Shiny handcuffs engraved with the Dick Tracy logo were recently sent to several dozen of the largest toy buyers in the world.

Things went slightly awry when Playmate Toys, which sent the keyless handcuffs as a promotional gimmick, received a frantic phone call from one of the buyers. "The guy called us and said he'd locked his wife to the refrigerator," said Diane Horton, director of marketing for Playmate Toys Inc., based in La Mirada, Calif. "I wonder if he was too embarrassed to tell us what he really locked her to."The local police eventually freed the woman from her predicament. But as far as Walt Disney Co. and its dozens of Dick Tracy licensees are concerned, nothing would be better than to handcuff the American public to the well-oiled Dick Tracy merchandising machine tied to the movie to be released in June.

In the good old days, Dick Tracy nabbed criminals. Now he is about to chase after the most elusive of all targets: the American consumer.

The Dick Tracy character probably won't sell as many T-shirts, hats or watches as Mickey Mouse, whose mug has appeared on literally billions of dollars worth of merchandise over the years. But Disney thinks that Dick Tracy is very bankable. He joins the growing list of comic-strip characters that have ballooned the character-licensing business in the past few years into an estimated $50 billion-plus annual industry worldwide.

"There are lots of us who missed out on Batman," said one top licensing executive whose company failed to board the Batman boat. "We don't want to miss out on this one."

Some skeptics, however, don't think that Tracy has a prayer of catching the jet-powered Batmobile. "The wheels are all in motion for Dick Tracy to be this year's Batman, but my gut feeling is that won't happen," said Larry Carlat, editor of Toy & Hobby World, the New York trade publication. "Sure, there's going to be a lot of interest. But I'm not sure, in the long run, how much kids will care about Warren Beatty and Madonna. I'd say they care more about Barbie and Nintendo."

Beyond that, there is a risk that all licensees face no matter which film they hitch their hopes to. "With any item tied to a movie, you're jumping on a roller coaster and you're going for a ride," said Gary Roop, whose electronics firm, Ertl Co., made Batman merchandise and is making several Dick Tracy-related items. "When the fad dies, it will come straight down."

But before the Batman fad finally began to fizzle after Christmas, experts estimated that Warner Bros. and its licensees already had pocketed more than $500 million in U.S. film revenues and product sales. Expectations already are running so high among many retailers that if Dick Tracy merchandise somehow falls short of matching Batmania, it could be considered a failure.

"We expect Dick Tracy will be even bigger than Batman," said Al Nilsen, director of marketing at Sega of America, which is making a video game based on the film. "Dick Tracy has broader appeal."

Almost across the board, licensees generally say the best name behind the promotion isn't Dick Tracy at all, but Disney. The name at once connotes quality, value and enchantment. "If you believe Disney knows how to promote movies," said Roop, senior vice president of marketing at Ertl, "you also know they can move merchandise."

What's more, Disney's time-tested marketing and merchandising formulas are still working. Disney's 1988 film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" has grossed more than $155 million in just the U.S. market. And experts estimate that licensed Roger Rabbit dolls, T-shirts and accessories posted an additional $20 million to $40 million in sales.

Each of the licensees must pay Disney somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent of the wholesale price of the items they make. That might not sound like much, but consider that the licensing division of Warner Bros. - Licensing Corp. of America - is said to have cleared more than $50 million in licensing royalties for Batman products.

Disney refused to comment on its merchandising plans for Dick Tracy.

But it is estimated by licensing experts that the company has already signed at least 65 licensees to make everything from Dick Tracy coffee mugs-on-wheels (modeled after cars used in the movie) to toy finger-printing kits for kids. The number of licensees could exceed 100 by the time the movie premieres.

The key, of course, is to stretch out consumer interest through the lucrative Christmas season. Analysts say that is one reason Disney, at least so far, has tried to keep the Dick Tracy hype to a minimum. It may be the movie of the summer, but retailers already are viewing it as the prize under the Christmas tree. Two weeks after one of the nation's biggest retailers supposedly "closed" entries to its 1990 Christmas catalogue, it reopened them to include additional Dick Tracy merchandise.

Certainly, the Dick Tracy character has come a long way since he first appeared in 1931 as a plain-clothes detective in a comic strip created by Chester Gould. The film, which stars Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy and Madonna as seductress Breathless Mahoney, won't be released until June 15.

But months ahead of that date, toy makers, apparel manufacturers and corporate sponsors are gearing up with blockbuster promotions. Analysts expect that Dick Tracy walkie-talkies and wristwatches may be among the hottest of the items. And McDonald's, Coca-Cola and even Quaker Oats are expected to introduce yet-to-be-announced corporate tie-ins to the film.

The R.H. Macy & Co. department store chain is so sold on Dick Tracy that by mid-March - nearly three months before the film premieres - it plans to open special Dick Tracy departments in many locations.

"We're hoping to become the Dick Tracy headquarters," said David Nutterfield, children's fashion director at Macy's of California, which operates 25 stores in Northern California. "We're planning on at least the same success that we had with Bat-man."