One of the quintessential examples of how the best thing a film can be about is itself, we have one of the 1980s' supreme action-thrillers, brought to your screen by the Master of the Macabre at his most eager-to-please. Fully in line with the decade's troublesome politics as well as its embrace of the extremes of violence, The Untouchables is (honestly) all the better for it.
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by David Mamet (suggested by the book by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley)
With Kevin Costner (Eliot Ness), Sean Connery (Jim Malone), Charles Martin Smith (Oscar Wallace), Andy Garcia (George Stone), Billy Drago (Frank Nitti), and Robert De Niro (Al Capone)
Spoiler alert: moderate
47 years after he made his first feature film, there's still no consensus on Brian De Palma. Those who like him tend to love him. Those who don't tend to hate just about everything he's ever done. Luckily we need not engage with any controversy right now, for our subject is one of his undeniable hits, and on this the consensus is solid—The Untouchables is one spectacularly entertaining movie. As it should be: it's the infamously obtuse director's single most earnest attempt to please a mass audience the way they like to be pleased—and unlike many artistic types, BDP has always been foremost an entertainer, even if usually the one he was the most committed to entertaining was just himself.
As a haphazard biography, The Untouchables was "suggested by" the true story of Treasury Agent Eliot Ness and his Prohibition-era battles against Chicago's greatest ganglord, Al Capone. On a technicality, the 1987 film is the big-screen remake of the old TV show—a program that producer Art Linson never liked, and which De Palma barely even remembered. As for David Mamet, who originated the project, he was pleased to trade on the show's infamy, while writing what amounted to an original adaptation of Chicago's underworld mythology.
De Palma, for his part, has been upfront about the rationale behind his participation: after two flops, he couldn't be choosy. Yet by his own word, and by the onscreen evidence, he found Mamet's script exciting. Thematically, it offered nothing more (nor less) than a uniquely uncomplicated struggle between moral absolutes—not the director's usual fare—but as a vehicle for squibby violence, breathtaking historical recreation, and a general mastery of suspense, it was as perfect as any screenplay he'd ever worked with. The Untouchables thus represents one of De Palma's clearest retreats into the superstructure of style, contenting himself to tell someone else's story—his way, yes, but on its own very, very stark terms.
The Untouchables can still be made to fit—if it must—into the middle of De Palma's loose trilogy of gangster pictures, bookended by Scarface on one side and Carlito's Way on the other. But the similarities begin and end with the mere fact that all three are violent period pieces revolving around contraband chemicals. Rather than sharply-drawn proletarians seeking a corrupted version of the American Dream, The Untouchables takes on a different American myth: the Only Good Cops in a Bad Town, personified perfectly by Ness, the blank-faced avatar of the puritan order that must be imposed upon the chaos of Chicago's Romanism, rebellion, and rum.
(One suspects that the original TV show wasn't condemned by Italian-Americans without reason.)
Initially bitten by his own naievete, Ness soon acquires his folksy beat cop mentor, Jim Malone, prone to speaking in aphorism, as well as epithet. Together, they bring on an uncorrupted academy recruit, George Stone (né Giuseppe Petri), the best gun in the Midwest. Completing the team is the feds' accountant, Oscar Wallace, a nebbish with an undiscovered thirst for combat. Bribes come their way, but they refuse; the papers declare them "Untouchable." Ness and his men inch their way closer to the distant kingpin, but when Ness, the man of action, can finally be bothered to listen to Wallace, a workable plan is conceived: if they can secure Capone's books, they can put the millionaire murderer away for an even worse crime than that—income tax evasion. On the way, they tear a great bloody swathe through Capone's army; but they are quite "touchable" after all, and not all of them make it out alive.
And that is the movie: The Untouchables couldn't be less interested in the sociology of crime or the inner lives of its characters if it were populated by well-positioned statues rather than actors. (And given that they cast Kevin Costner as Ness and Andy Garcia as the appropriately-named Stone, they did come pretty close.) Yet it's unfair to Mamet to call his script purely an excuse for action. It's also an excuse for crackling dialogue. I doubt anybody has ever found themselves seriously invested in the fate of any of the Untouchables; yet there's something altogether comforting about their masculine bonding in the face of diversity. (How masculine? Another way you can tell that BDP had nothing to do with The Untouchables' conception is to look at its two most important female characters: "Catherine Ness", according to IMDB, but more frankly described as "Eliot's wife" in the credits; and the schoolgirl who gets blown up in the first three minutes of the film, making sure you understand that you're in for some excellent brutality.)
Mamet's well-attested facility with man's world is on full display, even if the emphasis is on the "facile." As terrifically efficient as The Untouchables' script is—and it rivals Star Wars in its efficiency, while pleasantly recapitulating most of its plot, and about half its character dynamics—there's a compelling playfulness to the arch dialogue spilling out from Mamet's one-note creations, particularly when it lets Sean Connery indulge in Malone's street wisdom, delivered via his hammy, inconsistent Irish accent. Connery savors especially all the old-timey white-on-white racism he's been given to chew on—which, admittedly, is almost too easy to find charming and funny in 2015.
"It's fine, you crybaby. We can say 'wop' now. Try it at your local cash-only pizzeria. They'll love it!"
But forget Connery; he's too obvious to praise. (Let his Academy Award speak for itself.) The most canny, clever casting was American Graffiti's nerd, Charles Martin Smith. Smith steals the show for as long as he can, with his rapid (even rabid!) evolution into the Untouchables' unlikeliest badass. (This being, however, one of the instances where Mamet's script is efficient and trite.) Meanwhile, despite how easy it is, there's no sense in totally downplaying Costner's contribution—his (then-nascent) persona has rarely been better-deployed. The picture's dour anchor, Ness is a dull civil servant, rising above blandness only when he's boorish. But Costner is interesting to watch precisely because he pushes everybody, including the audience, away. In any other situation, Ness probably couldn't buy a friend. Yet in 1930 Chicago, Costner's evocation of rarely-shaken certitude is exactly what's needed, and we can see in Ness what Malone does. Besides, it's not as if there's no spice to the performance—not with Costner giving his best Jimmy Stewart when the shit gets real, as it rather often does.
Then there's Robert De Niro—the face you probably picture when you hear the name "Capone." De Palma threatened to leave when the studio balked at paying his buddy a million dollars for two weeks' work. It's hard to argue with his brinkmanship. It is not a brilliant performance—and I don't see how anyone who wasn't on the press junket for The Untouchables ever thought it was—but it remains a very necessary one. De Niro infuses this very public gangster with his energetic showmanship; it's the definition of a star turn. Indeed, Capone seems to exist in a different world entirely, decadent, impervious, surrounded by fawning reporters and servile henchmen. The result of De Niro's schedule, it nonetheless makes a point. Capone rouses slowly throughout the picture—the first two times we see him, he's literally laying down—while Ness' men attack the margins of his organization. But when this sleeping giant finally wakes, Ness' men die.
While the uncrowned king of Chicago enjoys a nice opera.
If Mamet is exactly as effective as he needs to be in crafting his characters and their world—thanks to designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein, The Untouchables is indeed gorgeous—the film remains the sum of its extremely well-machined parts. If it's about anything (other than itself), it could be termed "moral simplicity." It could also be termed "totalitarianism." There's that blunt moment, where Mamet makes it a point to have Malone smash a nameless villain in the gut with his shotgun, because he dared inquire about a warrant. The really amusing thing about this exchange is that it involves agents of the federal government sweeping a post office—that is, federal property—where there's no more actual need for the Treasury Department's death squad to obtain a warrant than there is for them to abuse their suspect. It's there to show that the law, such as it is, does not apply to the pure; and, golly, are our boys pure. (And later, Ness veils a threat by invoking the law of ancient Rome, not unlike another prominent 1930s official.)
Yet despite being probably just about the last thing the auteur would have written himself, The Untouchables doesn't see Brian De Palma bound. It's in his filmmaking that The Untouchables comes alive—presenting itself as an essentially flawless exercise, even if fundamentally it's just an exercise. Shot by Stephen Burum, BDP's most trusted cinematographer, it's unmistakably lovely, captured so sharply (yet so delicately) that it appears wholly ahead of its time. Even the quiet moments tend toward beauty—the geometry of De Palma and Burum's composition on the bridge where Ness meets Malone, for example, is one of the film's loveliest images. But De Palma didn't become De Palma by offering mere loveliness. (And no one hires Ennio Morricone for peace and quiet, either. It's useless to call it one of his best scores—he has too many that are even better—but it's interesting, too, happily running along in his jagged idiom before making a left turn right into a hero theme that wouldn't be a note out of place in a piece by John Williams.)
That De Palma's brought his gonzo love of movies to The Untouchables is apparent from the very start: a 90 degree crane shot of Capone getting a shave, the room so exaggeratedly distorted by the wide-angle lens that there probably isn't a truly horizontal line in the whole composition except for the barber's razor. From there, it's off to the races—split diopters! long steadicam takes! extended point-of-view shots from a stalking killer's eyes! lurid colored lighting! cameras moving through walls, like they were just a part of a movie set! all that deeply, deeply edifying ultraviolence!
...And, above all, the director's fearless willingness to outright block-quote the great cinema of ages past.
Here come the Cossacks.
Ness and Stone's takedown of Capone's bookkeeper at Union Station competes with Mission: Impossible's Langley heist as De Palma's most celebrated scene. Conceived entirely by De Palma and Burum, the shootout replaced an especially ludicrous turn in Mamet's script, involving antique trains crashing into one another (apparently because Mamet arrived from The Future, where you can just whip up that kind of nonsense with CGI). But here I am, making what absolutely-could-never-have-been sound so cool. Suffice it to say, what De Palma actually did was better—easily besting its Eisensteinian forebear, too. Between perfect impressionist sound design, slow motion that ranks amongst the greatest uses of the technique in film history, and suspense drawn so tautly it almost snaps, taken altogether it represents perhaps the most elegant gunplay of a decade already wildly overrepresented with iconic firearm violence.
If there's any imperfection in The Untouchables, it's that the movie just keeps going after this climax. (Ness' courthouse chase, expertly-accomplished, is necessarily handicapped when you've already been blinded by true De Palmian brilliance.) There's a definite feeling that everybody was ready to wrap things up; which is understandable. The Untouchables ends with the moral arc that isn't: Eliot Ness' transformation into a true Chicagoan, with everything that entails. Ness even straight-up admits that the abyss gazed also; but if there's supposed to be any sort of examination of that, in either De Palma's direction or Costner's performance, let alone in Mamet's screenplay, it's dropped immediately—and outright annihilated with the film's glib-ass closing lines.
Best, then, to take it as pure experience, rather than a tale with deeper significance—the story of a counterinsurgency war against vile outlaws who needed to be put down by the State by any means necessary. Authoritarian? Oh, God, yes. But cinematically vibrant? That, I think, is clear. Besides, don't authoritarians deserve a masterpiece to call their own, too?