Monday, 28 November 2016

The Flawed Evolution of a Detective

Dick Tracy is a name not heard very often anymore, but there was a time when his name was everywhere, and I mean everywhere. The popularity of the character may have unwittingly done itself in, sadly, with one flawed attempt to capitalize on nostalgia for the characters' origins, something largely forgotten by its audiences. This came in the form of Dick Tracy, an attempt by Warren Beatty to capture the essence of the comics, with some influence from film noir thrown in. Before I can get into the details of why his efforts proved unsuccessful, I will need to provide some background information.

The character of Dick Tracy originated as a series of comic strips in the early 1930's written by Chester Gould. Much like other comics of the time, such as Batman and Superman, the stories would have been presented in a serial-ish format, with one line of panels appearing in newspapers that displayed a roughly linear progression of events that ran indefinitely. The character was a police detective who relied on various gadgets to fight crime (there was also an odd period where he ended up in space in an effort to compete with Flash Gordon). These comics proved to be a huge hit, with Gould continuing to write them well into the 70's (and some authors still writing today).

The influence of Dick Tracy can still be seen today. His popularity was a likely influence on the later success of hardboiled fiction in the 1940's, which brought about the classic private detectives like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. By extension, his influence could also be traced to the later detectives who homage those of classical noir, such as Cole Phelps and Jessica Jones. Tracy himself would make the transition to classical film noir with a 1945 film adaptation. Before that version, the character had been depicted in several different forms.

Tracy first made the transition to radio, where he became the star of a serial beginning in 1934. Three years later, he made his screen debut in a 1937 film serial in which he was played by Ralph Byrd. This particular incarnation of the character functioned mainly to cash in on the strip's popularity, with a story that was largely unrelated outside of its lead character. Instead of a police detective, Tracy was instead depicted as an FBI agent (referred to only as a by the vague slang term of "g-man") trying to outwit a dangerous criminal organization known as the "Spider Ring." Tracy himself and his assistant Junior were the only characters brought in from the comics, with the rest of the cast being new to the story.

This being a 1930's serial, the plot was hardly anything fancy. In fact, if anything it was disjointed and not very coherent. Unlike the feature films produced by Hollywood, serials generally favored action over narrative progression and character development, with the recurring gimmick that every installment ends in a cliffhanger (forcing the viewer to return for resolution). Exposition was generally rushed, quickly providing the essential information before moving into a series of extremely contrived chases and brawls.

Every episode the Spider Ring had a different scheme to be foiled by Tracy, and he would always end up in some kind of trouble that would be resolved anti-climatically (the ending of The Fur Pirates would later be imitated by Steven Spielberg in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). This is because serials were often intentionally stretched out as long as possible, and plotlines were often recycled and re-used to continue the story. As a result, cliffhangers were often unoriginal and displayed very unsatisfying resolutions, with stock characters relied on to progress the action.

Four of Dick Tracy's fifteen episodes end with an aerial chase culminating in someone being trapped while their vehicle is going down (of these, one is resolved by the characters simply walking away from the wreckage, the others all see more or less the same resolution of parachuting to safety). More bizarrely is the choice of cliffhanger for the tenth episode The Gold Ship, in which Tracy is left in danger of being crushed by a falling steel plate when he can easily roll out of the way. Over the course of the serial, Tracy goes on to face a variety of obstacles, repeatedly getting into car, boat, and plane chases with no real psychological depth for anyone.

Warren Beatty's attempt to direct and star in a film adaptation of Dick Tracy functioned in many ways as an attempt to capture a sense of nostalgia for the old character of Dick Tracy. The movie relies primarily on the comics as a source of inspiration (though some influence from the 1937 serial and classical film noir is also present). The original goal was to revive the Dick Tracy franchise, much like Tim Burton had done with his re-imagining of Batman. Unfortunately, the final product was a mess, and Dick Tracy flopped at the box office.

The storyline revolved around Tracy's efforts to outwit a local mob organization led by an overacting Al Pacino, with additional sub-plots concerning his relationship with adopted son Junior and his girlfriend. What the film got wrong was in its questionable decision to take an approach reminiscent of the 1960's Batman TV show and present the film as a living comic book. Overt makeup was used to make half the cast look like they walked out of a badly drawn comic, with a city that looked like it was drawn and colored in. With such an aesthetic, it almost makes one question why Beatty even bothered to have the film be live-action, instead of producing an animated film.

This of course, is the main problem with the film. I wanted to like it when I went in, but the whole film was a disaster. The cartoonish look makes it hard to take any of the story seriously, which is especially odd given there is no obvious indication that this is meant to be a comedy. There was obviously an effort to make the characters look like they could have been drawn in the original comics, but that's very much part of the problem. Beatty fails to recognize the changes that are required with the transition from a hand-drawn comic to a live-action film.

Now, as an interesting thought expriment, I could try to imagine what I may do differently if I were to make my own Dick Tracy film (the original comics at least should be public domain). Unlike Beatty, I would have to consider the fact that I am moving from comic to film, and recognize that some changes will have to be made. I would imagine a good Dick Tracy film as being much grittier, with perhaps more moral ambiguity. I would definitely try to do it as a serious drama, with an attention to period detail. It would also be important to focus on developing Tracy as a person, someone who the audience can get to know and relate to on a much deeper level.

In fact, perhaps it would be better to make the story about him as a character and to use the mystery as a background. I would also want to develop the role of his girlfriend and Junior into much stronger characters. The women in Beatty's film have little to do, and it is not the most progressive from a gender standpoint. Having a strong woman to work alongside Beatty would be a welcome touch (especially if they could do it without forcing in a romance). The trick would be making a believable and interesting character, something that withstands the transition to film.

Beatty's effort, however, has proven flawed. As far as detectives go, there are far more interesting cases to be explored. It is unfortunate, because there still has yet to be a worthwhile interpretation of the Dick Tracy character. Between the cash-ins that came with his serial films and Beatty's efforts at revival, there is not much of the character to be appreciated by a modern audience. A proper film adaptation should be made, and it could bring the character into a whole new light.

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