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but essentially unremarkable, like most ofthe film‘s cops. who simply look like film cops. And at the t0p of the ladder come the film’s three leads. all inhabiting unequivocally, reassurineg human form: good girl Tess Trueheart (Glenn Headly); vamp Breathless (Madonna); and in yellow coat and fedora. Beatty‘s hero. King of the City. to whom all roads finally lead.
The several stages of humaness work in slightly different ways. The pure grotesques establish the cartoon terms of reference ofthe film. but perversely take its logic further away from. rather than closer to. the world of Chester Gould’s strip. In the original drawings caricature works to create an effect of heightened distorted realism rather than a copy ofthe real. A Gould grotesque like Prune Face is a stylised impression ofa shrivelled face, not a literal depiction of monstrosity — Gould was drawing attention not to a physical deformity but to his own style. But by recreating Prune Face as a mummified pile of weeping latex. the film‘s make-up wizards miss the point entirely. and create jarring abnormalities of a type not present in the strip.
This nevertheless works to Beatty’s advantage — it evokes Tracy's normality by contrast. In the strip. Tracy‘s hatchet profile was every bit as stylised as the villains‘ — and originally. it seems. Beatty did experiment with make-up. But in the event. the effect of the uglies is to draw attention to Beatty‘s features being excessively normal. the very measure of beauty. Even the film‘s logo presses this point supplanting the familiar Tracy profile with Beatty’s own. essentially anonymous. but still recognisable. Beatty‘s ordinary profile becomes extraordinary. even mythical. by association with Tracy‘s famous hatchet face. Which is no small feat of vanity on Beatty‘s part.
In the case of Pacino and Hoffman. their‘s is the Method Body. still recognisable. but physically. facially. vocally contorted out of shape — their normal stock in trade. after all. Excessive acting and disguise have always been the keynotes of their Method style. so even their transformation here allows them to ‘be themselves‘ — to excess. Method and prosthetics have always gone together. from Olivier‘s Richard III. to Brando‘s Godfather with his gobful oforange peel. to Streep‘s wig in A Cry in the Dark. Our heroes are recognisable themselves. but other — a trick Hoffman has always favoured. from his wizened Little Big Man to Tootsie. a transformation almost as much documented as Dick Tracy.
All these grotesques emphasise the presence of the three perfectly formed leads. But between them. there are major differences. Tess (played by the still little known Headly) is a cypher ofa Regular Gal. whose essentially sensible. monotone wardrobe and neutral make-up style make her a zero degree of beauty. whose main function is to offset the film‘s real romantic duo. With Breathless Mahoney. what‘s important is that Madonna is bringing her image to it — Breathless isn‘t so much a character. but simply the latest incarnation of the Ciccone image. Breathless is a dimensionsless vamp. because Madonna has always been a 2D figure. a remakable fleshless sex symbol. Basing herselfon a succession ofscreen goddesses (here. Jean Harlow) she‘s always used her borrowed images to prosthetic effect. as additions to her body. to her acting syle. to her repertory. Madonna's whole-hearted adoption of a role makes her as much a Method player as Hoffman and Pacino. but even more so. because where their role playing supposedly hides a substance — pure “will
to act’ — Madonna‘s power to transform makes her into pure surface. a blank screen. Here. she is a silver screen. backlit in a succession of lunar platinum-blonde images to be as imperishable and unreal as the screen stars who provide her body.
Madonna‘s costume changes make Breathless less a character than a succession of stills. That distinguishes her from the final. unchanging image of morality. Beatty's Tracy. Beatty plays the cop as a man about whom there is really nothing to say. and who has nothing to say either (except his mantra ‘I‘m on my way'). and nothing much to do but be the Soul of Integrity. He always looks the same — Yellow Coat. Yellow Hat — and always is the same. That's all that distinguishes him. and that's all that needs to distinguish him. By virtue purely of his difference from the ugliness and the changefulness that surround him. Tracy is the universal measure of solidity. of stability. of beauty. And the fact that's he‘s also the director, the writer. the producer. means that by analogy. Warren Beatty is too.
In short. the structure of the entire film is set up to reinforce the basic point that Warren Beatty is a god in human form. without his actually having to act or be very interesting. Why would he want to do this? And why use so much latex to do it? The answer lies in the more usual role of prosthetic make-up in the movies. The technique is more commonly associated with horror. and particularly with body horror — the cycle ofhorror films which graphically dramatise a complex of contemporary fears about the body. and more generally the subject. A common theory identifies body horror with current fears of cancer and AIDS in particular. fragmentation and decay more generally. In this genre. prosthetics. the science of addition. is turned on its head to become a technique of subtraction — most notable in David Cronenberg‘s The Fly. where Jeff Goldblum‘s body sprouts excrescences only as a prelude to falling to pieces. More generally. body horror masks an anxiety about the fragmentation ofthe self— what post-mod theorists apocalyptically call the Death ofthe Subject — dramatised in body invasion films like John Carpenter's remake of The Thing. Prosthetic addition assumes there‘s something within. an essential body that‘s there to be supplemented; but body horror suggests that perhaps there‘s really nothing within. except more decay — a deficiency. as the dictionary says. a void. And it‘s notable that the ultimate villain in Dick Tracy is a faceless shadow figure known as The Blank — as essential a mirror-image counterpart to Beatty‘s Tracy as the Joker was to Batman.
It‘s this sense of void that Beatty is trying to fill in Dick Tracy. using latex uglines to the most reassuring effect possible. For all its spurious status as Public Event. Dick Tracy is ultimately a film abut one man‘s self-anxiety — a last ditch attempt to immortalise himself (after the ﬂop of Ishtar) as Wellesian visionary director. as square-jawed matinee idol. as unperishable icon. Made by a man aware of his advancing years and fadingjuvenile-lead looks. Dick Tracy is not a film about ageing gracefully. It is. in all its ramifications. a prosthesis for Warren Beatty‘s Cgo. By way ofillustration: to accompany the
release of the film. £20,000 worth of life—size cardboard cut-outs of Warren Beatty were sent
out to cinemas. At the last minute. so the story goes Beatty personally had them withdrawn. They
were three inches too short.
Dick Tracy (PG) goes on wit/e lease from
Friday 20 July. Sec Film listings forﬁtrther details.