Hit Me with Your Best Shot returns from hiatus with one of the best and hardest assignments Nathaniel has ever given us: 1990’s Dick Tracy, directed by Warren Beatty and shot by Vittorio Storaro, with costumes by Milena Canonero and production design by Richard Sylbert. And I name all four of those people because they are, between them, the heart and soul of what makes this film all that it is, namely the most comic-ey of all movies yet made. In its colors, its lines, and its compositions, (and in its performances and writing, for that matter), the animating principal behind the movie was to make something that looked as much like a comic strip as it possibly could.
When a film’s visual style is so unmistakable, it’s easy to know what approach to take to picking a best shot: what image most successfully evokes Chester Gould’s Depression-era action comic? And then, it becomes stupefyingly hard to actually find that one single shot, because Dick Tracy is pretty close to entirely perfect. There are only images that look like they were ripped directly from the garish four-color Sunday funnies. It’s nice that there’s no such thing as a wrong choice, but it makes it damn hard to come up with the right choice.
After a hell of a lot of thinking, anyway, I ended up with this one:
There’s a hint of perversity in selecting a shot from a movie with such distinctive and luscious costumes that doesn’t show off those costumes even slightly. But it has everything else I wanted. The bright cherry red bricks shading into black is a perfect example of getting everything from just one color and smart lighting, capturing the careful shading of a top-notch comic artist with a level of texture and boldness of saturation that would defeat newspaper printing. The silhouettes and the half-seen violence are a nod to German Expressionism, the style that directly influenced Gould’s carnival of grotesque human forms, and to Expressionism’s American kid, film noir, the style to which so many urban-set crime pictures have owed their everything, with Dick Tracy in particular borrowing extensively from the vocabulary of thick shadows and damp corrosion that make up noir.
But what really appeals to me about this image is none of that, not even the minute echo of red in the hat of the gangster about to be pushed through the window. It’s the cracked glass. There’s something that feels so perfectly, iconically comic-strip about that cracked glass – it’s exactly the kind of small detail that makes great graphic storytelling, suggesting violence, momentum, tensed-up energy. And of course, seconds after this still, that gangster comes plowing through the glass, so that violence and tension are hardly accidental. But let’s not skip ahead – in this one moment, the shape of the bodies and the lines in the glass provide all the illusion of force and movement that we need. I can’t with a straight face call it “the best” evocation of comic art in the movie. But it’s one that gives me a hell of a lot of pleasure.