The Untouchables

(USA - 1987)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro, Charles Martin Smith, Patricia Clarkson, Billy Drago
Genre: Action/Crime
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: David Mamet
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Runtime: 119 minutes

"It ain't supposed to be good; it's supposed to be bought" - Capone gangster

The Untouchables is a love-hate film for me. It represents the peak of a kind of filmmaking, the popcorn movie and the comic book style, a kind I find to generally be without merit. It totally trashes the facts, but in this case the film is so amusing (you laugh with it and at it) I can't hate it. Many talented people are involved, but it's a lesser entry in their resume.

Back in 1987, talented people could still work in Hollywood without coming off as whores because the resulting film was so embarrassing. Any film that boasts Brian De Palma, David Mamet, Ennio Morricone, & Robert De Niro should be a classic. Unfortunately, working in Hollywood, none of them are able to deliver what makes them great. I realize they'd all worked in Hollywood before, if not often, but it just seems like with this film, whether due to the large budget (for the time) or because this is the trademark Hollywood type of film, there was far more conformation.

Many people consider this to be De Palma's masterpiece, but I would rank it as his 2nd worst film of the 80's (Wise Guys was the worst). When De Palma is at the top of his game, like in Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, the production tells the story. You know you are watching a movie, but he makes you a voyeur. You can't pull yourself away because you have feelings about what you are seeing, even if not so much for the characters themselves, and you are trying to solve the film because he's not telling you everything you need to know so you no longer have to think. Here, he's bogged down by way too many conventional scenes that explain and advance the plot and he manipulates the viewers' emotions far more than he ever had before. What makes it that much worse is so much of this unnecessary stuff is absolutely untrue.

David Mamet's writings are good on paper, but what makes them great is the way they are delivered. The effect is derived from the way they vocal pattern, the rhythm and timing is what makes them stand out and adds dimensions that one probably wouldn't detect from simply reading the play. Here, Mamet scraps his own style in favor of a bunch of one-liners. Although I don't agree with a lot of what's said, there's no doubt you could quote just about anything. It's thin and one-dimensional though, unlike the clever, witty, and gripping material Mamet was writing and directing at the time, his masterpiece from the same year House of Games and 1988's Things Change. In those films, the words created so much tension it was almost unbearable, but here that aspect is entirely absent.

What makes Ennio Morricone a great composer is his ability to create the atmosphere, bring the setting/landscape to life, and interpret the character's actions. I remembered this score being a lot better than it actually was. It's readily identifiable as Morricone with the use of less common soundtrack instruments and cool sound effects, but this time the main focus is the typical Hollywood manipulation. There are scenes when the soundtrack is excellent, but they are more than outweighed by the scenes that would be better off silent.

Whether you like Robert De Niro's character, hate him, or more often have conflicting feelings about him, when he'd made good films up to this point (before he just took the bucks for scripts that were hardly Flawless) he'd earned that emotion. Here his Al Capone is just a caricature, a larger than life completely evil comic book villain. De Niro, who came on board late, ousting Bob Hoskins who De Palma probably cast based on his excellent work in good gangster film The Long Good Friday, is obviously having a lot of fun. He's often quite funny in the process, with lines like "you can get farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word", but his scenes exist apart from everything else in the movie and he's so far over the top. He is basically a good set piece that impresses you but is not utilized in a manner that adds to the whole of the film. Actually, that's The Untouchables in a nutshell.

What I like about The Untouchables is the individual scenes. There are a handful of instances of virtuoso technique by De Palma. This is the main thing that gets the movie over it's paper thin plot that consists entirely of caricatures that at best vaguely represent the actual individuals.

The scene where the gangsters go after Malone at his South Racine Avenue house is classic that shows De Palma's horror influence, possibly being inspired by a classic scene in Dario Argento's Tenebrae and in John Carpenter's Halloween. It starts out as a crane shot of the window from across the street, slowly revealing a gangster on the sidewalk checking the inside of his matchbook to get the exact address. As the camera goes back to the window, we see the gangster walking out of view as Malone checks, so we can't tell whether he's spotted him. As the gangster is looking to enter the house, we switch to a point of view shot of him peeking through the windows and making sure he stays out of Malone's view. What makes this scene so good is how slowly it plays out and what a cat and mouse game it's made to be with the thug and the audience having no idea whether Malone knows what's coming until the last possible moment. And just when the scene seems to have played out, there's a big surprise.

A masterfully orchestrated train station shoot out quickly tops this scene. De Palma had planned several elaborate and costly effects such as involving a train and shooting from a helicopter, but he was already 50% over his $16 million budget and producer Art Linson told him he had to use what was available because they couldn't spend anymore. Digging into his bag of classic cinema tricks, he used the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin as his starting point.

The goal of De Palma's new scene was for Eliot Ness & George Stone (Kevin Costner & Andy Garcia in their breakout roles) to intercept the bookkeeper before he escapes on the train. However, Ness' desire to help gets in the way. The scene begins in real time placing emphasis on the clock and utilizes creative camera movement and placement as well as several point of view shots. The deadline is approaching and he's scouting the area, but his attention is always drawn back to a woman trying to pull her baby carriage up an extremely large flight of stairs and make the train. No one will help her, so Ness eventually decides to do something, but of course as soon as he gets involved the shady ones appear to be surrounding him. What makes the scene great is Ness has now put two innocent people in the line of fire, and he knows it. He is badly outnumbered, and his ability to maneuver is greatly hampered by having to hold on to the carriage so the baby doesn't go rolling until he crashes into something. What makes the scene that much more tense is it switches to slow motion as soon as someone makes their move, delaying certain outcomes that much longer and heightening all the expressions. Though it loses steam at the end when it goes back to regular motion, it's still an entirely memorable 9 ½ minutes.

De Palma has never been one to shy away from "objectionable" material. Unlike today's films that are all violence, but curiously have no bloodshed, De Palma seizes every opportunity to show the gruesomeness of the material. There are two scenes enhanced by gore that really stand out. The first is Capone's speech to his crew after The Untouchables hurt them big for the first time. It's about baseball being a combination of individual achievement and teamwork, and is delivered with bat in hand. When he's done he cracks one of his own guys over the head with the baseball bat, with blood splurting, and keeps hitting him until he's dead. De Palma gives us an overhead shot of the beaten man hunched over the table with blood to the right of his head and his wine making a puddle across the table as he pulls out (up).

Later on, the gangsters' payoff book is captured after a battle at the Canadian border. In order to prosecute Capone for income tax evasion they need to establish which payoffs are to him, but the surviving gangster won't talk. Jim Malone (Sean Connery) and Ness are the only ones that know a dead body is just outside the shack they are in, so Malone goes out there and props the body up against the window pretending the guy was just unconscious. He puts a gun in his mouth and gives him to three to talk then blows the back of his head off with blood, flesh, and bullet exploding through the window. To liven it up, the leader of the Mounty group they are working with expresses his objection to their methods, and instead of letting him in on the trick Ness makes it seem like that's the way they do things in Chicago.

There is plenty of humor that doesn't rely on violence. My favorite scene is when they make fun of our regurgucation system. Ness & Malone go to the academy to recruit a pure cop, but when they try to find out what he stands for they just get the cookie cutter answer the trainees are "supposed to" give. Malone tells the first one "Please don't search for the yearbook answer huh, just tell me what you think." By the second one he's already decided it's hopeless and attacks him with "Oh please don't waste my time with that bullshit!"

One thing that's consistently good about this film is the art design, costumes, and sets. Although technology too modern sneaks in a couple times, I never had any trouble believing I was in old Chicago. The introduction of the hotel Capone resides in was particularly impressive. Awards in this area would have been justified, but instead the only thing Untouchables won was Best Supporting Actor for Connery. Connery is believable, wise, and forceful, but his role is basically spouting macho proverbs and repeatedly asking, "What are you prepared to do?" to urge Ness to take things to the next level. He doesn't get a chance to stretch his range, or even flex his acting muscle, so while he couldn't do a better job with what he was given, that role was certainly not even close to award worthy.

I don't expect anything from Hollywood that's based on a true story to be very accurate. That's not the way it should be, of course, but I'm smart enough to know that they only care about the bottom line, and supposedly their alterations make for a more marketable film. That said, Untouchables is one of the grossest alterations of the truth I can think of. It's bad enough when the current award winning tripe like A Beautiful Mind alters the facts to make the protagonist far more sympathetic. Untouchables was a product of the Reagan era where if you didn't like someone you dropped bombs on them as long as they weren't in any position to come back at you. Ness starts out believing the law must be followed and enforced whether good or bad saying, "As we are going to enforce the law we must do first by example", but winds up doing just the opposite. He even executes a helpless Frank Nitty (Billy Drago) by throwing him off a rooftop! Yes, this is the same Frank Nitti that ran Cappone's business after he was incarcerated in 1932, and committed suicide in 1943 after being indicted for labor racketeering. Near the end of the film Ness actually says, "I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I swore to defend. I have become what I beheld, and I am content that I have done right." Great, now let's have some more witch-hunts and remove some more foreign leaders to further purify the world.

Where the alternations definitely make for a worse film is in bogging it down with far too many hammy scenes designed to get over what a caring family man Ness is and how great he is to be risking it all for the good of the country. Ness did have a wife and kids, but not until after he put Capone away. And using he is not a stretch based on this film, which claims the "4" Untouchables, two of whom died in the midst including one named Malone who was Ness' mentor that never existed, were solely responsible for putting the famed crime boss away.

In spite of its numerous flaws, Untouchables represents popcorn filmmaking at it's most passable. It is obviously the work of talented men with distinct individual styles. Yes, some of that style has been compromised, but no one is out of place and they are all effective. It's not a bunch of talentless interchangeables like we see today that simply make by the numbers films with no creativity or vision to satisfy the producers and the money backers. It is a film that lives on its visuals, but they were actually created by the traditional people and look like they should if not better rather than being poorly faked by some computer geeks that obviously never stepped outside long enough to see what anything actually looks like. It has no basis in reality, but it's at least smart enough to run with that and go for "pure entertainment". In the end, it succeeds because it delivers what it sets out to and what you are paying for. You get a fast moving piece with compelling visuals, plenty of action, lots of blood, and some lines to chuckle at and throw about for a couple days. It isn't a classic, but it's several steps ahead of all the gutless politically correct Annihilator appeasing teases that litter the theatres today.

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