06 April 2007

The Untouchables 1987 Retrospective

I had planned to do a year-long retrospective on the films of 1987 (starting with RoboCop) on my website's movie review section, but I'm in the process of phasing out the movie reviews (except what I post on this blog)—they simply take up too much time, and so I end up not doing enough of them to make the section worthwhile. Nonetheless, I still feel like making some observations on the films of 1987, so here are some thoughts on Brian De Palma's The Untouchables.

My parents got to see a special screening of The Untouchables before its premiere as a charity presented through my younger brother's elementary school. I remember my mother liking it, which seems strange considering the high level of violence in the picture. Actually, my mother liking any picture from director Brian De Palma seems bizarre—but this goes to show that De Palma never made a more general audience accessible film than this one. Even his big hit Carrie doesn't appeal so strongly to the popcorn crowd. (Mission: Impossible and Mission to Mars don't count; the former has little of De Palma's stamp on it, and the latter is so blasphemously awful that it only appeals to people suffering from total sensory deprivation.)

De Palma consciously tries to make himself into Howard Hawks with this movie, and therein lies it's friendliness amongst the bloodshed. Even the violence isn't so heavy as some of De Palma's other films, like Body Double and Scarface. De Palma casts the film as a "professionals in action" tale the way Howard Hawks would have liked it, and the outdoor action scene at the Canadian border plays like a direct homage to some of Hawks's Westerns. It's a strange scene in many ways, since it abruptly moves the film from the nighttime caverns of Chicago and into the bright wilderness, but makes sense viewed in De Palma's nod the film's spiritual progenitor, Hawks.

Playwright David Mamet adapted the script from the popular 1959–63 television series starring Robert Stack and Neville Brand, itself based on Eliot Ness's memoir of his war against Al Capone in prohibition Chicago. The biggest similarity between the movie and television show is their simplified version of the downfall of Al Capone, which casts Ness and his band of "Untouchables" as central to the war. Since The Untouchables never pretends to tell a true story, its fantasy tale is forgivable as a red-soaked fairy tale of cops n' robbers—or Treasury officers n' bootleggers.

Otherwise, Mamet's script and De Palma's direction ignore the stylistics of the television show and make no attempt to imitate tropes like Walter Winchell's pinched voiceovers or the musical styles. The story is given a straight interpretation: clean-living family man Eliot Ness takes up a crusade against Al Capone's hold on Chicago, and enlists the no-nonsense approach of experienced beat-cop Jim Malone to help him. The story flirts with the concept of Ness compromising his ethics to fight dirty against the mob, but never delves deeply into it. Ness still emerges the hero and the champion of the women and children whom the movie portrays as the collateral damage of the mob's bootlegging operation, and Al Capone is nothing more than a swaggering monster who dupes the public with a loveable image while bashing out his associates' brains with a baseball bat and blowing up pre-teen girls. It helps that he's played by Robert De Niro, who trades in his subtle method actor image for a delicious gesture-heavy portrayal. Capone isn't prime De Niro, but it's damned good Al Pacino.

However, if The Untouchables belongs to one actor, it's Sean Connery. He won an Academy Award for playing Malone, and even if it isn't the best performance in his long career—The Man Who Would Be King deserves that honor, with Goldfinger a close second—he's a joy to watch strutting through the film in the textbook example of a "crowd-pleaser" part. Oscars aren't handed out for great acting chops, they're given for the pleasure a performance offers, and on those grounds I can't begrudge Connery the golden statue for The Untouchables.

Poor top-billed Kevin Costner has the heavy burden of facing two legendary co-stars with ostentatious roles. He seems a touch wooden, but it makes sense for the out-of-touch Ness, and he makes no attempt to outdo the more outrageous characters around him, which is exactly the way it should be.

But of course, if the name on the film is "De Palma," it's gonna look good. And the camera will probably do some oddball stunt in a few places. The sequence that everybody remembers is De Palma's half-tribute to the "Odessa Steps" from the 1925 Russia classic Battleship Potemkin. Ness and Stone try to retrieve Capone's bookkeeper from the train station without Capone's goons putting a hole in him. This results in a slow-motion shootout on the train station steps while a baby carriage holding an infant rattles down the stairs. The baby carriage comes straight from Battleship Potemkin, although the toddler met a far worse fate in the Russian version, but the slow-motion violence ballet is much more in dept to Sam Peckinpah than anyone else. Regardless of the scene's origin, it's still as crowd-pleasing a segment as De Palma ever produced.

It's a touch depressing to realize that if executed today, The Untouchables would probably be filmed in an anonymous city in Canada, the Czech Republic, or Australia to save on the production budget, instead of smack in the middle of downtown Chicago where it belongs. The use of historical Chicago buildings, like the Chicago Cultural Center and Roosevelt University standing in for Capone's hideaway in the Lexington Hotel (later the site of the notorious "Al Capone's Vault" television fiasco with Geraldo Rivera), add baroque verisimilitude to the setting: the Gilded Age city grown into a twentieth-century palace of corruption. The film's design is beautiful and convincing of the setting, especially the Armani outfits. I've never committed a violent crime in my life, but I would seriously mug Billy Drago just to get hold of that suit he wears as Frank Nitti. Along with Chinatown and Barry Lyndon, The Untouchables is one of the rare period films that seems honestly rooted in the period instead of a reflection of the time when it was made, and that explains why, twenty years later, I'm still exited to write about it.

And Ennio Morricone's music is stupendous. But you don't need me to tell you that.