DE PALMA'S GANGSTER EPIC OPENED THIS WEEKEND IN 1987
At least a handful of posts around the internet have popped up recently to mark the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, which was released on June 3, 1987. Here are some links:
If you come into Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables expecting a history lesson, well, that’s your fault. In no way is this an accurate portrayal of treasury officer Eliot Ness and his showdown with the volcanic, tax-evading sociopath mobster Al Capone; what it is is a magnificent cops and robbers fable whose romanticism has only grown more endearing over the last thirty years.
With the razor-sharp, melodramatic score from the incomparable maestro Ennio Morricone, tapping into a certain urgency when needed, the prickly screenplay from the master, David Mamet, the slick cinematography, terrific suspense, and a cast who seemed to be born for their respective roles at the time, The Untouchables whisks along on its substantial merits, leaving all historical accuracy behind in lieu of a rich bit of pulp storytelling that makes it one of the best of all gangster films. And in 1987, this sort of story felt alien.
The mid 80s was a bit of a void for the gangster genre. Save for De Palma’s other gangster opus, Scarface in 1983, the genre had seen a significant ebb in the midst of Reagan’s “Morning in America” hedonism. A look back at the crooks and thieves of America’s past wasn’t in vogue, and The Untouchables represented a distant era of the country that hadn’t been explored during the decade. But De Palma delivered the goods, and his film was noticed; and as the decades tick away, the idiosyncratic style De Palma employs here has become both a relic and a flashpoint of a certain type of crime drama we may never see again...
...For all its pomp and circumstance at the time, The Untouchables has managed to sing even louder and sharper in this, it’s thirtieth year. It has all the familiar De Palma style flourishes, but remains a classic tale of cops and crooks, told less as a true story and more as a fable of pulp fiction, handed down through generations of kids who remember Eliot Ness wiping the streets clean of crime during the prohibition. De Palma captures the mysticism of these unflappable lawmen, dedicated to justice and unflinching in the face of danger. The purity of this story feels wholly unfamiliar when compared to the De Palma catalogue, full of rogues and murderers. But he manages to hit all the right beats to romanticize a bygone era in both cinema and American history.
De Palma’s action set pieces still work beautifully, for all their flaws. The shootout at the Canada border, the showdown between Ness and Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) on the rooftop, the Battleship Potemkin homage on the staircase in Grand Central and, most tragically, Nitti’s visit to Malone’s apartment… they all sing with the terrific choreography of a master at the top of his craft.
The immediate play would be to compare The Untouchables to the classic gangster films. How does it stack up against the likes of White Heat? The Godfather? Goodfellas? Maybe it isn’t as seamless or classic as some of the best of the genre – and for my money Carlito’s Way is the better De Palma entry into this field – but something about The Untouchables feels more timeless than just about any of the greats. Perhaps it’s the effervescent approach to the story, or Mamet’s killer words, or the impeccable casting that give the film a timeless quality. Whatever the case, the story has only gotten more potent and more captivating over the last thirty years.
Retouched: How Inaccuracy Improves De Palma’s Untouchables
by Brian Salisbury at Film School Rejects
It’s often the case that biopic films are judged by their adherence to the facts of the actual stories on which they are based. It would then stand to reason that the more accurate the filmic depiction, the better the movie. Right? Not necessarily. While creative license is often met with resistance, sometimes biopics benefit tremendously from veering heavily away from historical veracity.
Case in point, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables.
One would presume that the story of a legendarily irreproachable squad of law enforcement officers taking on one of the most notorious villains in American history would warrant no creative tinkering to sell to audiences. However, the 1987 movie takes a Tommy gun to the facts of Elliott Ness’ crusading squadron and the adversarial nature of his relationship with Capone. And thank goodness it does.
The actual story of The Untouchables is, cinematically speaking, as interesting as reading the language of the Volstead Act itself. There were no violent acts of retribution perpetrated by Capone against Ness’ men. Capone never went after Ness’ family, and in fact, Ness had no children during the years he pursued Capone. This would completely negate the scenes of Nitti outside Ness’ home as well as the moment wherein the mother of the little girl killed in the prologue instills confidence in Ness with her teary-eyed affirmation, “it’s because I know that you have children too.” In fact, the scene wherein Ness expels from his office a Capone agent attempting to bribe him represents the entirety of Capone’s nefarious tactics for dealing with the troublesome lawman.
Drama requires conflict; the more heated and personal that conflict, the more compelling the drama. Robert De Niro and Kevin Costner screaming at each other in a courtroom while Capone’s goons hold the mobster back from starting a full-on brawl, that’s dramatically viable. Less so is the fact that historically Capone and Ness were never actually in the same room with one another at any point in their lives. Frank Nitti being thrown off a roof by a vengeful Elliott Ness, incredibly dramatic! The real Frank Nitti killing himself on a railroad track–missing with the first shot to his own head–is more sad than dramatic.
Most importantly, The Untouchables crafts a bonafide boy scout out of Elliott Ness, aforementioned roof-tossing of Nitti aside. In reality, Ness was a troubled individual whose crusades beyond bootlegging included prosecuting anyone who had contracted a venereal disease. He had several failed marriages and ended up drinking himself penniless with several visits to brothels along the way. This suggests a man far more morally conflicted than the spit-polished hero of the film. Although we watch him wrestle with crossing the line in multiple scenes, there is always the sense of a greater good being pursued. Almost as a nod to his real-life, morally gray personal life, the last line of The Untouchables is Ness answering a question as to what he would do if Prohibition were repealed with, “I think I’ll have a drink.”
There are valid reasons to deride factual revision for the sake of entertainment, but when a filmmaker is concerned with the legend of a historical figure more than the textbook facts, it creates multiple perspectives by which to evaluate that figure’s worth. It also has the potential, as in the case of The Untouchables, to make for a far more thrilling cinematic experience.
30 Years Ago, Ennio Morricone Proved He Was Untouchable
by Michael Roffman at Consequence of Sound
All joking aside, there’s no denying how vital Morricone is to De Palma’s gangster epic. From the thudding main titles to the sweeping end credits, his Grammy Award-winning score rarely leaves a frame of the picture, glossing over the historical Chicago scenery, beefing up the undulating tension, and making every onscreen relationship feel palpable. That latter notion is by far the most important facet to his score, as the story’s success is paramount to whether or not you love the characters. If you do, you’re likely on the edge of your seat, hoping and praying that heroes like Malone and Stone make it out alive. If you don’t, well, De Palma’s blatant homage to Old Hollywood may come off a little too schmaltzy and cartoonish for your tastes. That’s how Ebert felt.
“De Palma’s Untouchables, like the TV series that inspired it, depends more on clichés than on artistic invention,” the late critic argued three decades ago for the Chicago Sun-Times. To his credit, he’s not wrong. The film leans heavily on clichés, but that’s kind of the point, as De Palma takes these familiar tropes to prey upon your emotions. Ness isn’t anything but The Good Cop out to “do some good” just as Capone isn’t anything but the big baddie who wants to see everyone “DEAD!” Arguably, the only face with any actual nuance is Connery, who, alongside De Niro, was the only true veteran of the bunch and had the chops to rise above David Mamet’s surprisingly mild screenplay. Though, unlike De Niro, he wasn’t fulfilling the hype of a major historical figure and wasn’t required to be a larger-than-life caricature, so he had a little more agency in front of the camera.
Morricone factored into all of this by carving out a score that gave a heart and muscle to De Palma and Mamet’s familiar archetypes. His compositions for The Untouchables are large and vibrant, gushing with all sorts of angst, swagger, and gusto. Take Capone’s theme, for instance, which thunders along with ragtime piano, boozy brass, and velveteen strings. It’s boisterous and over the top, but so is De Niro’s performance, and the ebbs and flows of Morricone’s instrumentation paint the scenery with broad strokes that actually wind up doing a lot of the heavy lifting for Scorsese’s prizefighter. The same treatment occurs for Costner’s Ness, namely his lonely plight as an unpopular Prohibition agent. Morricone’s “Death Theme”, which is without a doubt one of the composer’s most beautiful works to date, adds an unshakable weight to the officer’s violent quest. His ironclad determination in fighting for truth and justice is signified by the lone saxophone that pines at the solitude and loss that comes with such a fate.
As the film burns through its 119-minute runtime, Morricone’s themes quickly become signifiers, and that extends not only to the characters but their heroics and villainy. Maudlin flute watches over the Ness family, bass and drums belong to the mob, and brass lifts our four Untouchables far above the skylines of Chicago. These signifiers elevate a number of key scenes — the entire shootout on the Canadian border; Malone’s heart-wrenching, gory demise; and Ness’ cat-and-mouse rooftop chase with Frank Nitti — making Morricone more or less responsible for the strongest feelings one might draw from the film, whether it’s awe and wonder or suspense and remorse. The greatest example of this is at the very end, when Ness returns to his office to clean out his desk and finds a photo of his colleagues, two of whom are now deceased. Almost instantly, Morricone swoops in to catch us, tearfully uncorking all of those feelings we’ve been reserving for the film’s four untouchable heroes.
Even when he strays, Morricone never stumbles, and that much is obvious during the film’s climactic shootout at Union Station, aka The Baby Carriage Scene. Dubbed “Machine Gun Lullaby”, his composition for this sequence welds the sounds of a baby mobile to his more traditional brass and strings. It’s an unorthodox move that some may consider too on the nose, especially given how many shots De Palma supplies of the goddamn carriage. But, and this may be a reach (just roll with it), this juxtaposition is a brilliant subversion. Because in addition to turning the whole situation into a hazy nightmare, it also adds a certain gravitas to Ness’ psyche. If you recall, his whole charade against Capone truly started, at least narratively speaking, following an emotional run-in with the grieving mother of the little girl who died in the film’s opening. It was she who lit the fire under his shoes — Ness is also a parent, mind you — so it’s rather poetic the film would come full circle and place the life of another child in Ness’ hands.
The Untouchables: The Sacrifice of the Righteous, Prams, a Lot of Talk and a Badge in the Cult of De Palma
by Giuseppe Grossi at MoviePlayer
It's thirty years old, but seems even older. Reviewing The Untouchables today could make you think of a "badly-aged" movie, but that is not the case. Because the film already had a classic aftertaste at the end of the 1980s, impregnated as it was with rhythms, images, words and characters referring to a bygone movie era. Deliberately close to the imagination of the old noir, De Palma draws a city often emptied, desolate, dominated by the shadows of its characters. It seems like a purgatory in Chicago, full of silhouette in the darkness, inhabited by men of action and women waiting for the return of their hero home. In clear opposition, immediate, absolutely Manichaean struggle between good and bad, then we find the epic tale of the western, a genre also available from the retro soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and some shots as tight close-ups, directing the gaze of the characters. If the American cinema of those years exalted the hypertrophic power of the lonely, individualist hero capable of sufficing for himself (Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are the two highest representatives), De Palma rediscovers the pleasure of the group alchemy between complementary characters and men joined in risking everything in order to respond to their moral integrity. Men of other times, like their movie.
'The Untouchables': THR's 1987 Review
by Duane Byrge at The Hollywood Reporter
Four police chiefs, three district attorneys, a wad of grand juries couldn't bring Al Capone down. It took a green government graysuit named Eliot Ness to put him away. That irony buttresses this old-fashioned, well-crafted black hats vs. white hats shootout.
Paramount's going to have to hire more armored cars to transport The Untouchables' considerable box-office booty to its already teeming [Beverly Hills] Cop  vaults.
Straightforward and crisp, The Untouchables is a classically structured good-guy/bad-guy epic, pitting the square, wet-behind-the-ears Treasury agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) vs. America's most notorious, ruthless and powerful Prohibition-time gangster, Al Capone (Robert De Niro).
While overtly melodramatic, The Untouchables is a perceptive and hard-driven actioner. It's an intriguing character confrontation, loaded with ironies, both personal and social — on one side, the flamboyantly powerful gangster whose booze smuggling made him a popular hero amid a Prohibition-weary public; on the other side, a faceless outsider whose straitlaced, insistent dedication threatened to overturn the town's well-oiled troughs.
As Eliot Ness, Kevin Costner plays it tight to the vest. Those who recall Robert Stack's superbly confident portrayal and hail-hearty voice in the TV series may be initially turned off by this interpretation. But to Costner's considerable credit, he defers to the staid traits of character throughout; ultimately, it is these small, relentlessly Sunday School qualities that make his ultimate victory against the seemingly invincible Capone believable — the tortoise vs. the hare.
Throughout, the scrupulous Ness is nevertheless shrewd enough to surround himself with a trusted yet unorthodox team. Sean Connery as a wizened Irish beat cop, Charles Martin Smith as an eager beaver accountant, and Andy Garcia as a fearless rookie cop round out Ness' team of “Untouchables” — men who are most out of orbit in Capone's bloody Chicago universe.
The Untouchables' most entertaining scenes, unquestionably, center around these superb supporting characters; Connery and Smith, in particular, both make the most of their juicy roles. As Al Capone, Robert De Niro is mesmerizingly intimidating — characteristically, De Niro gained 30 pounds for the role, had his hairline altered, acquired a scar. One instant he's a populist-styled protector, the next, a rapacious killer — De Niro makes these instant transitions frighteningly believable. When he's on the screen, wide-eyed and smiling, your instinct is to duck and cover.
Also deserving praise on the bad guy's side is Billy Drago as the psycho, trigger-happy Frank Nitti — his mean and vicious glint is razor sharp.
Despite one excessively showy and laughable slo-mo, Potemkin-like scene — Ness wipes out a horde of thugs while rescuing a cascading baby carriage — director Brian De Palma brings The Untouchables in tight and true, in the spirit of Ness himself. Unlike Scarface, no one is likely to claim that this film's considerable violence is gratuitous.
Technical credits, like the supporting character portrayals, are well realized and particular. Marilyn Vance's costumes, from the luridly vivid gangster regalia to Ness' Sears-style graywear, are starkly expressive. Meticulous details, contrasting further the character consistencies, are evident throughout in the production design — credit visual consultant Patrizia von Brandenstein for the expressive period nuances. Ennio Morricone's astringent score, featuring a harsh and lyrical trumpet blend, is wonderfully piercing, the perfect sounds for this well-contrasted film.