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Chances are that if you know who Breathless Mahoney is, it's because you watched the iconic rendition of the character by none other than Madonna in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. Or because she only popped up in the comic strip from 1945 to 1946 and then never again. This is a short-lived, minor character who made a comeback in a big way only to fade once more into obscurity after the credits rolled.
In the film, Mahoney was a tragic seductress driven to ruin by her desire for Dick Tracy. In the comic, she was a cold-blooded killer with very little interest in Tracy and who straight-up murders a guy with garden shears to the back at one point, despite it being 1945 when that kind of thing was absolutely not legal. In either incarnation, one thing is for sure: crime absolutely does not pay for our girl Breathless, but she still tries to make a go of it against all odds, and that is the kind of determination we respect.
Into the Tracyverse
The Chester Gould-era Dick Tracy comic strip introduced several truly bizarre villains, each of them with a defining physical characteristic that inspired their monikers. Of course, nicknames based on physical traits are incredibly rude, but these are the choices that were made in the '40s and we can't do anything about it now. In the Tracyverse, Flattop has a flat head, Mumbles... well, mumbles, and The Blank has no face. Meanwhile, Breathless Mahoney's name and appearance bring to mind any number of femme fatales from the noir films that were, alongside the Dick Tracy comic strip, enjoying massive success in the post-WWII era.
Breathless' family relations in the strip are surprisingly complex. Her mother Elia married the con man Shaky, who died suspiciously quickly and left her scrambling to find his cash stash. Let's face it, you should definitely get paid for marrying a con artist named Shaky, so this is all fine and good. However, when Breathless finds and returns the money and Elia chooses to give her a smaller cut than initially agreed upon, it leads to a falling out. Breathless is ultimately shot by Elia while fleeing with the dough, which she survives. Eventually, Elia dies violently due to her own evil schemes, as most Dick Tracy villains do — including Breathless, of course.
Her time in the strip mostly revolved around her running from the law with Shaky's money, which leads to a series of chaotic accidents, murders, and even her own near-death at the hands of B.O. Plenty. She ultimately dies in prison from a painful but unspecified disease after offering one final act of contrition, forgiving B.O. for his violent attack on her before going off into the netherworld.
Later in the strip, after creator Gould's death, a handful of Breathless' other relatives appear, including Heartless Mahoney and the teen antihero Restless Mahoney, both of whom look and act a heck of a lot like Breathless.
Into the Beattyverse
In the movie version of Dick Tracy, Breathless is a nightclub singer and gangster moll who watches her benefactor get encased in a block of cement in the first 20 minutes of the film. The intolerable Big Boy Caprice (played by none other than Al Pacino) immediately begins referring to her as his property and throws her around like a ragdoll for most of their shared time onscreen. Breathless doesn't outwardly react to his violent actions except to call him out for hurting the hands of a skilled piano player, at which time he makes it clear that he'd be just as willing to do the same to her face.
Breathless, however, is kind of the best. Even if she plays it cool, she's mentally scheming to get away from the brutal Caprice while also hoping to overthrow the patriarchal criminal element, which is exactly the kind of story we do like. She takes on the persona of "The Blank" and helps Dick Tracy shut down the criminal element of the city while intending to step into the role of head mob boss as soon as her competition is eliminated. Of course, this goes horribly awry, but she does have a semi-heroic arc in that she eventually dies helping Tracy. They share a final kiss, and he goes on to propose to his longtime girlfriend Tess. It's a happy ending for two out of three people, and two out of three... ain't bad.
Into The Breathlessverse
Breathless is one of the few unrepentant female villains of comics, and though that did change a bit for the film, she was still pretty rad in her on-screen depiction. Madonna's songs help to carry some of the slower moments of the film, and she plays the role with all the gusto of someone who truly loves the 1940s aesthetic.
We can't say that Breathless deserves better (she commits many murders) and we can't exactly call her a feminist (mostly because of all the murders she commits), but most of the people she kills are terrible human beings so we still like her a lot. Every Mahoney appearance to date has been nothing if not a roller coaster ride, so if Dick Tracy does make a comeback anytime soon, we hope she does, too.