DICK TRACY

Warren Beatty, Madonna, Al Pacino. Directed by Beatty. 1990. PG. (Buena Vista tape, 105 min., Hi-Fi stereo, DS, $92.95)

Beatty's "Dick Tracy" was meant to be a blockbuster, one of those big movies that really have only one function: gross $200 million or die trying. At least that's what the Disney studio thought. And what star and director Beatty said he thought. But Beatty, that sly, elusive, curiously gifted man, had an agenda that was certainly hidden from Disney and may have been at least partially hidden from himself. That was to produce an expensive, popular entertainment that was also, of all things, an experimental movie.

It never quite made blockbuster status, financially speaking -- and, at least on the big theatrical screen, his experiment didn't quite work out, either. It is only now, projecting the video edition of "Dick Tracy" on the less spacious television screen, that we can see (and appreciate) Beatty's work in its proper perspective.

The thesis Beatty was testing is this: Can sheer style -- carefully calculated, meticulously executed -- grasp and hold our attention for the length of a movie particularly when the limits of that style preclude narrative complexity and richness of character, the very elements on which movies usually depend to sustain our interests?

Many movies are condemned for being mere "comic strips" -- weightless, fast-moving, two dimensional, easy to absorb. But no non-animated films have gone to the lengths that Beatty, his production designer (Richard Sylbert) and his director of photography (Vittorio Storaro) did in finding the cinematic equivalents of the Sunday comic strip.

This was more than a matter of bold colors flatly applied (the primaries plus black and white for sympathetic characters; the secondaries, iridescently toned, for villians), for Storaro used diffusions filters to impart a slight blurriness to his images -- the equivalent of off-register printing.

Better still, Beatty has duplicated the way comics frame their subjects (very geometrically, without much depth of field) and wittily adapted their conventions of visual placing (you can't do tracking shots in a static visual medium, but you can wake up the eye with radical changes of angle, alternating extreme wide shots with tight close-ups, or by going to very high or very low points of view).

Wowed as I was by the care and invention that went into creating the look of "Dick Tracy," I also grew restive with it in the theater. The movie's manner could only carry a very straightforward story: square, stalwart detective vs. comically evil crimelord (nicely overplayed by Al Pacino); emotionally inarticulate hero caught between good girl Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) and handsomely endowed bad girl Breathless Mahoney (Madonna, who gets to sing Stephen Sondheim's superb songs) -- and caught as well in a conflict over whether to adopt an orphan, Kid (Charlie Korsmo, who gives the movie's most consistently lively performance). These are archetypal situations, involving archetypal characters, and one was never in any suspense about how they would develop. Sure enough, they turned out as they always have and always will in pop fiction.

Worse, the impersonation of the secondary villains Chester Gould developed for his comic strip -- Flattop, Prune Face and the rest -- stopped with their makeup, with the actors never given anything to do that would match the outlandishness of their appearances. They are, however, worth a second glance on the home screen, which closer in dimensions to their comic page home.

The smaller scale of "Dick Tracy" on video does not ask more of the characters than they can give, and suddenly they seem quicker, funnier, less strained than they did previously. They grab furiously at our attention and then hold it comfortably, without diminishing our original admiration for the compulsively controlled stylishness Beatty and his colleagues worked out for their presentation.

VIDEO REVIEW MAGAZINE

THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP