Cover Story

Strip Show: The Comic Book Look of 'Dick Tracy'

Warren Beatty reveals his formula for turning a funny-papers flatfoot into a modern movie hero

When Warren Beatty finally decided to play ace crime-stopper Dick Tracy after nearly a decade of dallying with the role's possibilities, he did so with the intention of rediscovering the kid within himself.

''At first, I thought I don't know if I want to play Dick Tracy, because I don't look like him, but then I realized nobody looks like him. Maybe I ought to go ahead and do it,'' Beatty says of the tortuous thought process that ultimately resulted in his new candy-colored movie. ''When I realized I was going to direct it myself, I evolved a concept that it could recapture my point of view at the age of 6 or 7 when I was really interested in the strip.

''Emotionally, I began to get interested in that childlike feeling about the thrill of bright, primary colors, the sight of the stars and the moon, and people with primary emotions. I could look at them the way I looked at them when I was a kid — a bad guy was bad, a good guy was good, things were simpler and straightforward.''

With that goal in mind, Beatty set out to translate his vision to every aspect of the movie, from the script and the sets to the costumes, makeup, and entire color scheme. ''I thought if I could make Dick Tracy the centerpiece of a swirl of color and plot,'' Beatty recalls, ''then maybe I could keep him from being terminally dull, which a straightforward character like that is in danger of being. And I could have a tremendous amount of fun doing it.''

Summoning his brain trust-the sophisticated trio of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, production designer Richard Sylbert, and costume designer Milena Canonero — to his Los Angeles hilltop home, Beatty began searching for ways to translate the comic strip into Dick Tracy, the movie.

How do we turn the two-dimensional copper into a three-dimensional character, the producer-director-star wanted to know. How do we retain the primitive power of the comic strip without lapsing into pow-bang-zowie campiness?

Finding the answers turned out to be a complex process. The talk swirling around Beatty's kitchen table during the summer of 1988 must have sounded like that of a bunch of crazed French semioticians enthusiastically dissecting an icon of American pop culture for every sign and signifier that it was worth.

What does the yellow raincoat symbolize? How does the myth of the gangster relate to the rise of fascism? How do you dramatize the battle between Darkness and Light?

Spread out before them were vintage samples of Chester Gould's inimitable comic strip, born in Chicago during the Depression. Originally conceived as an American Sherlock Holmes, with Tracy's trademark fedora and yellow trench coat substituting for Sherlock's deerstalker cap and Inverness cape, Gould's detective was rectitude personified, his righteous chin thrust defiantly forward.

But as Beatty quickly realized, ''You can't re-create a comic strip except on paper. The difference between paper and film is why I abandoned the idea of putting prosthetics on the good guys, particularly Dick Tracy.'' Not that he didn't try. Beatty had the makeup team fit him with a phony nose and jaw, the better to approximate Tracy's angular profile, but it just didn't work. ''Tracy was basically drawn from a couple of angles,'' Beatty says. ''When he turned face forward, you almost didn't recognize him in the strip. On film, it couldn't be done. You'd be looking at the structure of appliances and plastic and makeup rather than what's happening emotionally.''

So Beatty continued grilling his collaborators for hours, constantly asking ''Why?,'' insisting on explanations, forcing them to suggest solutions. Having worked with him on Reds (1981), his last effort as producer, director, and star, Storaro and Sylbert were accustomed to the intensity of Beatty's characteristic third-degree and quickly began spinning off ideas.

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