The Villains of ''Dick Tracy'' -- We uncover how the evil-doers became magnificently misshapen mobsters

Even though they’re not the sort of mugs you’d want to meet in a dark alley, the ghoulish gangsters who populate Dick Tracy are almost lovable. After all, the succession of surrealistically drawn bad guys was always the hook that snagged readers for the Chester Gould comic strip in its heyday from the ’30s through the ’50s. And when director Warren Beatty decided to hew as closely as possible to the original look and feel of the funny-paper flatfoot, it fell to the wizardly makeup team of John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler to turn the two-dimensional terrors into vivid movie villains. ”We didn’t want to go too far out and make these characters cartoons,” Caglione says. Still, as they went about molding prosthetic noses and rubber chins, the duo couldn’t help but rank their creations on an ”Ugly Meter.” ”Pruneface, he’s a 9,” laughs Drexler, who shows on the following pages how he and Caglione brought Tracy‘s rogues to life.

Every Sunday Chester Gould would include a ”Rogues’ Gallery” in his Dick Tracy strip. Creating the look of each rogue for the movie was complicated, but here’s how Pruneface got all those wrinkles.

1 Caglione and Drexler originally suggested Ronald Reagan for the part of Pruneface. (”He’s an actor. He might have been looking for some work,” Caglione cracks.) Beatty instead chose R.G. Armstrong, a veteran character actor who had done bit parts in two of his earlier films, Heaven Can Wait and Reds.

2 Armstrong’s face was covered with a gelatinous material called alginate — which is similar to the stuff dentists use for impressions of teeth — to make a life mask. Then they sculpted Pruneface’s wrinkled puss over the life mask to form a second mold from which foam-latex facial parts, known as appliances, were cast.

3 Before each day’s shooting, the appliances were attached in several sections to the actor’s face. A makeup session could take three hours. ”I’d go to sleep,” Armstrong says.

4 Now in place, the naked latex was painted with makeup to simulate the look and texture of real skin. If Pruneface’s ruddy cheeks and liver spots look somehow presidential, it’s because the two artists never entirely abandoned their original inspiration.

5 The complete Pruneface — all dressed up and ready for action. ”When I saw what I looked like, it was one of my nightmares,” Armstrong says. ”We were like monsters walking around on the set. I felt like a real pruneface.”

Alfred Hitchcock once commented that actors should be treated like cattle. But makeup artists Caglione, 32, and Drexler, 37, would disagree. They treat actors more like clay. Working on Dick Tracy ”was a ball,” says Caglione. ”We were starving in New York and this job saved our careers.” Before Tracy, the duo’s most notable movie moment came when they made Glenn Close’s sliced wrists look frighteningly real in Fatal Attraction.

Recommended by costume designer Milena Canonero, with whom they had worked on The Cotton Club, the two were surprised by their first meeting with Beatty — not because he appeared in a towel dripping wet from a shower, but because instead of grilling them about their work, he began by soliciting their opinions of the script. ”It blew our minds,” Drexler says.

Since the screenplay didn’t include any physical descriptions of the mobsters — except their self-defining monikers such as the Rodent and the Brow — the team treated Gould’s original strips as their bible. Attests Caglione, ”We tried to stay very true to the original ideas that he had for his characters.” Drexler interrupts: ”We don’t even understand why these characters are as great as they are, but to fuss with them too much would have been insane.”

Dick Tracy
  • Movie
  • 103 minutes