Looking back on the Oscar-winning designs of 'Dick Tracy' 25 years later

Posted by · 8:00 pm · June 14th, 2015

Long before the comic book boom of the 21st Century, Hollywood's handling of heroes drawn from the funny pages was a touch and go enterprise. More at home in the serials era of the 40s and 50s, that iconography leaked out onto the big screen in only drips and drabs, a “Superman” here, a “Batman” there. And indeed, a year after Tim Burton brought the latter to unique Gothic heights in 1989, Warren Beatty brought another flesh and blood crime fighter to the big screen with bold expressionistic strokes.

Today, “Dick Tracy” stands out as a hand-crafted wonder. Beatty's team was jammed with talent, and it needed to be, for this was an exercise in placing the viewer in a world only slightly familiar. Its extremes – and there were many – were a direct extension of design techniques and flourishes. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Makeup in the design realm. It won for art direction and makeup (along with Best Original Song), and it's easy to see why.

Now, 25 years later, makeup designer John Caglione Jr. can only perceive it as a dream job. His and partner Doug Drexler's efforts were, like all design efforts on the film, derived from the original drawings of creator Chester Gould. “That was kind of my Bible, to just interpret those beautiful drawings of Pruneface and Flattop,” he says, calling from New York where he's currently working on the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sequel. “My job was to try to fit it into a world where, you know, Flattop could stand next to Warren and not look like a cartoon character from Disneyland. It was kind of like a half a turn of the screw into fantasy.”

Keeping an eye on that flirtation with reality was really the entire dance of the project. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, by then already a three-time Oscar winner for films like “Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Emperor” and Beatty's own “Reds,” says he took inspiration from post-expressionist painters like Otto Dix, George Grosz and Conrad Felix Mueller, whose imagery felt touched by the extremes of the expressionist era, yet clawed their way into the light of realism. But that was just one aesthetic nuance. The project on the whole, he says, needed to have a generally expressionist vision. And he had a bold concept in mind.

“My idea was we should use primary colors that were completely against another primary color,” he says, calling from his home in Rome. “We didn't need any subtly, any penumbra. We needed something very straight. So red had to be against cyan. Magenta had to be against green. Yellow had to be against blue. We had to create a world where the color spectrum is divided.”

He first presented the idea in a meeting with Beatty, costume designer Milena Canonero (last year's Oscar winner for “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and production designer Dean Tavoularis, who was originally set to work on the film before being whisked away for longtime collaborator Francis Ford Coppola's “New York Stories” segment. And his colleagues loved it.

“The good side would be red, connected with The Kid, because it's the first color on the spectrum,” Storaro explains. “Orange would be the color of female, connected with Tess. And yellow could be connected with Dick Tracy. Yellow is the color of the sun, the one who is going to light the darkness. On the other side we have Fletcher, the judge, which is green – which is in the middle [of the spectrum]; sometimes he's on the good side, sometimes he's on the bad side. Blue had to be the opposite of the complimentary of Dick Tracy, which is 'Big Boy' Caprice. So when we put them together, they have to be the complete opposite. And Breathless had to belong at the end of the color spectrum. That was the principle idea.”

When you look at the film with this concept in mind, it leaps out at you. There are very few tonalities of color used even within that, making for a direct, uncluttered visual presentation of the broader themes of the film.

Meanwhile, back in the makeup chair, Caglione and company were hard at work in the pre-silicon era. It was a serendipitous arrangement for him, as the late Richard Sylbert – Beatty's production designer on “Reds” who took over when Tavoularis could not continue – was instrumental in getting the New York-based designer the gig. Caglione (who was also Oscar-nominated for “The Dark Knight”) had done special makeup effects on “The Cotton Club” and met Sylbert and Canonero on that project.

“So the first thing I did [on 'Dick Tracy'] was get with Richard and see what he was creating in that universe,” Caglione says. “And then I would try to fit into that world.”

While the Gould drawings were inspiration for all of the iconic villains – Little Face, Flattop, Mumbles, Pruneface, etc. – the character of “Big Boy” Caprice was a playground for invention. Caglione particularly notes actor Al Pacino's enthusiasm for getting under the makeup and using it to help him define the role.

“We made a whole bunch of generic pieces, for crowds and background villains and things,” Caglione says. “We had this stock of prosthetics. And when Al came on the picture, he just wanted to try them on. Part of Al's process is to play with makeup, which we've done many times. I mean, noses for 'Donnie Brasco' and Kevorkian [in 'You Don't Know Jack'] and 'Phil Spector,' all these others. By process of elimination we tried different possibilities that Al wanted to use to help him find his character.”

What they settled on in the end was a cross between Adolph Hitler and Groucho Marx. Pacino was always over his shoulder in the sculpting phase, a creative collaborator every step of the way. And Caglione has served as the actor's personal makeup artist ever since.

It goes without saying, of course, that the work would be fully dependent on the actors bringing it to life. And lucky for Caglione and his team, Warren Beatty had populated “Dick Tracy” with a wonderful assortment of character actors, from Dustin Hoffman and William Forsythe to Mandy Patinkin and Paul Sorvino.

“These guys are into it,” Caglione says. “I always looked at 'Dick Tracy' as like my 'Wizard of Oz,' where you have great character actors and hopefully decent character makeups designed for those faces, so much so that the screen credit I picked for 'Dick Tracy' was 'special character makeups by.' In 'The Wizard of Oz' it's 'character makeups by Jack Dawn.' So that was kind of a copycat thing that I always had in mind.”

The work Caglione, Sylbert, Storaro, Canonero and their departments put into “Dick Tracy” remains, to be perfectly honest, a bit undervalued. It came at a time when vibrant 90s aesthetics were beginning to pop in the last gasp of the 1980s, so perhaps in the perspective of some, there's something dated to the experience. But in truth – and even dabbling in visual cues drawn from the film noir era – it's quite timeless, specifically because of the simple visual approach Storaro presented, and the sui generis blend of foam rubber Caglione and company whipped up. A quarter century after it hit cinemas, and particularly when considered in a comic book movie framework that feels more and more like a same-y blur, it's nothing if not uniquely iconic. That alone deserves a raise of the glass.

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