Untouchables (1987) dir. Brian De Palma
Starring: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Andy Garcia
By 1987 Brian De Palma had established himself, first as an underground filmmaker in the early 70’s, then with a series of Hitchcock-inspired films in the late 70s/early 80s. Most of his films, including “Scarface” have moments of brilliance, but also suffered from sloppy writing, bad acting and questionable taste. But with “The Untouchables” all the stars aligned together - script, producer, cast and music - which helped make it Brian De Palma’s most realized and best film.
Though the filmmakers retained the title, “The Untouchables” doesn’t borrow a lot from the Television series, and only a smattering from the real life story of Eliot Ness. No matter, reality should never get in the way of making a good film. Ennio Morricone’s terse piano-heavy music gets the blood running early during the credits. Then De Palma establishes the heinous acts of violence and corruption that plagued Prohibition-era Chicago. After a young girl is killed by a bomb in a local pub (note, the HD Net broadcast cut out the explosion?!), treasury officer Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is charged with taking down Capone and ridding the city of organized crime and corruption.
Ness’ search for a task force starts with aging Irish policeman Malone (Sean Connery) – a lowly beat cop, who prides himself on being uncorruptable, a practice which unfortunately hasn’t gotten him ahead in life. Talented rookie sharpshooter George (Giuseppe) Stone and bookkeeper Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) also join the team. Ness’s team battle Capone’s crew in the streets and near the borders where illegal liquor is trading, distributed and sold. The film climaxes with a raucous courtroom trial where was Capone nailed for tax evasion.
Brian De Palma starts with an ironclad script by the great David Mamet. Most of De Palma’s previous films are so overwhelmingly style over substance, story, dialogue, subtext, dramatic foreshadowing all get pushed aside for his bravura technical sequences. There’s a place for films like “Dressed to Kill” and “Blow Up”, but it’s refreshing to combine a great visual artist with a great script.
The heart of the film is the relationship between Malone and Ness. Malone is the classic mentor archetype. A heavily flawed character – racist, a drinker, a bully – but in their first meeting over the bridge at night Ness sizes up Malone with only a few honest words. Mamet writes the sequence brilliantly and does it all with subtext.
Mamet’s dialogue is typically razor-sharp as well. The best lines are saved for Malone and Capone. Though Capone is under-realized and played largely as a caricature, De Niro is given so many good lines and great speeches, it was a dream role for any actor. His press scrums speeches are great, but it’s the tension squeezed out of the baseball scene which always gives me shivers – “part…of…a….team”.
Connery is pitch perfect as Malone and delivers Mamet’s lines with complete authenticity. Each scene with his corrupt colleague and countryman, Dorset, is well-played specifically his final confrontation in the rain-soaked alley. Connery’s highlight is one of the all-time great death scenes. After a long “De Palma-esque” sequence from the point of view of a hitman breaking into his home, Malone tells him off with one of his great lines, “isn’t that just like a wop, brings a knife to a gunfight”. Then he’s gunned down like Bonnie and Clyde – his body riddled with bullets. His final crawl across the hallway, spewing blood from his mouth is heroic, but it’s his last bit of strength to grab the train schedule (not the St. Jude necklace) that won his Oscar.
Though script is king in this film, De Palma is not invisible whatsoever – he gets his usual elevator, train and staircase scenes, his swooning score, and his typical red and blue cinematography etc. The Malone death scene is great but it’s the final staircase scene that he not-so-subtly ‘borrowed’ from “Potemkin”, that is the piece-de-résistance. Shot entirely in slo-motion, each shotgun blast, squib explosion, crash zoom and bold closeup is set to the metronome sounds of the baby carriage tumbling down the steps. Never has such a short moment been extended longer on film.
Few directors use their widescreen better than Brian De Palma. Before widescreen TVs widescreen films had to be conscious of framing for video and television (4:3 aspect ratio), but De Palma seems to consciously buck that trend. Watch when he even ‘dutches’ the angle to squeeze a couple more inches out of his frame. In many scenes De Palma shoots from below the actors looking up into the air. Aside from aggrandizing the character it also relieves the production design department from filling the background with actors and sets. De Palma also highlights the magnificent Chicago architecture as we see the top of the tall buildings and in the interiors some of the immaculately painted ceilings of the churches, hotels, and theatres.
I love Brian De Palma. But I’m the first to admit he’s had many good films, a few bad films, but not many ‘great’ films. De Palma’s Hitchcock films, his gangster films, his exploitation films, and even his comedies (I actually like “Bonfire of the Vanities”) have a soft spot in me. But it’s also frustrating to watch “The Untouchables” and question if he directed more good scripts where his career would be now. David Cronenberg could probably answer that. Enjoy.