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Days of De Palma (Part 8): The Untouchables (1987)

My journey through the films of Brian De Palma rolls on!

After the one-two punch of 1984’s Body Double and 1986’s Wise Guys, both of which were terrible, I would imagine that Brian De Palma needed a hit.  Well, he got one with 1987’s The Untouchables.

Set in the 1930’s during the later years of prohibition, The Untouchables tells the story of honest cop Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his small group of “untouchables” who worked to free Chicago from the control of crime-lord Al Capone (Robert De Niro).  (The film is very loosely inspired by the TV series with the same name that ran from 1959-1963.  Both were based on the book The Untouchables written by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley.)  Ness assembles a small team of partners: tough Irish-American cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery); the young hot-headed Italian-American rookie George Stone (Andy Garcia); and the accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).  Together they take on corrupt cops and Capone’s mobsters.

Wow, what a treat it is to see Brian De Palma finally working with an A-level script!!  David Mamet’s script is lean and tight, chock full of memorable lines.  (“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.”)  Combined with a great cast and Mr. De Palma’s skill as a visual stylist, and you have all the ingredients for a crowd-pleasing hit.

The main cast is dynamite.  In one of his earliest lead roles, a young Kevin Costner is terrific as the idealistic Ness.  His character is a little one-dimensional, but in this sort of broad-strokes story it works.  Mr. Costner’s genuine movie-star charisma carries him, and provides a strong anchor for the story.

Sean Connery delivers one of the most memorable performances of his career as Malone.  It helps that he gets most of the movie’s best lines.  In his great book A Pound of Flesh: Perilous Tales of How to Produce Movies in Hollywood, producer Art Linson describes how the shock to the audience of killing off movie-star Sean Connery in the middle of the movie was hugely important to the movie’s impact.  It’s funny, that sort of thing doesn’t really register with me, today, when I watch the film, but I will say that the fight in Malone’s home that leads to his death is a thrilling sequence in the film, hugely enhanced by Mr. De Palma’s point-of-view camerawork.  More on that in a moment.

Andy Garcia is great as Stone.  Like Ness and, frankly, all of the characters, the youth and tough Stone (his name is Stone, get it?) is fairly one-dimensional.  But Mr. Garcia’s magnetism brings the role to life, and he’s great with Mamet’s words.  Same goes for Charles Martin Smith.  So great in American Graffiti, Mr. Smith hasn’t had a plethora of great film roles, but he’s terrific in this one as the mousy but very likable Wallace.

Then, of course, there is Robert De Niro as Capone.  Mr. De Niro crushes this cameo role.  Capone is only in a few scenes, but each one is a monster.  De Niro’s ferocity plus some of David Mamet’s best monologues equals pure movie gold.  Capone’s speech about baseball that culminates with him using a bat to smash his lieutenant’s head to pulp in the middle of a fancy dinner is one of those scenes you don’t soon forget.

The film looks great — Mr. De Palma was able to stretch a fairly small budget to create some gorgeous imagery.  (I particularly love the opening shot, in which we look down from above at Al Capone as he lies with his head covered by a towel, being attended to by a swarm of underlings.)  Mr. De Palma was also able to find several moments in the film in which to utilize some of his famous stylistic tricks with the camera.  The most effective, for me, is the POV camera-work during the invasion of Malone’s home.  The camera becomes the eyes of Malone’s assailant, lurking outside his house and watching from the windows, then breaking into the house and traveling from room to room in search of Malone.  It’s a bravura sequence, one that really ratchets up the tension during this key moment of the film.  The audience waits on the edge of their seats, waiting for this bad guy to find the unsuspecting Malone, hoping that somehow he won’t.  It’s great.

Of course, the most talked-about sequence in the film is the shoot-out on the train-station steps in the film’s climax.  Mr. De Palma famously mimics the Odessa Steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 Russian silent film.  I’ve gotta respect Mr. De Palma’s cojones in re-creating one of the most famous sequences in film history (though, admittedly, the sequence was probably not all that well known to general American audiences).  To me the sequence is just a little bit too far over the top to suit my tastes, but it certainly works.  The scene is powerful, an effective climax to the movie.  And, like Malone’s death, it’s certainly memorable.

Speaking of memorable, I’ve got to mention the film’s score by famed composer Ennio Morricone.  It’s bombastic, but damned if it doesn’t work.  That main theme is eminently hummable.

If the film has a weakness, it’s that, for all that David Mamet’s script is great, this feels like such a hugely over-simplified version of history that I find it a little off-putting.  It feels like the audience is being talked down to somewhat.  This is the Cliff Notes version of history.  I wish there were a few more twists and turns in the story, and that the characters were a little less one-dimensional.  I wish that we got more of a sense of just how hard it was, and how long it took, to bring down Capone.

I also must admit to never liking the whole horse-back fight that takes place on the Canadian border late in the film.  On the DVD special features, Mr. De Palma and his team all speak enthusiastically about that sequence, and describe how they developed it on the day into the huge sequence it is in the final film.  (No wonder it always felt out-of-character, to me, from the rest of the film!)  Mr. De Palma and his team all talk about how they felt the sequence gave the film an epic scope, breaking them out of the Chicago streets.  But, I dunno, it’s never worked for me.  I just can’t suspend my disbelief that these four guys could outfight all those mobsters.  Even mousy accountant Wallace manages to shoot several guys dead — while riding a horse!! — and escapes unscathed.  I just don’t buy it.

Still, I really enjoy The Untouchables.  This is the De Palma film I have seen the most often (second to Mission: Impossible and Scarface).  It’s still great fun, even upon multiple viewings.  As I wrote at the beginning, it’s great to see how good Mr. De Palma could be when working with a truly excellent script and such a great cast.  Looking back at Mr. De Palma’s career, I wish he’d been able to work with collaborators of this caliber more often.

Next up is another of Mr. De Palma’s more famous films, albeit one that I had never seen before this “Days of De Palma” project: the Vietnam War story Casualties of War.

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 — Body Double (1984); Part 7 — Wise Guys (1986).

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