"Mr. Ness! I do not approve of your methods."
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When I was young, my brother and I were introduced to many films by our parents. It was mostly movies from their youth, like The Blues Brothers and the Indiana Jones series. Some of these films you will notice do not exactly feel suitable for child’s viewing. One such film was Brian De Palma’s 1987 crime classic The Untouchables.
Right off the bat (pun intended), the film felt distinct with its title sequence, where the long shadows remind one of bars from a prison cell, supported by Ennio Morricone’s tense and foreboding score. Then came the way the film was shot, the God’s eye view overlooking Al Capone now etched into my memory forever. What I remembered most though, was the violence. It was shocking as a child to see a kid get blown up in such a matter-of-fact way in only the second scene of the film. Another memorable scene came in the form of Al Capone bashing one of his subordinates to death with the aforementioned baseball bat. The image of the aftermath, the pool of blood surrounding the dead man’s head stayed with me for a long time, even as my parents covered my eyes during it. As you can understand, the film made quite an impression on me, but even greater in retrospect as it was most likely the work that introduced me to Brian De Palma’s filmography.
The story of The Untouchables is a fairly simple one. There is a basis in fact, though one needs not concern themselves with the history behind the real-life characters since the screenplay, written by famed Chicago playwright David Mamet, is mostly a work of fiction. The Untouchables takes place in Chicago during the year 1930, when Prohibition was in practice and usurped by ruthless gangsters who ruled the city. The person truly in charge was Alphonse “Al” Capone, portrayed by Robert De Niro. Touting himself as an innocent businessman, Capone reigned with terror and violence, a point the film makes very early in on. Assigned to stop him is Treasury Agent Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner in a star-making performance. Unlike his bought-out contemporaries, Ness believes in justice and aims to bring Capone down, no matter the costs. However, there is little he can do as a majority of his partners in the police department are in the pocket of Capone himself. That’s when he hatches the plan to form a small unit of handpicked cops, cops who cannot be bought by a cheap bribe, cops who are “untouchable.”
The first to be recruited is veteran Irish cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery in his Oscar-winning performance). Through Malone, Ness learns the “Chicago way,” using the same tactics as the crooks to put them behind bars. The other two recruits are both new to the field in their own way: marksman George Stone (Andy Garcia) proves his worth to the other members, both as an Italian-American and as a dedicated officer of the law. Fellow Treasury agent Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) is formally an accountant, but inexperienced when it comes to field action. However, it’s his knowledge of accounts and bookkeeping that helps bring the most crucial piece of evidence against Capone: income tax evasion.
To me, The Untouchables feels like a perfect storm, a film made by the right people at the right time. By the time he agreed to direct the film, De Palma had almost thirty years of filmmaking experience to guide him, and had mastered the art of visual storytelling, as seen in such brilliant films as Sisters, Carrie, and Blow Out. I think his style brings a freshness to the period gangster film that would otherwise feel rather quaint at this point. For his stab at the genre, De Palma pulls no punches and brings all his cinematic tricks: long takes, unusual camera angles, split diopters, steadicam, POV-shots; all in the name of Hitchcockian levels of suspense.
He also brings a grand, operatic sense of scope to the film that feels at times like a perfect blend between the majesty of David Lean with the American mythology of John Ford. And of course, we cannot discuss The Untouchables and its relationship to classic and foundational cinema without mentioning the train station shootout, an outright salute to the Odessa Step sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. A superb sequence and a perfect filmmaking lesson in building tension, establishing geography and dramatic payoff, made even more impressive when one realizes it was added fairly late in the production process as a replacement to a more logistically elaborate train chase.
When you look at your resume, you see all of these very iconic characters. What is it like for you as an actor to have those iconic characters on your resume and for that to be what people recognize you for?
JOHNSON: For me, I mean, I just have this blessed career, and that people, my fans and the audience out there, tend to follow me into whatever adventure I'm going on. The biggest challenge was to break the stereotype of Sonny Crockett.
To that end, during that time - I'll tell you a story that I don't think I've ever revealed to anyone - I was offered a movie that went on to become a very big movie. The character was a slick-dressing - it was a period piece - but he was a slick-dressing guy, and it was all about the bad guys and the FBI, and all that stuff, and at the time I said, "Okay, I've got to not do this if I want to have a career outside of the slicky boy hero type. I've got to not take this part," even though I know it's going to be pretty good, and I loved the director. He was a friend of mine. It was a Brian De Palma film, I'll give you that much.
I turned it down, and I've struggled with that over the years, but I also think that it was the difference between me being identified forever as Sonny Crockett, even though it was a different film. It's just kind of when you do something that's similar, then you further get yourself put into a box of, "Oh, well this is who he is," and it's a challenging thing. So, I've been very fortunate in that I've been able to play a variety of different characters, and the audience will follow me and go with me everywhere, and honestly, I think it comes down to the training and the preparation.
PERRI NEMIROFF: The line, “It was like he took my voice that day, just when I was about to start finding it,” has crushed me every single time I watch this movie. In an effort to highlight some of the good out there that we need more of, can each of you tell me about someone that you encountered early on in your careers who made you feel supported and respected, and helped you take a positive first step forward when you were first starting out?
ANDRE BRAUGHER: I had never done a film before and I didn't know anything about filming. I didn't know what a mark was. I didn't know how to match my actions. I didn't know what a close-up was. This was on Glory, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman really put their arms around my shoulders and led me through the process of how to work with a camera, how to understand how to bring out my performance, how to modulate it for the camera, and I'm forever grateful for that. Our careers have gone in a million different directions and I haven't worked with either one of them since 1989, but they were part of the foundation of my career in film and television. And so, I'm very grateful to them today for what they did in 1989.
PATRICIA CLARKSON: The very first movie I ever did was The Untouchables, with [Brian] De Palma directing, [Robert] De Niro, [and] Kevin Costner. But De Palma was remarkable to me. I'd never been on film. He taught me all about film. He was so loving to me and wonderful. I was broke and he convinced Paramount that Mrs. Ness had to be all through the courtroom even though there was one quick close-up of me and that was it. But I got paid for an extra month, and it saved me! [Laughs] He saved me. And so he was such a mentor. He was my first big film encounter, and I know Brian De Palma, you know, kind of a bad boy and crazy guy in Hollywood, but he was incredible to me, and I'm always thankful for how he really stood up for Mrs. Ness.
Early in your career, you shot second unit on Apocalypse Now. What was most memorable?
I was originally brought over because they didn’t have enough footage on the helicopter attack. I did a lot of inserts and then they didn’t have the big formations, so I had to do all the formations. Well, I had been in the Army and shooting training movies, and I shot a training picture on helicopter assault. So I knew technically how the army lays out the formations. There are a whole series of formations. It depends on what kind of assault you’re doing. So from that, I kind of garnered a way to organize the helicopters. We would all take off and we’d do what I used to call the assembly. We’d all get up in the air and we’d fly straight until we got everybody in position. And then we’d make a right hand turn, and that was the rehearsal leg, so we’d do the rehearsal and make sure it was okay. Then we’d do another assembly leg, and then we would do the shooting leg, and we would fly many helicopters in this great big square formation.
You had very successful collaborations with a number of directors including Brian De Palma. What makes for a successful collaboration with a director?
You have to remember, it’s never about you. It’s always about the picture.
[Additionally] it’s important that you always back up the director and never go behind their back. The producer tries to get you to do that. The actors try and get you to do that, and you should have no part of it and just shut it down immediately when it happens, because all that does is sow conflict and it just screws up the picture.
So how did you and Brian work?
We had a very unusual working relationship. We never talked very much. We’re both kind of not talkers. Typically on a movie he would show me what he wants to do. He’d show me the staging and he would say, ‘how long?’ And I’d say ’45 minutes.’ And in about a half hour when I had it all together he would come back in and I would say to him, ‘I changed this and I changed that.’ And he would go ‘fine.’ And if he didn’t like it, he would go, ‘why don’t you do this and this.’ It was a very pyramiding kind of thing; we would just work it out. And it was very sparse communication.
The first time I went in for an interview, he said, ‘let me tell you what I don’t like about cameramen.’ And I said, ‘well, let me tell you what I don’t like about directors.’ I said, ‘I don’t like directors who don’t direct. I don’t get enough money to do my job and the director’s job.’ And he looked at me, he goes, ‘fine, you’re hired’ and walked out the door. That was our first meeting.
He’s a very quiet guy. A very smart guy. Really, really sensitive. My favorite thing with him, was we were doing The Untouchables (1987) and the Capone scenes with Bobby (DeNiro, who played Al Capone). He would do versions because Brian wanted a different kind of scene with Capone to balance the picture out. So we would do a version where they they’d just do a straight version. They’d do one where Capone’s yelling and screaming, and there’d be one where he was quiet. And so they would have this great conversation where you have Brian on one side, Bobby on the other side. It was so much fun to watch them.
Would you tell us about filming the scene in The Untouchables on the steps of the train station?
Originally in the script, the accountant gets on the train and the train takes off and the Untouchables get in a series of cars and chase the train and they finally stop the train. We had a great location for this, and the whole fight was on the train. The train was stopped, people shot through the windows and all of that stuff was going on. But Paramount decided it was too expensive to do, so it had to be replaced.
The first idea that Brian had was to instead do it on steps in front of a hospital [where in the story Eliot Ness’ wife had just had a child]. Brian always likes areas where there is difficulty for the actors to move around, because that retards the action. So you could build up the suspense. But they couldn’t find [the right location].
And so at the train station, we had the big set of steps. It was hard for them to go up and down the steps. And also it’s a confined area and there’s nowhere to escape. So you have two elements going for you, it’s physically hard, and you’re just out in the open, you’re just stuck. You have to slug it out. Then to help retard the action he had the baby carriage and the baby, because that mirrored the father. He had just become a new father. And so he went for the baby.
Enthused, co-host Chris Ryan then adds, "And you've still got your scouting department out there finding Andy Garcias in the fifth round! Watching 8 Million Ways To Die tape and being like, 'I love this guy!'"
A bit later, after some brief discussion of the film's budget and how the filmmakers essentially made a hundred-million dollar movie for about 20-million, Ryan continues: "Not only what a bargain, but also it goes across the board, beyond even the big names that we just mentioned, where, when you watch a movie like this, you're seeing like every single part of what goes into making a movie at its absolute best. Like, the cinematography is great, the outfits are amazing, the production design is amazing. I know that stuff isn't that fun to talk about, but it is kind of like, this is when Hollywood was really Hollywooding. Like they REALLY made... and when you watch it, still to this day - there's some slower parts of it - but ... this is a really really really entertaining movie that just delivers, like, every single time."
“One of our big references is the Coen brothers’ balance between tragedy and comedy and how they find that line, allowing something to be meaningful but also comical and absurd at the same time,” Herse says about working with Bill Hader, who co-created the show, stars in the title role and directs many episodes, most recently including Season 3 finale “Starting Now.”
“Bill is very specific as a director. A lot of times on TV shows, you have showrunners who have a writing background but are not necessarily as visual, episodic directors who are trying to get many coverage options for the showrunners to decide what direction they want to go with,” Herse adds. “On our show, ‘coverage’ is a dirty word. Bill is extremely intentional with the camera. A lot of times, the director and I will not want to move an actor if they want to stand or enter or exit a scene in a specific way. But because Bill is an actor, he can speak to the actors from their perspective, which allows us to design shots ahead of time.”
Herse explains the way the final sequence switches from third-person to first-person perspective as Barry lurks into Jim’s home, inspired by the scene in Brian De Palma’s 1987 film “The Untouchables” when Jim Malone (Sean Connery) is stalked in his own apartment. Barry silently observes and prepares to shoot Jim until he hears the word “Freeze!,” shocking him into stillness. Barry is depicted in a wide-eyed close up as disembodied voices yell at him to drop his gun. Like in the previous scenes with Hank and Cristobal, information rolls in at the same rate that Barry processes it. Jim turns around slowly and Barry realizes that Jim set him up. SWAT team members emerge from the darkness, revealing Cousineau standing behind them and Barry realizes that Cousineau was in on it.
Herse emphasizes that whereas a more conventional production would have shot Barry, Cousineau, Jim and the SWAT team from various angles to compile later on, “this is an example of a scene where there is no coverage in the way that people think of television coverage. Bill likes to shoot scenes in a way that can only really be edited in one way and he will only shoot a scene one shot at a time so that you won’t wear the actors out, so they only have to reach those heights a few times.”
Though Jim only appears in the last three episodes of the season, “Starting Now” ends with him. The final shot of Jim standing outside of his home and framed within his living room windows. The camera peers at him from inside as blue and red lights flash and sirens soften.
Our Flick of the Week is Brian DePalma`s "The Untouchables," the first really good film of the summer season, giving us a much different view of Treasury agent Eliot Ness from the stern, tough Ness played by Robert Stack on the 1959-63 TV show.
Here, Ness (Kevin Costner in a star-making performance) plays Ness as a young, innocent, Gary Cooper type who is forced to beg a tough but honest Chicago cop (Sean Connery) for help on how to "get Capone."
With two other recruits who can`t be touched by corruption, Ness slowly and painfully learns that an eye for an eye may not be a bad philosophy when dealing with a totally corrupt system.
Ethics aside, the filmmaking by DePalma is stylish and alternates between shocking surprise and hold-your-breath quiet.
Only a needless scene of Ness and Canadian Mounted Police stopping an illegal liquor shipment seems out of place. The time wasted could have been better spent with more scenes of Robert De Niro, quite chilling as Al Capone, a role that requires skill to rise above caricature.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet deserves credit for giving DePalma the best script he has ever filmed--one with a great rooting interest as well as violent ironies.
"The Untouchables" is violent to be sure, giving it an R rating. It is playing at the United Artists, Esquire and outlying theaters. ***1/2
When we talk about “The Untouchables,” the first scene that leaps to mind is the famous exchange between Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness and Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica in East Garfield Park, when Malone tells Ness if he wants to get Al 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! And that’s how you get Capone.”
That’s the scene Barack Obama quoted during the 2008 presidential campaign. That’s the scene that likely cemented the best supporting actor Oscar for Connery. It’s iconic. It’s fantastic. But as we observe the 35th anniversary of Brian De Palma’s Chicago-centric classic’s opening in June 1987, I’ve come to love another snippet of dialogue even more than the aforementioned quote. It’s the moment when Ness confronts a judge in his chambers and justifies his actions: “I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I swore to defend, I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!”
All of a sudden, this taciturn man sounds downright Shakespearean in his eloquence in a moment of great passion and it’s not the least bit plausible but it’s great, and that’s your David Mamet screenplay right there. For all its moments of stunning violence and outlaw rage, “The Untouchables” is also unforgettable for Mamet’s brilliant dialogue and his wildly inventive plot, which contains two pieces of historical fact:
1.There was an infamous Chicago gangster named Al Capone.
2.There was also a prohibition investigator named Eliot Ness who formed a team of agents known as the Untouchables.
On those two counts, “The Untouchables” stays true to the facts. That’s about it. All right, so we might be engaging in a little hyperbole of our own here, but great swaths of “The Untouchables” are pure imagination. Jimmy Malone is a fictional construct. The raid at the Canadian border, the courthouse shootout, the famous staircase scene in Union Station … none of if happened. (Nor did Eliot Ness throw Frank Nitti off the roof of a downtown building. More than a dozen years after the events depicted in “The Untouchables,” Nitti shot and killed himself in a railroad yard a few blocks away from his home in Riverside.)
Does it matter? Not really. We love “The Untouchables” because it’s essentially a 1930 Western pitting the underdog good guys led by Eliot Ness against the rotten-to-the-core bad guys of the Capone-helmed Chicago mob, and it’s filled with that memorable dialogue and a myriad of beautifully executed set pieces. It’s a key chapter in Kevin Costner’s ascent to movie stardom, as “No Way Out” was released later in that same summer of 1987, followed by “Bull Durham” in 1988, “Field of Dreams” in 1989 and “Dances with Wolves” in 1990. (Pretty good run!) “The Untouchables” was also an early touchstone in the career of Andy Garcia — and of course we got that career-crowning, Academy Award-winning performance from Connery as the Irish Chicago cop with the Scottish accent.
De Palma and his director of photography Stephen H. Burum set the flourishing visual tone early on, in twin scenes introducing us to Capone and then Ness. The first time we see Robert De Niro’s Al Capone, it’s an overhead shot as Capone holds court with reporters while getting his shoes shined, a manicure and a shave. Here is a man of opulence; here is a man of power. Here is a man who flaunts his criminal ways in public, telling the media, “There is violence in Chicago of course — but not by me and not by anybody I employ and I’ll tell you why: because it’s not good business.” Whatever you say, Scarface.
We cut to the Ness household, all warm and cozy and understated, as Eliot Ness reads the newspaper with the headline about a 10-year-old girl who was killed in an explosion caused by Capone’s henchman Frank Nitti. After a loving exchange with his saintly wife (a perfectly cast Patricia Clarkson), Ness heads out to his first day on a new assignment: taking down Al Capone and the Chicago syndicate. It’s clear from the get-go he’s a decided underdog.
Much of the fun in rewatching “The Untouchables” (released Tuesday in 4K Ultra HD) is spotting all the Chicago locales. (A notable exception: the railway raid, with Montana filling in for Canada.) The café blown up in the opening scene is now the site of the Houndstooth Saloon in Lakeview; the pedestrian deck of the Michigan Avenue Bridge is where Ness meets Jimmy Malone; the site of Capone’s infamous baseball bat-bashing of a wayward underling is the Crystal Ballroom of the Blackstone Hotel on South Michigan Avenue. As we see from the address scribbled on Frank Nitti’s matchbook, Jimmy Malone lived at “1634 Racine,” an apartment that has since been supplanted by University of Illinois-Chicago structures. As for the “Lexington Hotel” where Capone is holed up — the first floor is actually the Chicago Theatre.
“The Untouchables” is heavy on the fiction, but thanks in large part to those great Chicago locales, it feels palpable and real.
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