I had grand plans to do a whole series of the double feature posts that I started with the Gidget/Psycho Beach Party double and then…I didn’t go through with them. Well, now I’m bringing the feature back with another possibly obvious double feature: The Shadow and Dick Tracy.
For anyone not familiar with these films in particular, or the characters generally, here’s a brief rundown of each.
The Shadow, based on the pulp antihero of the same name, centres on Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin), a millionaire playboy who, at the opening of the film, is living in Tibet as a warlord. He is taken by servants of the Tulku who then trains him in the art of ‘clouding men’s minds’ and he returns to New York to be a ‘force of good’ and lives a double life, with his alter ego being the vigilante The Shadow. (If any of that sounds familiar it’s because Bob Kane heavily based his Batman, in 1939, on Walter B. Gibson’s The Shadow, created 8 years previously in 1931). Then there is Shiwan Kahn, another student of the Tulku who turned out evil, who wants to take over the world, Ian McKellen as a scientist creating part of the atomic bomb (I think?), Tim Curry as one of Kahn’s henchmen and Penelope Ann Miller as the funny, psychic love interest.
Dick Tracy is based on the comic strip from the 1930s and centres on the eponymous character, played by Warren Beatty who also directed the film. Tracy is trying to bring down the crime syndicate lead by Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino) with complications such as femme fatale cum lounge singer Breathless (Madonna), a runaway child known only as ‘Kid’ throughout the film that Tracy must look after and his long-suffering girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) who has had just about enough of playing second fiddle to Tracy’s job.
Both of the films take visual cues from the eras in which they were created – The Shadow looks to the soft focus and cinematic devices (colour aside) of the films of the 1930s and hints of ’40s with high key lighting etc, where Dick Tracy emulates the look of its comic strip source material, limiting the palette of the film to just seven colours. In fact, I think the above title cards are great visual summaries, more or less, of the overall visual elements of each film.
Visually, both films are winners for me. In fact, they’re both just winners. Dick Tracy was definitely well-praised for its visual style at the time, not only for the colours and matte paintings but the amazing prosthetics used to turn much of the cast into the perfect comic book villains, including Dusting Hoffman as Mumbles and, of course, Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice. Most critics, though, felt it fell flat in other areas. And, yes, it’s nothing stunning in terms of plot but it’s enjoyable enough to carry the film and it does have a rather interesting soundtrack (not all of which were featured in the film). I don’t think The Shadow was much better thought of but I love this film. I saw it at the cinema when it was released and loved it just as much then as I do now.
Clearly, Dick Tracy and Lamont Cranston aka The Shadow couldn’t be more different in terms of their characters. In fact, you just know that Tracy would hate Lamont! Lamont is the charismatic playboy (with a secret identity and troubled personality, of course) and Tracy is completely strait-laced and would, no doubt, be trying to catch the vigilante, The Shadow.
Penelope Ann Miller is beautiful and funny as the somewhat-psychic Margo Lane, daughter of absent-minded scientist, Dr. Reinhardt Lane (played by Sir Ian McKellen!!!) who is the only one who can see past Lamont’s mind-obscuring tricks and discovers his real identity because of their psychic connection.
Madonna, as Breathless, is a little less period accurate in Dick Tracy but no less fabulous. It seems in the comics Breathless is styled more closely to Veronica Lake but there is definitely something quite arresting about the combination of Madonna’s peroxide spiral perm and sleek black gowns. And I don’t think her acting is quite as bad as most people do. (Though I probably prefer her as ‘All the Way’ Mae in A League of Their Own.)
Of course, whilst Breathless was characterised as the femme fatale and possible temptation for Tracy it is Tess Trueheart, played by Glenne Headly, that is Tracy’s true leading lady. As Tracy starts to unravel, throwing himself into his work more, Tess can’t handle taking the backseat to his job and leaves – but it’s obvious that Tracy depends on her a lot more than he thought. And can we take a moment to appreciate this outfit? She has some of the best costumes.
As does Margo!
I love John Lone, just this side of hammy in his portrayal of Shiwan Kahn, who has come to New York to take over the world, apparently, and enlist Lamont as his partner (unsuccessfully). There is a lot more to say about his character and the orientalism in this film but I feel like that deserves a post of its own one day.
And here is Pacino nearly unrecognisable as Big Boy Caprice.
There is so much more I could say about these two films but I’m still pretty exhausted after trying to catch up with work for uni so all I will add is, grab your popcorn (or movie snack of choice) and find yourself copies of these films if you feel like a double feature night!
Oh, and any other fans out there (of either film)?