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Because the end of the year always gets a little crazy my Dick Tracy Blu-ray screener arrived very late. In an effort to kick this out in a somewhat timely manner, I’m not going to waste too much time with my thoughts on this particular blockbuster-misfire-turned-cult-classic (though it made money on its initial release, the take was pretty weak, considering the excessive budget). I probably haven’t seen the film in 15 years, so I’m somewhat shocked by how much I remember in terms of off-hand bits of  dialogue and vsome ery specific imagery (The Kid licking powdered peppermint toothpaste off of his toothbrush, for instance). I’m also struck by how massively weird Dick Tracy is. For whatever reason, I didn’t put it together until this most recent viewing that Dick Tracy is an obvious extension of Tim Burton’s super-popular Batman. Rumour has it that Beatty and his production originally approached Burton, Martin Scorsese, and Bob Fosse to director before Beatty finally took the reins himself – a fact that basically explains the entire tonal outlook of the film, along with many of its non-comic visual references.

Dick Tracy
The pulpy, pseudo-campy tone is the categorical product of an era where something as oddball as Burton’s film would make money hand over fist and may mystify younger viewers that weren’t around for the original release. Beatty’s use of hyper-stylized colour (more on that in the video section) and prominent make-up designs on his villains is certainly kitsch, even in this day and age of increasingly popular literalist comic book movies. Putting on my best reviewer’s hat, I think my only real problem with the film, besides the occasional lapse in taste, is the script’s lack of rhythm. Writers Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. try to maintain the franchise’s serialization while also creating a through-line story. The final effect is a jagged and inconsistent mix of abruptly paced set pieces and a convoluted mystery plot that just doesn’t pay off in the end. Richard Marks’ montage editing and Al Pacino’s ad-libbing save the final act from utter ruin, but the reveal seems to exist to serve Beatty’s ego, rather than to tell a good story.

Dick Tracy

Video


When it was released, Dick Tracy was a bit of a revelation, visually speaking, due to its incredibly stylized use of colour. Around the time Disney blended animation with Technicolor live-action for movies like Mary Poppins, TV’s Batman and Italian comic adaptations, like Mario Bava’s Danger Diabolik! and Corrado Farina’s Baba Yaga, had embraced the vibrant and simplified avant garde looks of comics as far back as the 1960s, but, by and large, most Hollywood comic book adaptations had remained definitely ‘filmic’ in their approach to the material. For Dick Tracy, Beatty, art director Harold Michelson, costume designer Milena Canonero, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro took the CMYK, four-colour process qualities of a comic quite literally. In fact, in the special case of this production, only the six specific hues that were part of the original comic strip’s design were used -– or at least approximated. The look didn’t exactly catch on, but eventually filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez ( Sin City), Lexi Alexander ( Punisher: War Zone), and Zack Snyder ( 300, Watchmen) also began to take their comic books palettes even more literally than Beatty and company.

Dick Tracy was shot 35mm on Eastman stock with a Technicolor finish. This 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is, by my measure, pretty great, though I suppose some viewers will take issue with the constant sheen of grain and other minor film-related artefacts. Aside from the occasional white fleck and shimmer effect, I see little reason to complain, myself. The scary-vibrant hues are spectacularly bright, extremely consistent, and very sharply separated. Occasionally, the reds threaten to bloom into the other colours and sometimes have minor yellowing around the edges, but there’s no blocking effects or low level noise issues. The greens and yellows are the grainiest bits while blues tend to feature the only notable edge enhancement, but there’s no other sizable compression issues (the lack of extras gives the relatively brief film a whole lot of space on the disc, afterall). Colour is the key component, but the detail levels are also impressive, bringing back fond memories of a childhood theatrical viewing when I could really tell the difference between the live-action photography and the cartoony, painted backdrops. Textures are not exactly integral stylistic ingredients, but the contrasting effect of the real and the faux-comic elements here is particularly arresting. A handful of brief sequences are particularly soft, but these appear to be stylistic choices (kind of an homage to old Hollywood glamour-type stuff) rather than an issue with digital mastering. Black levels are also quite deep without any major purity or halo issues.

Dick Tracy

Audio


Dick Tracy was the first feature film to feature a completely digital soundtrack, a practice that was ahead of its time, as digital sound didn’t really appear in many theaters until 1992 when Batman Returns was released with a Dolby Digital soundtrack. Apparently, some 70mm blow-up prints of Dick Tracy featured 6-track analogue sound, but I’m not sure if those were discrete mixes. Having never seen the film outside of a Dolby Surround theater or TV environment, I’m going to assume this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track matches the basic surround sound structure of previous 5.1 DVD releases that I’ve never seen. The stereo and surround channels are plenty busy throughout the production, more busy than I expected for a film of this age and without noticeable signs of post-production tampering on the part of overzealous DVD producers. Directional effects are mostly devoted to the big shoot-outs and massive, LFE-heavy car explosions, but there are a few outstanding moments that have nothing to do with action, such as a funny bit at the beginning of the film where a thug tosses a howling cat from the center to the rear right channel. I’m more surprised that the mostly centered dialogue features so much volum range, which is mostly good news, though, occasionally, the lower volume discussion is a bit too hard to understand and Pacino’s screaming causes some minor buzzing. Danny Elfman is very obviously coming off of Batman here, which makes for a particularly bombastic, brass-heavy score, which, along with Stephen Sondheim’s Prohibition era-embracing original songs, sounds positively magnificent.

Dick Tracy

Extras


I’m sorry, Dick Tracy fans, but, once again, you’re left with absolutely zippo in the way of supplemental material. The only other thing on this disc is a small collection of trailers for upcoming Disney releases.

Dick Tracy

Overall


I’m somewhat surprised that Dick Tracy holds up 22 years later. The vibrant production design and period-inspired music do a lot to keep the film somewhat timeless (though Madonna’s presence will always be an issue for the shelf life of any era production) while the occasionally brilliant editing and Al Pacino’s powerhouse performance keep the script’s problems at bay. Fans should be plenty satisfied with this 1080p release, despite the presence of grain and occasional film-based artefacts. The only problem is the continuing lack of special features, but it’s starting to look like there simply isn’t any interest on Disney or Beatty’s part in that department.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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