The Untouchables (1987)
Director: Brian De Palma
Barrels of Technicolor blood. Limitless rounds of ammunition. The melodramatic and the absurd. Innocence and clear-eyed reality. All these things run together in the universe that is Brian De Palma’s version of the late 50s TV show, The Untouchables. The violence is graphic, sometimes cartoonishly so, as it always is in a Brian De Palma film—his obvious affection for Italian cinema, especially that of the Giallo genre, bleeds through, gloriously staining his entire visual approach—but it is also operatic and lavish and weirdly seductive, an over-the-top rendition of Prohibition-era America that lives in the other-reality that is the Hollywood Movie. De Palma is clearly swinging for the fences here; he wants to create a film that is larger than life. He is aiming at mythos rather than any sort of historical accuracy (there are plenty of inaccuracies in this film), the myth of not just the gangster in America, but good and evil writ large. It is beautiful and repulsive all at once.
As a gangster film, more specifically a modern gangster film, The Untouchables is certainly different. The film does not focus on the mob life, the trappings of family obligations, of traditions. It does not track the history of any one clan. More to the point, it does not feel like any of the Godfather films, or Goodfellas (1990), or Casino (1995) or even Once Upon A Time in America (1984), which tackles the same era. The Untouchables is cut from the same cloth of the gangster films of the 30s and 40s, and it that respect, it falls more readily in line with the TV show upon which it is partially based. It is a crime film, mixed with adventure elements. And possibly because of this, it is hardly mentioned as a film of merit in this genre when compared to the Godfathers and Goodfellas, which is too bad. Quite possibly, this is one of my favorite films of this particular sub-genre because it feels like such an interesting departure. There are scenes that I never grow tired of, dialogue that still crackles as much as it as it did when I first saw this movie in the theaters.
The Untouchables opens with a roar: Al Capone (Robert De Niro) flippantly declaring to the press that “there is violence in Chicago, but not by me and not by anyone I employee”, juxtaposed with a scene of a little girl and other patrons of a drugstore killed by a bomb meant to send a message to other businesses. We are then introduced to government agent, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) sent to Chicago to lead the clean-up illegal alcohol activity and its subsequent turf warfare. Ness is clean-cut and wide-eyed; his notions of right and wrong are steadfast, unwavering. He wants to “do some good”, but learns quickly that things are not what they seem, and that even those in the police force may not be trustworthy. Chicago is corrupt from the bottom up, and his mission may be simply be a fool’s errand.
We soon meet the “poor beat-cop” Jimmy Malone, wonderfully played by Sean Connery. Connery’s Malone has seen it all, and had may have once been as clear-eyed and optimistic as Ness, but after years as a cop in Chicago knows the real score, and this is when Ness’ real training in the “Chicago Way” begins.
The rookie cop, George Stone, played by Andy Garcia and the bumbling accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), round out the “Untouchables” and their war against Capone and Chicago corruption is soon underway. No scene is wasted, nothing feels frivolous or belabored, and every frame furthers the steamrolling plot. De Palma deftly cuts together scene after scene, trying to one-up himself as he races toward the finale of the film. The war becomes bloodier and tragedy unfolds at every corner. Even with hyperbolae of some of the situations, De Palma is able to deliver much weight to the deaths of blank and Malone, partly because Mamet has written such likeable characters, but also because their deaths are so horrible particularly that of Malone, which De Palma juxtaposes with the Capone’s attendance of the opera, Pagliacci.
Then there is the infamous train station sequence, the centerpiece and first climax of the film, a stark, blatant homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps Sequence from his groundbreaking film Battleship Potemkin (1925). Quentin Tarantino may receive plenty of flak for exceeding simple homage, but certainly Brian De Palma is guilty of the same thing with this particular sequence (as well as his take on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) which became Blow Out (1981) and Dressed to Kill (1980) which is seedy mix of the Giallo genre and Hitchcock films). It’s difficult to say how far is too far when it comes to artistic lifting such as this, but the scene is utterly breathtaking. De Palma is a master of pacing and the train sequence shows this quality in spades.
By the end of the film, Ness is forced to do the one thing that he has railed against. It seems the De Palma is tellling us Ness’ brutal killing of Frank Nitti (Billy Drago), is not only necessary, it is also cathartic. Nitti gets his in the end because he is evil and that is the way a just universe should work, but at what price? By this point, Ness doesn’t seem bothered by killing his enemy as he did previously; violence begets violence, the “Chicago Way” plays itself out.
True, much of the The Untouchables is surface and no substance. De Palma is clearly in love with the clothes and the architecture of the period; there are extreme worm’s-eye-views of the interiors of court buildings, of churches, he relishes shots of mobsters decked out in period-inspired Armani suits. And De Palma does not delve too far into the true motivation of any of the characters. De Niro’s Capone is cartoonish and all flash compared to his nuanced, sometimes tender turn as the young Vito Corleone. De Palma is almost fetishistic about the violence of the film, lingering on shots of blood spreading slowly outwards in all directions, the spray of bullets choreographed in slow motion. Clearly, subtly is not what De Palma is striving for in The Untouchables. It is all blood and thunder. That’s what makes it so thrilling. That’s what makes it endlessly watchable.
And if it is De Palma’s measured vision that makes the film endlessly watchable, then it is David Mamet’s screenplay that makes it endlessly quotable. “You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word”, “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the “Chicago” way! And that’s how you get Capone”. Although the script lacks much of Mamet’s signature cadence, his character development and deep psychological interspection, you can still you can hear the odd juxtaposition of language that he his is know for (especially in the latter “That’s the Chicago way” speech). There has been much made about De Palma ‘s and producer Art Linson pulling apart of Mamet’s original script, so it is hard to say what exactly remained in tact, and how much of Mamet’s story was altered (much of the train sequence was De Palma’s idea), but it is hard to dispute the sheer excitement of the hearing dialogue delivered; it staggers and pitches, deploying period slang as readily as a gangster unloads his weapon.
Of course, the third part of the holy trinity that came together to make The Untouchables, was without a doubt composer Ennio Morricone. Morricone produces one of his most memorable scores, and, in large part, is one of the driving forces of the film. From the opening theme, Morricone is setting the relentless pace of the rest of the film, mixing elements of pop, classical and period influences, he creates a score that doesn’t exactly represent the period in which it was set, but presents something that is boldly out of time, and arguably iconoclastic. You know a Morricone score when you hear one, and you know that you are watching The Untouchables with this particular score: the two are so inexorably intertwined with one another.
The Untouchables ends on a sober note to be sure: half of the squad dead, a trail of slain mobsters left behind, Ness thinking back upon the past events and remarking, “so much violence”. Of course this is more of a comment on the film itself rather than any real summary of the era; De Palma is utterly complicit in the filmic carnage, and in some ways might relish it. With The Untouchables he is out to create larger than life characters whose only recourse begins and ends with violence. De Palma wants to add a chapter to the myth, not record an historical document; even the truth in this case is almost too banal for a Hollywood movie.
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