Warren Beatty is perhaps the least prolific Hollywood legend. He’s only acted in 23 films. He’s an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, too, but he’s only directed five films. One of them is 1990’s Dick Tracy, in which he turned Chester Gould’s comics crime fighter into a colorful, over-the-top, and delightful hit. In 2010, the famously reclusive actor came out of hiding to improbably play him again, in an absolutely surreal video where film critic Leonard Maltin interviewed him in character, as a much older man. Now he’s done it again.
On Friday night, Turner Classic Movies scheduled two Dick Tracy films from the 1940s starring Morgan Conway, plus a serial in which Ralph Byrd squares off against Boris Karloff. But there was another, more curious item slipped into the lineup: something called “Dick Tracy Special: Tracy Zooms In.”
The half-hour special found Maltin and TCM presenter Ben Mankiewicz sitting down for a Zoom chat with Beatty as the yellow trenchcoated detective. It starts with a nervous/confused Mankiewicz reviewing the last time Beatty did this, which was already strange. (To make it odder still, Beatty also directed it, meaning it was his follow-up to 1998’s Bulworth.) Then Maltin joined him for a Zoom chat with Beatty’s Tracy.
What did they talk about? Technology, for one thing. “We’re all technocrats now,” Beatty’s Tracy said, lamenting that his once-cutting edge wristwatch radio is now very obsolete.
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The majority of the interview, though, found Beatty’s Tracy trashing Beatty, which whom he said he had a falling out. He also tears into the film he made some 33 years back. Using copious clips, he derides the film for being unrealistic, from the part where our hero coldcocks seven baddies at once to the gorgeous but deliberately artificial matte paintings to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s Oscar-nominated cinematography, which bathes the crime-ridden city in candy colors. (“A pink street?” Beatty’s now-much-older Tracy rails about one of the lighting gambits.) At one point he gets composer Stephen Sondheim’s name wrong.
Keep in mind that the Beatty Dick Tracy speaking to Maltin and Mankiewicz is once again the “real” Dick Tracy, even though he’s played by and looks exactly like Warren Beatty. Maltin and Mankiewicz look perplexed and a little lost as Beatty stammers and rambles, eventually turning the whole affair into a personal exorcism about his career and his placement in an industry he hasn’t commanded in a very long time.
Eventually they’re joined by…the real Beatty, who Beatty’s Tracy verbally accosts. He eventually begs Beatty to do a reboot, either with a younger actor in the lead or with Beatty as an old Tracy. (Beatty is now 85.) He wonders, though, if movies were the way to go. “Maybe it’s better as a series,” Beatty’s Tracy ponders. “That’s how we started in 1931 in the funny papers.)
Why would Beatty — who again hasn’t made a film since 2016’s underrated Rules Don’t Apply and whose most famous public appearance was when he helped briefly derail the Oscars the following year — make this? It could have to do with the fact that he still owns the rights to Dick Tracy, which he seems to want to retain. As long as he does something every decade-plus, they’ll continue to be his. Or maybe he’s teasing his sixth film, which both Beatty’s say could be called Dick Tracy Returns.
In the meantime, the 1990 Dick Tracy is available to rent online, as is the one that nabbed him his Oscar, 1981’s masterpiece Reds. And you can watch his latest work in the video above.