The Untouchables

Brian De Palma
Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Andy Garcia
The Setup: 
Elliott Ness assembles a team to catch Al Capone.

I’m in the midst of a mini-gangster theme, having just finished the book of Public Enemies, about all the depression-era gangsters, and about to read a book about 30s and 40s gangsters in Cuba. And after re-watching Bugsy I decided maybe it’s time to watch this, which is also the last major De Palma film I haven’t seen recently. Now if I want more De Palma I need to start venturing into Dionysus in ’69 territory.

I had an idea that with this directed by De Palma and written by David Mamet, the main idea would be iconization of these pure-hearted American lawmen—and I was right! The iconization begins first thing with the title, which is presented as a word that casts long shadows, then retreats and remains in the background while the rest of the credits play. Then we cut to the below shot, obviously artfully composed and balanced, and this is when I breathe a sigh of relief to be back in De Palma territory. We are informed that it’s 1930 Chicago, and prohibition has resulted in a street war over illegal alcohol. Al Capone, the man in the chair, is referred to as the real Mayor of Chicago, and says that he never uses violence to do his business. Cut to a bar where the owner refuses to buy the mob’s illegal liquor. Another man leaves his briefcase in the place, and a little girl grabs it and runs after him—and you’re like “They’re not going to kill a little girl first thing, are they?” but oh yes, they are. Harsh times in Chicago!

We now introduce Costner as Elliott Ness, about to go to work as head of a group dedicated to bringing down Capone. He spends the whole scene with his back to us, so we can iconify his rigid posture and natty suit. He goes in and gives a speech to his police unit, telling them that they must lead by example and from then on, never touch a drink. I have a friend who is a cop and he told me he was all inspired by this scene and the ideals of law enforcement, until he realized that the point of the scene is to show how naïve Ness is at the beginning.

Ness leads a big raid on a liquor shipment, based on a tip he got, and after a big self-righteous scene, discovers that he intercepted a shipment of Chinese umbrellas. He gets a large picture of himself with one, looking like a fool, splashed across the front page. That night he is moping on a bridge when beat cop Sean Connery as Malone stops by and asks him what he’s doing. Malone immediately detects that Ness is carrying a gun, and impresses him with his good-cop idealism and hard-nosed experience. After a few more scenes Ness shows up at Malone’s apartment and asks him to join his team, because he needs good cops who know what they’re doing and have street smarts. Malone says at this point it’s more important to stay alive, but of course soon relents.

By now we have cause to note, as per usual with De Palma, that there are a great many beautifully-composed shots and exciting camera movements. I have also noted, having just watched Bugsy, that Ennio Morricone seems to have virtually recycled some of his themes here for that movie, particularly for the quiet talking scenes. Such a scene is the big scene in which Malone tells Ness that he’s going to have to break the law and use extreme force if he’s going to go up against Capone. “That’s the Chicago way,” he says. They soon recruit crack shot Andy Garcia as Stone, and also this small accountant who has been telling them they could get Capone on income-tax evasion. Malone leads them to a huge illegal liquor bust and it seems like everything’s going well.

We now join Capone for a big dinner in which he abruptly beats a man to death with a baseball bat. A person on IMDb found this scene to be completely out of the blue and unrelated, and while it’s clearly a response to the raid and to show how ruthless Capone is, it is true that it kind of comes and goes without a sense of being integrated… and the larger issue is that Capone is never really that developed and as a result Ness and Capone never really gel as rivals. It comes off that Ness is against illegal liquor of any kind, and Capone just happens to be a purveyor of it. Anyway, soon Ness refuses a bribe, and this is where the “Untouchables” name comes from.

So there’s going to be a big liquor shipment coming through Canada or somewhere, and suddenly we’re looking at shots like the one below, which caused me to say “Okay guys, enough with the iconization, okay? We GET it.” Blah, blah, big shootout, Untouchables on horseback like cowboys, Malone wants to rough up the prisoner but Ness won’t let him, etc. Once back in Chicago, the accountant is killed. Threats have been made against Ness’ wife and kids, and they’ve been moved to an undisclosed location. There’s the required moment where Ness wants to just give up. Malone has a huge fight with a corrupt cop.

Well, it’s time for Malone to die. Before he does, he takes a drink, and a trivia item on IMDb mentions that everyone who takes a drink in this movie dies. I didn’t go through with a comb to verify. Anyway, he ends up getting shot with a machine gun, and loses several gallons of blood, yet is still alive seemingly an hour or two later when Ness shows up, and is able to deliver the crucial bit of information that will tie Capone to tax evasion. I confess I have no idea how he came by this info. Connery gets a death scene that, um, is not small-scale, and is intercut with shots of Capone weeping at the opera, which may cause some to roll their eyes.

Next—the big staircase shootout! The object is to get the accountant, escorted by the mob, who can tie Capone to tax evasion. This is an extended homage to the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin, and was apparently a last-minute idea by De Palma upon seeing the location. I’m afraid that for me, going in knowing that this was the big showpiece, it came off like… a big showpiece. Just a tiny tad bit contrived, and not in a way that totally works, as I find most of De Palma just works, despite being entirely contrived. First we have Ness waiting at the top of this huge staircase, noticing a mother with a baby carriage and two bags at the bottom of the stairs. It’s not long before you start to notice that this is the slowest, most helpless, awkward mother in recorded history, who will clearly require the better part of a decade to make it up that staircase. She also has a baby boy who looks to be two years old at least. Both of which tip the balance of the scene into too-obvious contrivance, and the shootout hasn’t even started yet. So the accountant comes in, surrounded by gangster thugs, there’s a huge slow-motion shootout while the baby carriage bounces down the stairs between the flying bullets, and for me it was one of De Palma’s less successful setpieces. There’s the contrivance issue, already discussed, and for me it was just a bit much with the slow-motion, which, if you’re removed from the scene, only makes the scene you’re not interested in longer. Blah, blah, they get the accountant.

So suddenly we’re in court, and the accountant gives his testimony, and we see that the jury has all been bought off, so Ness gets the judge to switch out the jury, and Malone’s killer is in the courtroom, leading to a big rooftop shootout and chase. I’m afraid by now the movie had pretty much lost me. The rhythm is starting to seem a bit choppy [SUDDENLY we’re at the train station. SUDDENLY we’re at the trial] and although I knew the rooftop guy had killed Malone, I didn’t really know what his larger role was, so I was watching the big final shootout with the same sense you get from a James Bond film: Something really exciting is happening onscreen, but I have no idea where or what or why, I’m just watching. The movie does make the big point that Ness is now a changed man and has embraced violence and is ready to do whatever it takes. Then he goes back into the courtroom and—poof!—the trial’s over! Capone is going to jail. Ness makes a speech in his face. He later says goodbye to Stone, since their group is breaking up, and that’s the end.

Eh. It sets out to be a big, popular movie, and that’s what it is. A big, popular movie. I was hoping for more, honestly. De Palma brings his careful direction and sense of cinema to it, but I think there’s not much here that really resonates in a personal way for him, and it kind of shows. This is straightforward and well-made, but one never senses the fevered passion that one gets out of other De Palma films. Part of that may be is that this story, and the idea here—noble straightforward American idealism—is the very opposite of kinky and secretive, which usually inspired De Palma to great heights. For contrast, look to Mission: Impossible, which is also trying to be big and popular, but is also fantastic.

Partly responsible for this films inability to overwhelm is David Mamet’s script. Mamet is not exactly known for his subtlety, and has never been known for the focus of his stories. Here the movie develops a very scattered, haphazard rhythm in the last half hour. There’s no build-up to the big train shootout, the sequence just starts. There’s no buildup to the big trial scene, we divert from it for a chase after someone I don’t think is very integral to the story, and when we come back the trial is just OVER. No process, no anything, it’s just suddenly over almost before it began, and… then… that’s IT? Overall it kind of seems like we watched one coherent movie developing these characters and this dynamic up until the train station shootout, and then we had to just wrap the movie up. Like a TV series that finds out its being canceled and needs to wrap everything up in the last few episodes.

But I am being much more harshly critical of this because it’s a De Palma film. If it had been anyone else I’d probably be much more forgiving, but then again, I probably wouldn’t have re-watched it again [although I did just re-watch Bugsy by that hack Barry Levinson, so who can say]. There are very, very good things about it, and I just wish they were better. Kevin Costner was an inspired choice for the lead [he was far less known when he was cast] because not only does he get across the good clean [slightly stupid] American quality they’re going for, he fills out the iconic American look they cast him in. When Sean Connery got the Oscar for this it was said that it was more for his career than for this role, but I say he earned his Oscar for this role, in part because he BRINGS the resonance as a paragon of manhood of his whole career into this role. Here he is the wise patriarch and there’s something about the way he fills out his “good experienced cop” role here that is very moving. De Niro does his menacing crazy thing well, but we’re all familiar with it, and the character of Capone is sadly underdeveloped. A lot of the shots are knockouts and you’re definitely in the hands of a director who knows what he’s doing, but ultimately what you end up with is… big and popular.

Should you watch it: 

If you’re into gangsters or cops. Being a De Palma fan is probably not the most compelling reason to seek this out.