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Sunday, February 3, 2019

Last week, Cinephilia & Beyond posted an article by Tim Pelan, full of details about the making of Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, along with many pictures from the set of the film, video from various source materials online, links to two PDF versions of the David Mamet screenplay, a link to an interview with De Palma from a June 1988 issue of Video magazine, and more.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Pelan's article:

Screenwriter David Mamet came up with a Stanislavski quote to describe The Untouchables: “Tragedy is just heightened melodrama.” Brian De Palma, director of The Untouchables, practically has “heightened melodrama” in his list of job requirements. De Palma and Mamet, Capone and Ness. A no-brainer, in retrospect. Yet both were just bodies for hire. The writing gig was first offered to the late Pulitzer-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Whatever the reason for her dismissal, the Chicago-born Mamet, who grew up with folk tales of Capone and his cronies, ended up taking the job for “a shitload of money,” off his own Pulitzer success with play Glengarry Glen Ross (The Writer’s Guild of America still wanted to give Wasserstein a credit however). As for “The Chicago way”? Just Mamet jazz, man. You take something, burn it down to the ground and then you build it back up again. And that’s how you get Capone! In 1984, producer Art Linson enthused with Paramount Studio’s president Ned Tanen about adapting The Untouchables television series into a film. Tanen envisioned a “big-scale movie about mythical American heroes.” Mamet saw it as a kind of Western, about “the old gunfighter and the young gunfighter… It occurred to me, what happens if this young innocent, who’s charged with defending the law but only understands that in an abstract way, meets an old disenchanted veteran, the caretaker of the law, soured at the end of his career because of the corruption in the city?” De Palma was approached, off the back of a couple of box office disappointments, after Mamet turned in his third draft. He also appreciated the Western angle, a kind of Magnificent Seven vibe. He considered The Untouchables to be “different from anything I’ve done in the past, because it’s a traditional Americana picture, like a John Ford picture.”

The film opens with its own “opening crawl” if you like, De Palma riffing on pal George Lucas. Before that some very film noir titles, with marching shadows cast across the credits by the letters of the title accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s “Strength of the Righteous” theme. Sycophantic gentlemen of the press wait in silence upon Capone (Robert De Niro), wrapped in hot towels for his morning shave in his opulent hotel suite—off to the left in an overhead descending crane shot, whilst text illuminates:

1930. Prohibition has transformed Chicago into a City at War. Rival gangs compete for control of the city’s billion dollar empire of illegal alcohol, enforcing their will with the hand grenade and tommy gun. It is the time of the Ganglords. It is the time of Al Capone.

Art director William A. Elliott and De Palma envisioned that Capone and his environs should be reminiscent of the court of Louis IV (“He’s the Sun King”), hence the sunburst motif in his suite’s inlaid wooden floor. Everyone waits for him to speak, or for a burst of anger, tamped down, when the barber pricks his skin after a question about illegality. He laughs it off instead. “Responding to the will of the people,” against the strictures of the Volstead Act (Prohibition of booze) is so much hyperbole to the suck-ups. “People are gonna drink,” he smirks… “all I do is act on that.” Like Donald Trump and his “build that wall” mania, Capone plays on people’s base desire, whilst he lives large in the pampered luxury of his own Trump Tower, the Lexington Hotel (I suppose the main difference between Capone and Trump is the former was an actual hard case, three people dying by his hand, or bat, and he has a working business brain, making actual money hand over fist). “My image of The Untouchables is that corruption looks great,” De Palma says in the DVD extras, “like Nazi Germany. It’s clean, it’s big, everything runs smoothly. The problem is all of the oppressed people are in some camp somewhere, and nobody ever sees them. So the world of (Capone’s) Chicago is a slick world, a world that’s run by big money and corruption. And it has to look fabulous.” Outside and in—De Niro even wore the same Sulka and Co. branded silk underwear as Capone.

In contrast, Kevin Costner’s white knight Treasury agent Elliot Ness, brought in from outside the corrupt city limits to tackle Capone head on, is introduced anonymously in his modest home, face not even revealed as he takes his morning coffee. His wife Catherine (the luminous Patricia Clarkson) sees him off to work after reading about a car bomb that kills a young innocent, caught up in Capone’s enforcer Frank Nitti’s crackdown on those who don’t buy their watered-down booze. Ness is revealed face on finally at the police headquarters, this time to a cynical press. Did this choir boy wear a hair shirt under his wardrobe?

Never has the old adage—when the legend becomes fact, print the legend—been more apt. Ness and Capone never met, and going to jail for income tax evasion is not very suspenseful. “So I made up a story about two of the good guys,” Mamet recalled. “Ness and Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery, playing a jaded beat cop), the idealist and the pragmatist.” The real squad comprised Ness and nine handpicked men. The film whittled the number down to a manageable four, the remainder comprised of Andy Garcia as cadet crack shot George Stone (real name Giuseppe Petri, kicking against inherent force racism), and Charles Martin Smith as the almost comic relief accountant Oscar Wallace, who unlocks the trick to bringing down Capone. De Palma and Linson originally wanted Garcia for the Nitti role, but he wisely pushed for his star making turn here (“You got him?” “Yeah, I got him.” We’ll get to that gem of a scene later.). Billy Drago, a one-time stuntman with stiletto bladed cheekbones and sly eyes did however make an indelible mark as Nitti, aided also by wardrobe. The natty killer always dresses in white suits, like “an angel of death.” As for Wallace, De Palma’s direction to Smith was, “I want the audience to be laughing with your character right up until ‘boom!’ (spoiler) you get it.”

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Posted by Geoff at 2:42 PM CST
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