Dick Tracy


Directed and Produced by Warren Beatty
Written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr.
Based on the characters and comic strip created by Chester Gould

I’m reminded of a conversation my wife Patricia and I had some years back. Before I stopped being cheap and simply bought DVDs I would burn movies from my DVR onto blank DVDs.  Two of those movies happened to be the Tim Burton “Batman” and DICK TRACY. Patricia is curious as to why I put the both of them on the same DVD. I shrug. I dunno. Just worked out that way.

She has a different theory. “Maybe because your subconscious made the connection that if Bruce Wayne had decided to be a cop instead of Batman he’d be Dick Tracy?”

Actually, I think it had more to do with the fact that both movies together had enough running time to fit on one four hour DVD but I have to admit that Patricia may just have had a point there. Batman and Dick Tracy have an awful lot in common. Both men have sacrificed normal lives to wage an unending war on crime. Both fight bizarre villains with outrageous physical and psychological deformities. Both utilize advanced technology in their work and both wear distinctive outfits that identify them immediately so you have no doubt whom you’re dealing with.

This is never more apparent than in the scene where we first see Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) clearly when he steps out of a police car wearing a midnight black suit, blindingly white shirt, blood red tie and canary yellow trench coat with matching fedora. Now no self-respecting cop in the real world is going to wear a getup like that but hey, this is DICK TRACY we’re talking about and the way Warren Beatty wears the clothes and plays the character, we buy into it with no problem. He’s Dick Tracy. I defy any actor today to pull off making a canary yellow trench coat and fedora look as cool as Beatty does.

Dick Tracy has been summoned via his trusty wrist radio to the scene a massive mob rubout. Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) has made his move to take over The City.  He’s rubbed out his major rival Lips Manliss (Paul Sorvino) and seized all of his assets, including his sizzling hot girlfriend Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) who’s also the best singer in The City, backed up by her master pianist 88 Keys (Mandy Patinkin)

Dick Tracy isn’t able to get the goods on Big Boy, not even after sweating Big Boy’s stooges Mumbles (Dustin Hoffman) Flattop (William Forsythe) and Itchy (Ed O’Ross).  But he’s not about to let Big Boy have his way in his town and he goes on a crime busting crusade that would make The Dark Knight himself envious.  While Dick Tracy is cleaning up the town against such miscreants such as The Brow (Chuck Hicks) Pruneface (R.G. Armstrong) and Spud Spaldoni (James Caan) he’s also got to deal with other matters.   Such as his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley) who’s starting to think that maybe there’s not much future in being involved a man whose true love is fighting crime. And then there’s The Kid (Charlie Korsmo) a street urchin who comes to live with Dick Tracy after Tracy catches him stealing a watch and maybe is awakening in him paternal instincts Tracy never had before. And Breathless Mahoney starts coming after Tracy for reasons of her own and the feelings she’s awakening in him had best not be mentioned if we’re to keep this review family friendly.

DICK TRACY originally showed up in theatres the year after the wildly successful Tim Burton “Batman” and it was pretty obvious that Touchstone Pictures/Disney was trying to generate the same kind of hysteria “Batman” had generated and they came pretty close. The DICK TRACY logo was almost as ubiquitous as the Bat symbol had been the summer before and the media hype generated was at a fever pitch, fueled mostly by the Madonna/Warren Beatty romance that had begun while they were filing this movie. But despite all the hoopla that DICK TRACY would be another “Batman”, it stands up on it’s own as a unique interpretation of the character. I like how everything in this world has only primary colors and most of the time everything is staged as if the action is supposed to be in individual comic panels. And there’s no product placement at all here. When Tracy opens a can of beans the label simply says ‘Beans’. The police cars simply say ‘Police’. A tube of toothpaste simply says ‘Toothpaste’. It’s a comic book world these people inhabit and as a director, Warren Beatty does an excellent job of translating a comic book world into a real life language we as an audience can get a hold of and accept with batting an eye. I love the look of DICK TRACY which makes it plain we’re in a comic book world that at the same time looks highly theatrical and yet functional.

That’s not to say that I’m totally in love with the movie. Much as I love Madonna I wish the movie had spent less time with her trying to vamp Dick Tracy and more time with him going toe-to-toe with the various bizarre crime bosses of The City in tommy-gun shootouts. I mean, this movie has great visual bad guys like Littleface, The Brow, Influence and Mumbles and most of them we see only enough of to get us interested in and then they’re either bumped off or we never see them again. I also don’t like the music by Danny Elfman. He’d just done the soundtrack for “Batman” the year before and indeed, a lot of the music in DICK TRACY sounds like music left over from “Batman”

But then there’s the extraordinary visual style of the movie, which suckers me in every time. And the performances of Warren Beatty and Al Pacino. Warren Beatty is obviously having mad fun playing Dick Tracy. He manages to be unbearably square and awfully cool at the same time.  Glenne Headly as Tess Trueheart is really good. I like how she lets Tracy knows that she knows what kind of man he is and what life would be like as his wife and it’s cool with her. It’s Tracy that’s too busy cleaning up crime in The City to pick up on the signals.

And there’s a remarkable amount of talent in DICK TRACY. You oughta see it just for the cast alone. You’ve got Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, James Caan, William Forsythe, Ed O’Ross, Glenne Headly, Seymour Cassel, Charles Durning, Allan Garfield, John Schuck, Charlie Fleischer (we all love him as the voice of Roger Rabbit) Mandy Patinkin, Madonna, Paul Sorvino, James Tolkan, Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Dick Van Dyke, fer crying out loud! Colm Meany (from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) Catherine O’Hara, Henry Silva, Mary Woronov, Michael J. Pollard (Warren Beatty’s co-star from “Bonnie & Clyde”) and Mike Mazurki….whew….and that’s not even half of the cameos you can spot when you really try.

So should you see DICK TRACY? If you haven’t, Netflix it at your earliest opportunity.  It’s just plain, good old fashioned fun to watch. It’s a movie you can pop into the DVD player, sit back with your beverage and snacks of choice and just have a good time watching. And it’s for that reason that I suspect it’ll be a favorite of many for a long time. I know it’ll be one of mine. Enjoy.

103 minutes

Midnight Cowboy


United Artists/MGM

Directed by John Schlesinger

Produced by Jerome Hellman

Screenplay by Waldo Salt

Based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy

I’ve probably said this before so if the next couple of paragraphs sound familiar feel free to drop on down and read the rest of this review, okay?  You won’t hurt my feelings.  One of the reasons I love movies is that I feel by watching them you can get more of a feel of a period of history in terms of fashion, slang, societal and political attitudes than you can from reading a dry text.   Since the movie was made and acted by people who were living those attitudes and dressing in those fashions and using that slang the impact you gain from watching the movie can probably give you a better sense of what people and the world was like during that period.  I watched MIDNIGHT COWBOY one weekend and the main thing that I came away with was that the movie pretty much accurately shows what New York was like in 1969 when it resembled something out of John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” especially the way 42end Street used to be before it became Disneyfied.  The 42end Street/Times Square  shown in MIDNIGHT COWBOY  is the 42end Street I remember when my buddies and I used to go there on Saturdays to watch three Kung Fu movies for three dollars and the pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, junkies and drug dealers ruled Times Square. I know it’s hard to believe now but back in the 1970’s and 1980’s tourists visiting New York were actually warned to stay out of the Times Square area.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a tall, lanky, good-looking Texan who quits his dead end job at a roadside diner, packs up his stuff in an ugly cowhide suitcase and hops a bus to New York.  He thinks he’ll be a natural in his chosen profession of being a male prostitute since he believes that New York is full of rich old women who will throw handfuls of money at him for sex.  He’s full of confidence and energy and he can’t wait to get to The Big Apple where he dreams of making it big.

His confidence is soon busted into splinters because he soon realizes that he’s simply not smart enough, street savvy enough or tough enough to make it in New York.  His pathetic attempts to pick up women are met with disgust, outrage or gales of laughter at his wildly out-of-place cowboy outfit of huge Stetson hat, fringed leather jacket, sequined shirt and garish boots.  And when he does finally score, the woman he picks up (Sylvia Miles) makes him feel so guilty that he actually ends up paying her for their afternoon of recreational sex.

Joe meets the lowlife street hustler Enrico ‘Ratzo’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who tells Joe that he needs a manager to set him up with high-class women and Ratzo cons Joe out of $20 bucks (remember, this is 1969…$20 was a whole lotta money back then) then leaves him high and dry.  Joe soon runs out of money and is locked out of his hotel room.  Joe is forced to prostitute himself to a gay student (Bob Balaban) where they have sex in a 42end Street movie theatre and the student stiffs Joe on the money he promised him.  Joe can ‘t even bring himself to take the student’s watch as compensation and he’s now at rock bottom, reduced to eating crackers he finds on restaurant tables.

Joe again runs into Ratzo who offers to share his apartment in a condemned building with no heat and no electricity. The two total losers form a bond of friendship as Ratzo teaches Joe how to commit petty crimes in which they steal food and pull off really minor cons that mainly consist of them distracting their marks, grabbing whatever they can and running like hell.  Ratzo’s attempts to become Joe’s pimp gets Joe thrown out of a Park Avenue hotel when he propositions   They have no money, no food and Ratzo contracts pneumonia. Things start to look up when Joe is invited to a drug party and he meets Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro) who actually pays him for sex and indeed, promises to hook him up with some of her friends.  But Ratzo’s health is rapidly deteriorating and after Joe has an encounter with a middle aged homosexual (Barnard Hughes) that turns violent, the two friends decide to leave New York and head to Florida where Ratzo dreams of a better life for both of them.  Let’s just say it doesn’t happen the way the way Ratzo plans.

I don’t mind watching depressing movies about lowlifes, prostitutes, hustlers and degenerates if they’re well made.  But MIDNIGHT COWBOY simply isn’t a well-made movie.  It’s a total mystery to me how this movie won for Best Picture.  There must have been awfully slim pickings that year because outside of Dustin Hoffman’s performance I can’t think of a single reason to recommend that you should see this movie.  I like Jon Voight a lot but his Joe Buck is simply too damn stupid to live and it’s a miracle he survives as long in New York as he does.  And there are these highly confusing hallucinations/flashbacks/dreams that Joe has in which he either A) rapes his girlfriend, B) is falsely accused by his girlfriend of raping her or C) both he and his girlfriend are raped by Joe’s drunken buddies.

Add to that there are even still more flashbacks of Joe’s childhood concerning his grandmother who may or may not have been a prostitute herself and may or may not have sexually molested Joe.  There is one scene where the young Joe is in bed with his grandmother and a man and they’re all plainly naked but you’re never sure if this is something that actually happened to Joe or if he’s dreaming it or what.  It’s unnecessarily confusing and eventually I gave up trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t.  Add to that the scene where Joe turns violent out of frustration over being stiffed yet again and beats the piss outta the Barnard Hughes character.  The movie doesn’t make it clear if Joe kills the middle-aged homosexual after robbing him.  Ratzo asks him a number of time during their bus ride to Florida if Joe killed the man or not but Joe never gives a clear answer one way or the other.

The supporting actors don’t make any impression at all outside of Brenda Vaccaro who in her day was one of the hottest actresses working.  But here she seems to be acting in another movie altogether here.  Thankfully she gives the movie some much needed energy during the last half hour and Sylvia Miles displays a really remarkable pair of legs early on as Joe’s first pickup.  Dustin Hoffman is the only real reason to see this movie as this has his famous “Hey!  I’m walkin’ HERE!” scene and he captures the despair and hopelessness of Ratzo’s poor sad life perfectly.  And I was driven absolutely apeshit with how many times “Everybody’s Talkin” sung by Harry Nilsson is played.

So should you see MIDNIGHT COWBOY?  Only if you’re interested in it purely to see Dustin Hoffman or to watch it as a cultural artifact of a New York that no longer exists.  Otherwise, it’s a pretty pointless movie and by the time you get to the end and one of the main characters dies you might be like me and breathe a sigh of relief.

Rated R: When MIDNIGHT COWBOY had its original theatrical run it was rated X for subject material, nudity and drug use but since then, the rating has been lowered to R and that’s still laughable.  I find it hard to believe that even back in 1969 this material was considered controversial.  If anything, there is more attention paid to the despair of the life Joe and Ratzo live than to sex or drugs.  There are a couple of sex scenes but they’re so tame there’s nothing erotic or titillating about them.  Maybe that was the whole point and I’m just a sleazy so and so.  Anyway, there’s nothing in MIDNIGHT COWBOY that offended me except the utter naivety and stupidity of the Joe Buck character and I don’t think there’s anything that will offend you except poor movie making at its best.

P.S. MIDNIGHT COWBOY holds the distinction of being the only X rated movie to date to win a Best Picture Academy Award.

113 min.