Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Dick Tracy

Written as part of the series hosted by the fabulous Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

It's funny how differently you respond to movies as a kid as to when you're an adult. I have only vague memories of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, mostly of how much I wanted that yellow hatted-and-trenchcoated man to take me under his wing and come rescue me from the bad guys. But other than Madonna and the perfectly grotesque makeup jobs on the comic book villains (this is a comic book film that ACTUALLY LOOKS like a goddamn comic book, and thank GOD for that!), there is only one specific thing I remember completely clearly. This shot:

There's nothing particularly remarkable about the shot - it's not the first time we see "No Face", nor is it the first time we hear that terribly constricted voice. But whenever the film is brought up (which admittedly isn't often, but still...), my mind immediately flashes to this shot. And after looking at it for quite a long time I think I know why:

It's understated.

Dick Tracy is a gaudy, almost garish film. It leans into the aesthetics of its comic book roots almost as much as Sin City leans into that of its graphic novel source. It's not a bad thing, either: this is one of the most fun comic book films ever made - enough to make you wish the comic book movies of today would leave the "real world" behind completely - and the design (production, lighting, costume, makeup) is constantly surprising and delightful.

But this shot eschews nearly ALL of that. It's so stark and dimly lit. You still have the film's primary color scheme, but these colors are muted as opposed to the brightness found everywhere else. And that blank face is so perfectly wiped clean of any identifying traits. By rights, your focus should be on the gun, but instead it's all about that face - or rather, that anti-face. It conjures up a sense of mystery perfectly by not just looking completely different from everything surrounding it, but by forcing your focus to that blankness at the center.

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Of course, it makes sense that - SPOILER - the person under that mask is Madonna, the woman of a thousand faces. This is probably her second-best screen performance (after A League of Their Own, obviously), all deeply carnal sensuality as the femme fatale Breathless Mahoney. She rarely gets the credit she deserves as an actress, and it's true that most of her work here doesn't go deeper than the surface, but it's actually pretty damn good. And slyly smart: Given that she's a completely blank slate for most of the film, the final reveal should come as no surprise to anyone.


  1. i have the same feeling when i watch this. it's not perfect but it makes you long for distinctive "fun" approaches to comic art in cinema

    i don't think Madonna is great in this personally but it is the best she ever looked on screen. damn. she's just selling every shot.

    1. I don't think Madonna is a good enough actress for it to be a "great" performance, but it is (whether by accident or design) a very smart one in that it is completely of a piece with the film that contains it: It's all about the way Breathless looks and moves much in the same way the film is all about the look and design.