Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: though comic books have been adapted over and over and over again, especially in the last 30 years, the spectacle of a whole film based on a newspaper comic strip is much rarer. It does well to remind ourselves that the unholy Marmaduke is no proof that the entire concept is beneath contempt.

The story of how in 1990, the Walt Disney Company released a candy-colored film version of the 49-year-old (at the time) newspaper detective comic Dick Tracy is a wildly difficult thing to follow along all the twists and turns it made on its languorous way through Development Hell. Let us merely content ourselves with the shortest version: there came a time when Warren Beatty, one of the most difficult movie stars of any era, had managed to win for himself the role that he'd been angling for since the 1970s, Chester Gould's famous square-jawed detective; he did this largely by acquiring the rights himself during a period in the mid-'80s when a major attempt to get the adaptation off the ground had crashed and burned. Being a control freak - by most accounts, a charming and genial control freak, but a control freak - Beatty ended up directing the movie himself, running almost comically far over budget as was his wont.

Disney, releasing the film through its Touchstone Pictures division, plainly saw Dick Tracy as their big film of the summer of 1990; it seems more than a little likely that they in fact meant for it to be their answer to the previous year's Batman, in fact. Those films share a good deal of DNA, it must be said, from the fact that both were based on graphic narratives dating from the '30s, to the eerily similar Danny Elfman scores, to the fact that ultimately, both films have been chiefly renowned ever since their release for the totality of the production design, which at times threatens to swamp every other aspect of the whole. And both showcased great '70s actors who had descended into self parody by the end of the '80s giving gleefully unhinged performances as the villain.

Dick Tracy, however, was absolutely not Batman, at least not financially. Though it had a mighty opening weekend - the third best of 1990 - and ended up in the year's box office top 10 with a bit of $100 million - a much more pleasing figure then than it sounds now, though still no world-shattering success - Beatty's labor of love didn't go far enough to recouping its bloated budget, nor the even more bloated marketing campaign which the studio lavished upon the film. "Lavished" might not even be a big enough word: more money was spent pushing the film than was spent making it in the first place, and though I was not so very old in the summer of '90, I clearly remember Dick Tracy being every damn where. This was Disney's great hope for a franchise-starter, and it exploded on the launch pad.

In retrospect, it's easy enough to see what happened: Warren Beatty. Simply put, despite the fact that two of the four movies he directed were nominated for Best Picture Oscars, despite his status as one of the most beloved movie stars of his generation, Beatty simply was not a populist filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination; it just looked like he was because of the subject matter he chose. At heart, Beatty was too much of a formalist to knock out the kind of movies that make huge piles of money - and look, I'm not going to position myself as one of those Beatty defenders. None of his directorial projects meets my definition of a masterpiece, and I think it's true across the board that Beatty's ideas outstripped his talent behind the camera. But still, it's clear from even a cursory look at his work - including 1978's Heaven Can Wait, co-directed with Buck Henry, 1981's Reds, and 1998's Bulworth - that his interests lie rather in noodling around with how a movie functions, rather than telling a tight, clear story. Not all of Beatty's noodling works, nor is it always very compelling. Still, you can tell that he put a lot of thought into what he was doing, too much thought for what amounted to multi-million dollar experiments in film grammar that would never capture the public imagination like some of the big hits with which it rubbed shoulders.

The notion behind Dick Tracy couldn't be simpler: make a film that captures both the visual appearance and narrative style of the classic pulp comic strip. This famously resulted in the movie's legendary costume design by Milena Canonero and Oscar-winning production design by Richard Sylbert, a mixture of deliberately under-detailed elements and brassy, bold colors: six of them to be exact. Virtually every single object in the film besides human flesh and matte paintings comes in one or more of the following: red, yellow, green, purple, blue, orange (plus good old black and white, of course) - and not just those colors, but the most hot, glowing versions of possible. In short, the film draws its palette from the four-color printing of the Dick Tracy Sunday strips of the '30s, and in the process creates what is without doubt one of the most visually distinctive films of the modern studio era, a hypnotic exercise in color for color's sake that, as filmed by the excellent Vittorio Storaro i n what had to be one of the most challenging jobs in his whole career, comes as close as any movie ever has to recapturing the glorious oversaturation of the 3-strip Technicolor process.

Focusing merely on the film's use of color, as many people are content to do, is understandable, but even then you're missing a great deal of what Beatty and his collaborators were getting at with this film's precise, grandly unnatural look: to recreate not just the sense of the comic, but the very lines and textures of the thing as well. Relative to other films from the same period, Dick Tracy suffers from sometimes dodgy process shots, and there's also a peculiar "flatness" to the images; even when they clearly possess depth, neither Beatty nor Storaro makes any use of that depth whatsoever. Of course, Dick Tracy the strip was noted for its extremely stylised imagery, which cribbed from the Expressionism-influenced Warner gangster pictures of the era, and always favored the drama of a single plane of lines and shadows over the illusion of space. Beatty's film simply follows this to the letter, creating a film that looks incredibly artificial and two-dimensional.

Thus far, I've said only what everybody already knows about the film. Typically, this is about the point at which the reviewer, whether in 1990 or any of the years since, shakes their head and notes, "if only the script were as good as the visuals," which is a very reasonable thing to say, given how widely it misses the mark. The common complaints are that Dick Tracy suffers from insufficiently motivated characters, from arbitrary plot developments, and from dialogue that tries too archly to re-create the patois of a 1930s gangster movie. All of these points, I will concede, but only if instead of "problems" we can agree to call them "deliberate and necessary artistic choices". The thing is, and I don't know if you've read any Dick Tracy strips lately, but the film does a wonderful job of recreating exactly those things about the comic that make it precisely the thing that it was and is and has been for most of its history. Dick Tracy, let's not forget, isn't a comic book; it doesn't develop story over time. It develops story in three-panel bursts, that have to be communicated as quickly as possible, which leads to things like the series' noted grotesque villains with obvious physical deformities and punny names; it leads also to a narrative that putters along for a bit telling one story, and then abruptly jerks into another story that follows hard upon the first, with neither any real elegance nor fanfare. For the print Dick Tracy, like the film, is chiefly a visual affair, and the plots exist largely to facilitate the creation of dramatic moments and violent outbursts. This has the great benefit of meaning that the film is never without incident (an incident has to happen every third "panel", or the readers drift away, you know), while having the potential demerit of costing the film a great deal of coherence and psychological clarity.

One could argue that Beatty was making a movie, not a comic strip, and therefore had to follow the rules of movie-making; but as I've said, I think that Dick Tracy is above all things else a grand formal experiment in seeing what happens when cinema is forced into the visual and narrative limitations of an extremely different art form. A similar thing happened 13 years later when Ang Lee directed his Hulk, with the key difference that Lee admitted to having little practical knowledge, and less affection, of the comic book medium, while Beatty self-evidently adored the Dick Tracy strip, enough to sacrifice tens of millions of dollars on realising it as closely as possible in every detail. As a result, he made what might well be a failed narrative, but it's a surpassingly interesting failure.

At any rate, the parts of the film that hew the closest to the model are truly amazing: starting with Beatty's performance, all unmotivated morality and over-the-top decency, as well as Al Pacino's magnificent work as the villain Big Boy Caprice, a tremendously hammy turn that completely understands every inch of what Dick Tracy the film is trying to do. Pacino's Big Boy is not in the remotest sense human; he's not even in the same film as the rest of the characters. He is an outlandish grotesquerie of muttering and terrifying crazy eyes, and a constant hunched back, and that's exactly the kind of borderline-surreal craziness that the movie wants to make its bread and butter.

Then, too, the filmmakers' understanding of the comic strip's debt to '30s gangster cinema reveals itself in a number of well-executed references to the Warner house style of that period, without specifically quoting any one movie; and even more impressive is the way that this is done while fully embodying the non-reality of the comic strip's mise en scène. Taking one essentially random example, the film's fight scenes, which take place in an undefinable lack of space and are carefully manipulated in the editing to give the action the Expressionist edge of the strip; yet the camerawork and angles are altogether familiar from a '30s movie serial. Even the often-derided Stephen Sondheim songs, performed by Madonna (and I happen to love both the songs and the performance; "More" in particular is as good as most of what he'd do in the decade to come) fit in with the '30s vocabulary that Beatty and company embrace; for in the '30s, the golden age of the film musical, just about everything from romantic comedy to gangster movie to historical epic found the space for a couple of song and dance numbers.

The film works so much on the level its trying to work at that I'd be tempted to call it an underrated masterpiece; except that there are certain elements of the film that just don't fit, and tend to knock the "masterpiece" right off the film. It's underrated, but no more. Most of the performances besides Beatty's and Pacino's simply don't hit the right note, for a start - one of the best exceptions being, perhaps surprisingly, Glenne Headly as Tracy's girlfriend, Tess Trueheart - whether it's Madonna's chronic inability to act, displayed in so many places in the early '90s, or the tendency of most of the featured villains to allow their elaborate make-up to do most of the acting for them. It's also hard to use the "comic strip narrative arc" theory to excuse the desperate degree to which the film unravels in the last thirty minutes; and Danny Elfman's score is almost a complete washout, replicating much of the feeling of Batman in contexts where that just doesn't work.

Even conceding all that - and conceding that Beatty's ideas as a director frequently outstrip his ability to use the camera - Dick Tracy is still one of my favorite early-'90s tentpoles. It is so deliberately, carefully shallow, so conceptually audacious; and yes, so unearthly beautiful in every last frame. There just aren't many films like this one, and while I wouldn't ever ask for that to change (what is bracing and original in tiny doses would seem clumsy and awful and dysfunctional if we got a new Dick Tracy every week), I will never cease to enjoy the ambition of this film, which I'd be happy to call the best of Beatty's directorial career, and frankly a much better movie than the money-hungry Disney machine of 1990 deserved.