March 28, 1990 12:00 PM

A Cop With a Ka-Pow Palette

To bring Dick Tracy to the screen, Beatty tells his crew to forget the rules

If teenagers start dyeing their sweats gaudy shades of red, yellow, blue and green this summer, blame Chester Gould. Those are the colors he inked onto America’s favorite crimebuster comic strip, and now those lurid hues are coming back in this summer’s most buzzed-about movie, Dick Tracy. “It’s not fancy and it’s not subtle,” says WARREN BEATTY, producer, director and star of the film. “I think what was most appealing to me is the straightforwardness of it. Since I was a kid, I’ve liked Dick Tracy.”

Gould’s strip was set in Depression-era Chicago, but Beatty wasn’t gunning for period authenticity. “I didn’t want it to look real,” he says. “I wanted it to look what I called superreal, instead of phony.” As with Batman last year, the movie was shot almost entirely on studio back lots. RICHARD SYLBERT, who like most postwar production designers had worked essentially on location in his 44-movie career, was rethinking set design to create “a city that was totally generic. We even changed all the cars,” he adds, “so they looked the same—except large for the bad guys and small for the good guys. If someone could say, ‘That’s a Ford,’ it would ruin the movie.”

More unusual was Beatty’s decision to render all costumes and sets in Gould’s limited comic-strip palette. Tracy wears yellow, the movie’s symbol of light and justice. Breathless Ma-honey, the seductress played by MADONNA (who sings tunes by STEPHEN SONDHEIM), slinks on in black and silver. And the heavy, AL PACINO’S Big Boy Caprice, is tailored in diabolical red. “Instead of harmonizing colors, we put primary colors side by side to create conflict,” says cinematographer VITTORIO STORARO, a three-time Oscar winner. “We were going totally against everything we’ve been taught.”

Beatty had wanted to shoot in wide-screen Panavision but ruled that out, says Sylbert, after watching some recent Panavision films on videocassette. “Warren said, ‘I ain’t doing it. I don’t want half the movie to be off the screen,’ ” Sylbert relates. “So we used ordinary lenses.” Little wonder. Cassettes raked in $8 billion in ’89, compared with $5 billion for movie houses. “We’re doing Dick Tracy for what Warren considers the world of the future, and he’s right,” Sylbert remarks. “As he said, ‘We’ll all be on fast forward before long.’ ”

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