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Well, the Lord hates a coward.

Movie

The Untouchables
(1987)

 

The Untouchables is illustrative of the career Brian De Palma might have had, had he been a filmmaker intent on commercial glory rather than following his own idiosyncratically voyeuristic muse. Certainly, there are examples before (Scarface) and since (Mission: Impossible), but it’s here that he marries his often-astonishing stylistic acumen with durably strong material to most striking effect. The Untouchables is the very opposite of the seedy, grubby, oversoaked Scarface in texture, painting with light and dark and still in no doubt of their delineation, even when its hero gets his hands dirty. From someone else, this might have been horrifically over-earnest and twee – and it has received such brickbats – but De Palma makes the polarities work for him. And then some.

Malone: Everybody knows where the booze is. The problem isn’t finding it. the problem is who wants to cross Capone.

Because this is a comic-book movie. This is Batman, much more than Tim Burton’s movie is (it even has a quip-smart Costner on a rooftop: “He’s in the car”). It’s a live-action cartoon, or rather, graphic novel, perfectly envisaged and realised. The quality is only emphasised by Ennio Morricone’s – magnificent – score, falling in with the hallowed bliss of Eliot Ness’ home life and the treacly sentiment of the grieving mother, but then hitting an elegiac stride when it comes to mourning the loss of members of the nascent team. David Mamet’s screenplay is one of high contrast, expressly so. As Time Out’s Brian Case noted, it relies for its lustre on “the bankability of enduring myth. And boy, it works like the 12-bar blues”. Pauline Kael called it “an attempt to visualise the public’s collective dream of Chicago gangsters; our movie-fed imagination of the past is enlarged and given a new vividness”.

Mamet sketches in bold strokes, and De Palma frames them, and fills in the frames, with maximum diligence and poise. Right from the outset, we have the confident schmoozer of the Press – Robert De Niro’s Al Capone – set against Ness’ novice. This is one of the great De Niro performances. He was never playing to his strengths when he tried sympathetic (or light), but Capone is heavy (and heavy), broad and punchy, and that opening, one of the director’s many uses of effective, extravagant and ornate overhead shots in the movie, announces just how terrifying the mobster is. Not in action – we see that later, with another overhead, a baseball bat/bonce interface and a pool of blood seeping across a pristine white tablecloth – but in a look. Capone, animated in response to journo questions, moves his head and his barber nicks his cheek. He registers the cut and gives the kind of look that spells instant death sentence – commuted – while the barber is utterly mortified, aware of what failure/transgression can mean. 

Eliot Ness: Alright now. Let’s do some good.

If Capone is instantly imposing, casually rebuffing a propensity for violence with the practical assurance it is “not good for business”, Ness is the reverse. He stumbles his way through a press conference, and then, pumped up by a successful raid, allows a photographer to record his triumphant reveal of apprehended booze… only to grasp hold of an umbrella (the humiliating headline reads “Crusader Cop Busts Out: Poor Butterfly”). Mindful of the lesson, he pins the headline to the wall in his office. Mamet brings this to its conclusion in the duel of homilies between these forces of light and dark at the trial climax (“Never stop fighting ’til the fight is done”/”You’re nothin’ but a lot of talk and a badge”).

Eliot Ness: I want to take the battle to him. I want to hurt Capone.

It doesn’t matter that the law Ness is enforcing is unjust, in this case. I mean, it should, but what matters more is that he’s honest and straight and true, and the guy he’s after is bad to the bone (albeit also, in his own crooked way, honest about it). Of course, The Untouchables isn’t even beginning to make a case for fidelity to actual events; it’s spinning a legend and doing so consummately. The scene with girl and the briefcase (a bomb) is absurdly overwrought, but that’s the intention, as is the weeping mother who confronts Ness with moral ultimatums. The baseball bat scene is the inverse. With these extremes, and the colourful crew in the middle, The Untouchables becomes hilarious and sincere and not so much and very funny; only De Palma can do that so distinctively (and fail so resoundingly – The Bonfire of the Vanities – when he’s unsure of his tone and material).

The Untouchables isn’t Mobsters. It isn’t a Baz Lurhmann movie. It’s both very much an idea of a virtuous ’30s movie (Mamet’s intent) and an exemplar of De Palma’s auteurishness. And he isn’t condescending to the tropes; he’s elevating them. Something Morricone only adds to (even De Palma, already one for going OTT with his Pino Donaggio scores, was unsure at first about the lullaby accompaniment to the train station shootout). The main theme is an insistent driving drum beat, propelling you into the picture, the Capone theme all sleazy opulence, and when our heroes win out, you’re right there with them in the fanfare’s soaring sweep.

Malone: Do you consider yourself a crusader, is that it?

Kael referenced Costner’s “blandness” being well used by the director. Which is blunt – I wouldn’t call it that – but she seizes on something. He’s a sure fit for sincerity. For righteous indignation, there’s probably no star better at it, and that’s how audiences responded to him in the late-80s and early-90s. Inevitably, he wanted something else, and he repeatedly tripped up trying to be the antihero (Revenge, Waterworld). He also has a face that, even young as he is here (32) suggests a certain maturity that served him well (he was playing baseball veteran Crash Davis the following year). 

He and Sean Connery work well together. The latter has all the meaty dialogue, while the former perseveres until the tutelage pays off: Ness the law abider ultimately breaks his vows for a moment of triumph (or more precisely, catharsis), one we’re calibrated to get behind. Is it a moment of failing? That’s for the audience to decide. Certainly, Mamet has earlier drawn clear distinctions, such as the uplift for Charles Martin Smith’ gung-ho blasting away at bad guys during the bridge sequence. Minutes later, Ness brings us back down to earth; “What is this, a game?” he accuses the now-corpse who repeatedly ignored his instructions to put the gun down.

Stone: Where is Nitti?
Eliot Ness: He’s in the car.

Ness has to break the rules, but we recognise his purity of intent. Malone recognises it too. It’s that rare, nay, priceless thing in a corrupt world. De Palma could be guaranteed to tickle Kael’s fancy, although she tended to prefer his self-originated, non-cash-grab movies (the ones full of his peccadilloes, which she could prize as defender of the faith were other critics feared to tread). She asserted that The Untouchables was “not a great movie; it’s too banal, too morally comfortable. The great gangster pictures don’t make good and evil mutually exclusive, the way they are here”. However, with its “pulp grandeur”, “it’s a great audience movie”. 

Malone: Now! What are you prepared to do?!

I wouldn’t seek to make such distinctions, but I’m evidently much more willing to appreciate Mamet’s achievement here. She felt that, with his “moral fable”, “Mamet is a master of obviousness”, with the result that it is “De Palma’s only measured film, it’s a blood thriller… too programmatic. For some of us, this takes the air right out of his actions, and he’s left a little wooden. Mamet doesn’t allow the characters enough free will”. I can see her argument – that this is schematic, that Ness’ fall from grace, if you like, is serviced by something (Malone’s sacrifice) the audience is designed to get behind (a celebration of law enforcement just as it undermines the same) – but I regard that as an absolute merit. It feels like a breath of fresh air to have a picture drawing its lines so clearly. 

That said, I could quite imagine having an entirely different reaction, were it not De Palma calling the shots. Everything that works like gangbusters could fall depressingly flat. As such, Kael’s complaint that “At times, you feel that he’s going through the motions pro forma…” is true in as much as the director’s expressly working to inflate the material rather than in spite of it, but that discipline means he gets results that eclipse many of his self-instigated projects.

Kael is evidently slightly uncomfortable with this showman side of De Palma here, even though she admits “the slight unbelievability of it all makes it more enjoyable”. The level of craft isn’t a case of “They made things so much better back then”; it’s all about De Palma being given a train set to play with and getting results no one else could (even if the actual train set was nixed, leading to the station-steps showstopper, one of the best suspense sequences ever committed to film). 

Al Capone: A man becomes preeminent, he’s expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms… Enthusiasms…

Obviously, the performers are at the service of the whole package, but they’ve been selected with just the right attention to the potency of archetypes. Costner I’ve mentioned; I doubt any of those (myriad) names also touted would have brought that very specific “blandness” he makes a virtue. Now-deceased De Niro was famously first choice for Capone, looked to be unavailable, and then was available, leading to a nice fat cheque for Bob Hoskins and a call to De Palma (asking if the director had any more films he didn’t want him to be in). They’re both caricatures in their way, and that’s necessary. 

Just as Martin Smith is the consummate nerdy guy and Andy Garcia the effortlessly capable recruit (Garcia is singularly more impressive in early roles than after he graduated to slightly stolid – bland, even – leads). Billy Drago is the encapsulation of evil as Frank Nitti, so loathsome, no degree of punitive response could be too much, while Brad Sullivan (mid-fifties but looking a good decade older) holds his own against Connery in a viscerally engaging back-street brawl.

Eliot Ness: Are you my tutor?
Malone: Yes, sir. I am.

Black-Hat Connery is consummate as a White Hat as Malone, earning an Oscar for suffering a surfeit of death-sequence squibs; he’s the best Scottish-Irish cop ever, bringing enormous gravitas to Malone and our innate belief in his sound judgement. Whether he’s insulting Stone (receiving the rejoinder “That’s much better than you, you stinking Irish pig”), a would-be attacker (“Isn’t that just like a wop? Brings a knife to a gun fight”), beating up Capone’s soon-to-be-baseball-batted lieutenant (“How do you think he feels now? Better? Or worse?”) or lightly mocking Ness on their first meeting (“Who would claim to be that, who was not? Hmmm?” he says of Eliot’s Treasury Agent status), he’s the perfect vassal for Mamet’s lines. When he protests he’s too old to make a difference now, “a poor beat cop”, Connery plays it perfectly, knows signing up’s a bad idea, but he can’t resist. And when he takes his proposal to Ness (“What are you prepared to do?”) – the Church was Connery’s suggestion – the scene is a marvellous piece of staging (De Palma’s deep focus, the concentration of the parties on the pact they are making). Connery had kicked off his mentor second-wind the year before (Highlander), after a mid-80s rather drifting (arguably, Outland is his last “young” leading-man movie, and Never Never Say Never Again was the point of no return).

Eliot Ness: Try a murderer for not paying his taxes?

That everything should come down, per history, to income-tax returns, which Capone hadn’t paid in nearly five years, since 1926, is perfect real-world irony; this is the solution, rather than the legend of cops and robbers we’ve been watching. It’s true that The Untouchables suffers slightly from Connery being written out with half an hour to go, but Mamet and De Palma know not to slacken the pace, moving swiftly to the shootout and then the courtroom (which furnishes both the rooftop confrontation with Nitti and the neat gambit with the judge, alluding his name is on the ledger in order to ensure a different jury). 

Eliot Ness: l have forsworn myself. l have broken laws l swore to defend. l am content that l have done right.

The Untouchables won an Oscar (out of four nominations) for Connery. The other nods being Art Direction, Costume Design and Score (the latter did win a Grammy, though). Not even a sniff at (Adapted) Screenplay, Picture, Director and Cinematography (and let’s face it, as far as Picture is concerned, it’s far and away superior to nominees Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction and Moonstruck). A prequel, Capone Rising was in development at one point, but it’s for the best it wasn’t made (we have Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power as ample illustration of redundant spinoffs to De Palma movies). I don’t tend to go for the idea that the director’s most “personal” works are necessarily the ones we should be touting. Scorsese’s best is After Hours, rather than those exploring his Italian-Americana, while De Palma has made many a second-nature psycho-sexual thriller. The Untouchables remains perhaps the best application of his artistry.

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