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

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.