Friday, July 31, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Untouchables (1987)

Once upon a time, Hollywood blockbusters looked a lot like The Untouchables: lush, stylish, operatic, and daring as hell.

Or, as critic Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times regarding De Palma's 1987 gangster film: "... it's a smashing work. It's vulgar, violent, funny and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful. After this ''Untouchables,'' all other movies dealing with Prohibition Chicago, Al Capone and the lawmen who brought him to justice (for income tax evasion) must look a bit anemic."

Boosted by a coruscating, pulse-pounding score from composer Ennio Morricone, De Palma's The Untouchables is actually much more than a period piece or a typical gangster genre film. Instead, it's the passion-laden story of a burg at war with itself and its ideals...and the valiant heroes who brought peace to that city at the cost of great personal sacrifice.

Now the setting here isn't classic in any sense. It isn't ancient Sparta (like 300), or The Trojan War (as in Troy). But make no mistake, De Palma brings to The Untouchables the same archetypal flourishes we might reasonably expect in any cinematic depiction of those legends. He transforms real historical figures into larger-than-life scoundrels, saints, and angels. As dramatized by De Palma, The Untouchables is nothing less than the Timeless Heroic Poem of Avenger Eliot Ness.

Let's Do Some Good...

Written by award-winning playwright David Mamet, De Palma's The Untouchables is a blend of the popular old TV series (1959-1963) of the same name and the popular 1957 autobiography of Eliot Ness penned by Ness with Oscar Fraley.

The film depicts Chicago of the Prohibition Era as -- importantly -- a "city at war."

The unofficial but acknowledged ruler of Chicago is criminal Al Capone (Robert De Niro), a self-satisfied gangster who has "bought" the loyalty of city cops, district judges, and even the cynical press.

Capone is treated as a celebrity and a king, and has the run of the city. He is a crook and a monster to be certain, but because Capone has so much money, the tyrant is respected and feared. Nobody crosses him. In light of this situation, we might even dare to view De Palma's film as a veiled critique of capitalism, with power going to the highest bidder. And as the film begins, Capone is tightening his grip on the small businesses of Chicago, using fear, intimidation and murder to making certain that he gets a "cut" of everything.

Into this war zone of escalating violence arrives a straight-arrow crusader, the impossibly moral Treasury Agent named Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner). After his first "sting" fails to nab Capone, family man Ness realizes he must work around the corrupt system, and therefore recruits a group of outsiders he can trust to the death. These men include his new mentor, an Irish cop on the beat, Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), police academy graduate and sharp-shooter Giuseppe Petri (Andy Garcia), and nerdy accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).

Importantly, not one of these men (especially Ness) declares any fealty to the government's (wrongheaded) policy of Prohibition. On the contrary, what this foursome defends to the death is the very principle that makes America great: the rule of law. This is the meat of Ness's inner crisis: can the rule of law be re-established by violating the law?

Over several tumultuous weeks, Ness puts a dent in Capone's illegal liquor operation in Chicago, but spurs Capone's murderous wrath. The gangster dispatches enforcer Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) to see to it that the four Untouchables are, in fact...quite touchable. Wallace is murdered in an elevator along with a trial witness against Capone. Malone is set up in his own apartment and viciously gunned down.

With his team in tatters, Ness recognizes that his last chance to stop Capone involves indicting the gangster for tax evasion. To accomplish this, however, Ness needs to intercept Capone's accountant at a train station...

Never Stop Fighting Till The Fight is Done

On the surface, the brutal struggle in The Untouchables appears to be one regarding law enforcement, but the movie's tone and visuals make it plain that this is not entirely the case.

On the contrary: this is total war, a fact De Palma makes plain via cross-cutting. Early in the film, he cross-cuts between Capone decrying violence as "not good business" and then a scene involving a little girl murdered in what, essentially, is a terrorist bombing of a local Chicago saloon.

While noting that "there is violence in Chicago" (but not by him, of course), Capone thus wipes out a business that refuses to cow-tow to his demands for protection money. The bombing is a crime, but a crime elevated to guerrilla war tactics (like those seen in the Vietnam War; another De Palma obsession). Another scene, involving Ness's first bust, sees the hero riding astride a vehicle that appears to be a kind of 1930s armored attack truck. It's the visual equivalent of putting a soldier atop a tank at the beginning of battle; a visual recognition that this is, for all intents and purposes, combat.

In constructing a mythic poem, it's crucial that the stakes are high, and that's what De Palma accomplishes in setting the key backgrounds of Chicago in The Untouchables. He makes plain that this isn't simple a matter of putting a criminal away, but of winning a war against a powerful, and heartless opponent. The soul of the city is on the line because Capone has his hooks in everyone. Ness's war is thus virtually an Aristotlean thing: "we make war that we may live in peace."

The spiritual nature of this dramatic war is made evident in one particularly important debate about battle tactics. With the ceiling of a grand cathedral serving as backdrop behind them, Malone and Ness discuss the pathway to victory. "They pull a knife, you pull a gun," suggests Malone. "He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone!" Again, the tenor of this talk is more akin to war than to crime-fighting.

In addition, Malone notes that "The Lord hates a coward," a sentiment that sounds more appropriate to a conversation in a foxhole (where there are no atheists...) than in a campaign to bring a mere thug to justice. What the audience comes to understand is that Malone is a spiritual man, but one who believes that anything worth fighting for, is worth fighting dirty for. This is a point of view Ness learns much about in the course of the film.

In defining the central struggle of The Untouchables as a real, dirty war, De Palma even recruits the old-fashioned war movie cliche about a man discovering himself in the crucible of combat. During the Western-style scene set in Montana, the bookish, diminutive accountant, Wallace -- a man who has never been in battle -- unexpectedly finds himself, under fire, a paragon of bravery: taking down Capone's men in a daring frontal assault. By contrast, Ness ends this engagement underneath a car...

What Are You Prepared to Do?

If the battle to unseat Capone from his throne of blood is a war, not simply a legal matter, then the men who fight him are great, larger-than-life warriors, and that's part of De Palma's visual vocabulary in The Untouchables as well.

On several occasions, the director composes shots meant to suggest the screen iconography of heroism. Above, I mentioned the interlude set in the wide-open country of Montana. Essentially, this set-piece harks back to the Old West (or at least our Hollywood memories of the Old West) and De Palma presents us with scenes of our stalwart heroes astride horses, carrying rifles and pistols...ready to heroically engage in combat.

The reflexive mental response to these images is to associate the G-Men -- the Untouchables -- with cowboys, or gunslingers...the heroes who single-handedly ride in and bring justice to imperiled frontier towns. Cowboys are part of our shared national mythology, as curator George Slosser, of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection at the University of California once observed: "They’re the embodiment of the American myth of the lone, rugged individual who comes into society and cleans it up. We all want to do it, but we don’t know how to do it. We live our everyday lives that don’t allow for this kind of simplistic vision. So we cheer for it."

Failing to discern De Palma's mode in The Untouchables, many film critics complained that a Western-style set-piece in a Chicago crime movie was distinctly out-of-place -- a glaring faux pas. However, if we gaze at De Palma's purpose here as one of elevating the heroes of The Untouchable to mythic, iconic status, it makes perfect sense that the director should mine the visual language of heroes that American generations have shared at the movies.

Outside the Old West-style sequence, De Palma on several occasions provides awe-inspiring group shots of the four crusaders -- shoulder to shoulder -- engaging in battle. They stride down the streets of Chicago, elbow-to-elbow, an "untouchable" line of heroism, approaching the camera...looming larger and larger in frame (and in our psyches).

In another sequence, as The Untouchables successfully take down a branch of Capone's operation in a warehouse, the music and the camera work practically swoon in simultaneous orgasm at the achievement. The camera spins dizzily around the four men, doing a celebratory victory dance or whirl. This is myth making, pure and simple.

Despite his cutthroat methods, Malone is practically elevated to the role of saint in The Untouchables; constantly associated with his belief in Christianity; his attachment to his Rosary beads, and so forth. Ness becomes the designated carrier of "righteousness" after a grieving mother (of the girl killed in the bombing) tasks him with the sacred mission of capturing and incarcerating Capone. Even Ness's wife is treated as a sort of immaculate Madonna figure; forever tolerant; forever supportive, forever accepting of the dangers in her husband's line of work.

It probably goes without saying, but these are not the stock characters of your typical crime-drama, shaded in naturalistic greys, but rather bold, iconic warriors...remembered for feats of great bravery. De Palma's camera-work again and again hammers home this point. For example, Malone is shot a hundred times (by a machine gun at close range!) and still lives long enough to share a crucial piece of information with the mourning Ness. The wise, cunning Malone -- in every way -- is the Obi-Wan Kenobi Elder of The Untouchables, the mentor and man who guides the hero (Ness) on his mythic, Joseph Campbell-style journey.

Oppositely, De Palma's technique is also to depict the villain, Al Capone, in a deeply unflattering light. After Capone murders one of his treacherous henchmen with a baseball bat, De Palma stages a terrific shot: a horrified withdrawal or retraction from the bloody action; an overhead shot that seems to literally recoil in horror as spilled, scarlet blood contaminates Capone's white table linens.

The cross-cutting, mentioned earlier, also serves to create a cause-and-effect feeling in regards to Capone. He states that he is not behind the violence; then we see the brutal violence conducted in his name for ourselves. The sequencing of these scenes makes the viewer aware that Capone is a liar; not to be trusted.

Finally, an effective villain must be powerful and menacing, and so in all of Capone's scenes, De Palma positions the gangster amidst almost unbelievable opulence. In the famous baseball bludgeoning scene, Capone dons a tuxedo to gain the appearance of respectability. Later, we see the crook sitting in an expensive seat at the opera house, crying his eyes out during a movingperformance (a nod to Coppola's gangster films...). Capone's hotel suite is luxuriant to the point of decadence and beyond.

Capone controls the city, and lives amidst absolute wealth, with absolute unchallenged power. This is the mountain that Ness must climb on his journey. He must defeat a man who controls all the channels of power; who possesses vast wealth; and who will use violence; who is deceitful and capricious in his bloody whims. We easily understand all this from De Palma's cross-cutting, production design, and choice of compositions. The script itself (and De Niro's interpretation of the character), seem to suggest some sub-textual resonance of Mussolini, only this is capitalism's Il Duce: a man who has gamed the system through money and intimidation.

The Odessa Steps Re-Framed: Homage, Intertextuality and Commentary

The most impressive scene in De Palma's The Untouchables is one that isn't even in the screenplay. Originally, Ness and Petri were supposed to nab Capone's accountant on a train, and there was to be a rather elaborate car/train chase. When this did not prove feasible from an economic standpoint, De Palma altered the scene to involve the accountant arriving at a train station, and Ness and Petri standing by to intercept him there.

During the attempted capture, there is a shoot-out with Capone's men, and two innocent by-standers are caught in the crossfire: a mother and her baby in a carriage. At one intense point, the carriage topples over the station's vast stone staircase in slow-motion. All around, bullets fly...and the carriage shakes and bumps as it careens to the bottom...

Again, this sequence is likely the demarcation point where some people will "get" and appreciate De Palma, and others will simply insist that he is a particularly gifted "thief." For in concept and execution, the staircase scene of The Untouchables is an intricate homage to Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 propaganda classic, The Battleship Potemkin.

In that film, the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence dramatized a massacre conducted by the Tsarist Regime, set atop a wide staircase. Civilians were brutally murdered in this bloody sequence, as Cossacks killed men, women and children. Famously, a baby carriage was depicted rolling down the staircase.

In original context, the Odessa Steps sequence was meant to demonize the Imperial Regime, to expose the fact that there was no depth to which it would not sink to hold onto to power in Russia. The scene is so famous in cinema history that some people have apparently believed that there was a massacre on the Odessa Steps even though the incident was a fictional one concocted for the film.

Those who accuse De Palma of lifting the Odessa Steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin should take one extra step -- beyond that of accusation -- and ask themselves why? What purpose does it serve to feature a similar sequence here, in this movie?

On one hand, we can certainly point to the deliberate homage and intertextuality we see throughout De Palma's canon. But furthermore, there's a reflexive quality to this reference in The Untouchables. To wit: the battle for capitalist control of Chicago is occurring, roughly, in the same time period that The Battleship Potemkin was made and distributed (circa 1925 - 1930). In other words, by cutting and shooting a sequence just like the Odessa Steps, De Palma is actually reflecting something that the characters of the time might have themselves conceivably understood or known about.

Much more importantly, however, De Palma has created a thematic relative of Potemkin; a kind of "pop" form of propaganda; a heroic myth elevating the G-Men in stature and deriding a corrupt system and the criminals -- like Capone -- who exploited it (the capitalist equivalent of the Tsarists).

De Palma's point -- captured beautifully in the slow-motion shoot-out -- is that Capone's Regime (like that of the Cossacks...) boasts no moral compunction about the murder of the innocent. It will hold onto control any way it can, as we have seen in the corner saloon bombing and now with the imperiled baby carriage. Ness's task is much more difficult: he must eliminate the entrenched, powerful bad guys (the hench-men of Capone) and defend the innocent simultaneously. Remember how that grieving mother told Ness to get Capone? Well, here Ness lands in an even more urgent variation of that scene: finally in the position to prevent the death of an innocent at the same time that he takes down the guilty.

So, yes, De Palma pays tribute to Eisenstein's shock cutting in the famous staircase battle, but he has done two other important things as well. First, he has raised audience "ire" over Capone's actions in the self-same manner as Eisenstein did in regards to the Tsarists;" exposing" a corrupt regime in the process. And secondly, he has re-purposed the "lifted" sequence so as to make a point about the nature of the all-out battle Ness is fighting.

Amazingly, De Palma crafts an action sequence in the very film language appropriate to the era of his film, the 1920s-1930s. In his review, critic Hal Hinson called the staircase shoot-out scene De Palma's "greatest stunt," only-half impressed, but I suggest that given the context, given the reflexivity, given the re-purposing of a classic sequence for a like thematic purpose, it is much more than a stunt. This is De Palma conceiving and deploying brilliant visuals to chart for audiences the epic nature of the Capone/Ness conflict.

Why does The Untouchables succeed as a grand entertainment and as a work of art? The answer involves our history as a nation. Just over two centuries old, America is still a young country at heart. Because our ancestors arrived from a variety of other countries, the U.S.A. lacks the coherent, long-standing mythology of Greece or Rome, of England or France. In many ways, the short history of America has involved the fashioning of a fresh, new mythology that can serve as the sturdy vehicle to carry our ideals into an unknown future . The Old West -- the era of righteous gunslingers -- is one critical part of that new-fangled mythology. As I wrote in The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, I believe that superheroes have, to a large degree, replaced the cowboy in this regard.

But nonetheless, in The Untouchables, Brian De Palma takes Ness's G-Men -- who fought for the rule of law in Chicago, -- and elevates them to the same epic stature Americans typically reserve for cowboys, war heroes, or supermen. We don't have an American Robin Hood; or American Three Musketeers. But the heroic, saintly and courageous Untouchables - at least in De Palma's cinematic interpretation -- more than suffice for the film's running time.

A visual exercise in mythbuilding, The Untouchables is De Palma's mainstream masterpiece; a supreme and rousing entertainment that dispenses with the predictable "grittiness" of the gangster drama and audaciously serves us up a symbolic fable in its place.


  1. Bravo, JKM. This is a wonderful exposition of a great film by De Palma. Your analysis of the triumphant Odessa Steps sequence brings new light to it. Your use of history and myth is especially useful in bringing more context to the film.

    This is easily one of my all-time favorite action sequences. That train station shoot-out is small comparatively to other more spectacular pieces in epic films, but it has an amazing fluidity. And the director spends most of the time lining up his pieces for the audience. Moving them in place... And then letting them go at it--in mostly slow motion!

    Great stuff, JKM. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Le0pard13, glad you enjoyed the review.

    I agree with you about the Odessa Steps shoot out -- there's a patience to it; a sort of relentlessness and fluidity about it. I love the scene, and think it works brilliantly.

    I watched The Untouchables for the first time in probably a decade in preparation for this review, and I was bowled over by what a great film it is; really spectacular. I had almost forgotten...


  3. This is a really great film and I think it's a testimony to it that there hasn't really been a great period gangsters film since... that is until Michael Mann's PUBLIC ENEMIES. It's a hard genre to pull off well, esp. after De Palma's masterful take on it.

    Once again, you provide a thought-provoking analysis to this film and I like how you made a strong case for its substantial qualities when it is easy to slam it for being an exercise in stylish excess. I think that is a superficial reading and, as you point out, there is a lot going on in this film.

    I also love the casting of Billy Drago as Nitti. He has a creepy air to him that is quite unsettling and a smug smirk that you want to see Ness and co. wipe off his face. Which, I guess, is what makes his comeuppance all the more satisfying.

    Great stuff!

  4. Hey J.D.!

    Thanks for the comment. I really need to see Public Enemies btw. It looks great, and I'm a Mann admirer.

    Regarding The Untouchables, it holds up really well. My opinion about style is that it is only excessive if it doesn't somehow reflect the content. I think that De Palma's gift is that his stylish touches go hand-in-hand with his themes/content. At least most of the time.

    And you're also right about Drago: he is absolutely malevolent as Nitti. Yikes. You really do want to wipe that shit-eating grin off his face...


  5. Yeah, I would be very curious to hear your thoughts about PUBLIC ENEMIES whenever you get a chance to check it out.