face?

Overall, I think Dick Tracy is an enjoyable movie, if only to try and point out all the celebrity cameos. It’s interesting that most films that don’t age well can be blamed on the look and design of the film. But rarely is it contributed to the story. I think Dick Tracy’s story ages this film considerably more that the look. A couple of years later, Disney would release The Rocketeer, also based on a comic, that should have been much more deserving of the box-office draw that Dick Tracy brought in. I guess that after a disappointing Dick Tracy, audiences were more hesitant to accept what is clearly a much better film.


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