The Untouchables

This first film of the marathon sets us amidst the gang warfare of prohibition-era Chicago in what is perhaps one of the most widely seen movies on our list: Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables. If you are in your thirties or older you more than likely saw The Untouchables when it came out in 1987, it was to the 80′s what Pulp Fiction was to the 90′s, a phenomenon that a wide segment of the film-going public flocked to see. An update of the classic television serial starring Robert Stack, DePalma’s sentimental depiction of hard-boiled crime fighters pits Inspector Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his Prohibition Bureau team against the iconic gangster, Al Capone (Robert DeNiro). With the help of a wizened mentor played by Sean Connery, Ness and his team of underdogs seek to take down Capone ‘the Chicago way’, invoking an all out war between factions. My first impressions of the film in 1987 were admittedly superficial and unburdened by an awareness of craft. To me it was not a DePalma film operating in emulation of previous conventions, but an exciting action caper playing out childhood hero fantasies between cops and robbers.

Al Capone

Revisiting the film many decades later, my impressions of the film have unavoidably changed and as much as I can appreciate the potboiler theatrics of it, I see it now through a different lens. This second viewing, I watched the movie on blu-ray and the heavy use of artificial lighting and rich historical detail gleam in that peculiar way that blu-ray allows and that aesthetic works perfectly with The Untouchables as it is a very flashy and at times unnatural amplification of the reality it depicts. This movie is as much about texture and colour as it is about anything else, it would seem there isn’t a decorative cornice or rain-soaked alleyway unexplored in Chicago, its all up there like a sumptuous display of excess. This rendering of the thirties is a strange hybrid that both exists in a real location, filmed onsite in Chicago, but is lit as if fabricated on a Hollywood back lot, with sharp profile lighting and splashes of colour that drain many of the cityscapes of their reality. David Mamet’s screenplay too keeps the beats and dialogue locked into a hard-boiled cadence that echoes the familiar Hollywood Gangster classics that it in part clearly emulates. The film is bloody and at times lingers on the consequences of violence in a way distinct from the play-violence of its predecessors, but it is still very much a pantomime at heart (i.e., the classic long death sequence of Connery’s Malone as he crawls along the floor).

What I see now is a very earnest old-fashioned kind of storytelling that embraces the melodrama of its subject without wincing, and as such seems very much a film of its times, not yet burdened with the cynicism of the nineties. The Enrico Morricone score is ornamental in a way that has regrettably gone out of fashion, it wants you to hear it, and frankly deserves to be heard. The straight-laced valor of the heroes in this film, Elliot Ness and his crew of Untouchables, gleefully relishes its own naïveté, and not even the familial scenes with Elliot’s wife (played luminously by Patricia Clarkson) feel strained, somehow DePalma is able to keep the buoyant optimism of the film untarnished.

The Untouchables

The Untouchables is a strange mix of television pulp and cinematic grandeur; the beats play out the way they would in a serial but the visual scope is broadened to take in the breadth of the world the characters inhabit. It is a film that looks back to a simpler time, and yet, from our perspective in the 21st century, the eighties too seems a simpler time. The expected edge to the storytelling is replaced with a quirky eighties sentimentality that in itself is endearing to watch. Some of the pure cinema set-piece ‘experiments’ that DePalma employs in the film, such as the ode to Battleship Potemkin in the iconic train station scene and the POV shots of the gangster attack on Malone, are to me unnecessary indulgences that I find more successful as an academic conceit rather than a narrative imperative. Aside from these overindulgences, I thoroughly enjoyed The Untouchables as both the action caper I remembered in my youth and a successful melodrama re-imagining of cinema past.





15 comments

  1. I'm a big fan of this movie, even though it's not the Cos who shines. The supporting cast is great, particularly Connery and Garcia, and De Niro's Capone is a great caricature. Whenever this movie is on, I'm usually drawn to it. I still remember the chain of events that led to my realization that the final staircase scene is lifted from Battleship Potemkin. I think it was a great updating of the classic Odessa steps sequence.

  2. Yeah Costner isn't adding much to the film here, and wasn't Connery nominated for his performance. I seem to remember a clip of him giving his dying speech, which I find a bit funny, because it is a performance that is deliberately hamming it up, the whole film is a lot of hamming it up, the acting style having to keep pace with the direction, the dialogue and the over the top Morricone score. Yet the Academy sees no distinction, someone dying heroically must be good acting.

    The real star of The Untouchables is the Art Design and the score, they make the movie what it is.

  3. Connery is great in it, I agree. Not a huge fan of Costner in it, although, I'm not a Costner fan in general. It's all definitely hammed up though, which I suppose is part of its charm.

  4. Meh. When I first saw this I hated DeNiro, over-the-top and ridiculous. The 2nd time I saw it, I realized that his comedy was the saving grace of a dull story. Connery is good though, he has great comedic timing.

  5. When are you watching Road to Perdition?

  6. I guess I didn't mention that I find it very hard to take the Odessa Steps sequence seriously in The Untouchables, partially because of the Naked Gun spoof of it, but also, it IS funny… these random sailors keep coming into frame and getting blown away in slo-motion and it happens so many times that I find it hard to believe that DePalma wasn't taking the piss out of the audience a bit with it. I am not much of a DePalma fan to begin with, he is so willing to forego the logic or value of the story to play with his style techniques, and Tarantino adopts some of these bad traits in his work, never knowing when to let go of the gimmick and play it straight.

    I might watch Road to Perdition this weekend… I have seen it before but it was under really lousy circumstances and so I am withholding judgment until I see it again. Are you a fan , Henrik?

  7. and for those who don't know what I am talking about,

    Here is The Untouchables train station scene

    <object width="320" height="265"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/gIvg-pnjjmM&hl=en&fs=1"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/gIvg-pnjjmM&hl=en&fs=1&quot; type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="320" height="265"></embed></object>

    and here is Naked Gun spoof

    <object width="320" height="265"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/BaGLZEdYDGU&hl=en&fs=1"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/BaGLZEdYDGU&hl=en&fs=1&quot; type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="320" height="265"></embed></object>

  8. I always loved the showy nature of this film. Both the shooting and the dialogue. It was always meant as a piece of rip-roaring over-the-top entertainment, and it succeeds mightily as I recall. Connery is pretty awesome indeed. Haven't seen this since the early 1990s on VHS though, I think I'm going to come some time and crash your place Rot, watch Chungking Express and The Untouchables back-to-back on Blu.

  9. This is a very good film, with several memorable scenes. Not the best of the 1930's movies, but its definitely a good one.

  10. The Untouchables is ONE of the very BEST films of the 1980's.

    I would give it 5 stars out of 5. Brian Depalma really had it going with this effort!

    chuck

  11. anytime Kurt, we now actually have an inflatable bed for guests! I can also try and convince you to upgrade to blu-ray, I feel like a spokesman for it lately.

    Kind of surprised at all the love here for The Untouchables, is this based on seeing it lately or remembrances of it from the 80's? Like I said in the review what comes through very strong on the recent viewing is how sentimental and melodramatic the piece is, not traits that usually appeal to mainstream audiences, at least not post-90's mainstream audiences.

  12. whoa youtube FUCKS up the entire site!

    I am a huge fan of Road to Perdition.

  13. I think I fixed any youtube problems, made it smaller.

    I didn't like Road to Perdition the first time I saw it, but the video quality was bad and I kept getting interrupted, so I am rewatching it without distractions this time.

  14. I think The Untouchables is one of the few movies that actually captures the flavour of the TV show upon which it was based. This explains a lot about Costner's performance. I seem to remember Robert Stack once saying about his role as Elliot Ness on the show–he didn't so much act as react to the characters around him!

  15. Just here looking for Al Capone references. One weird thing is the bat to the head scene. Why would the guys Anselmi and Scalisi betray Capone? They were just two dumb hit men. Why would Capone beat them to death? It makes no sense. I heard Tony Accardo was called “Tony Batters” because HE was the one who did it and Capone just observed. Also in the 1920′s there was a different look to everything. More simple and hand made. This film and the two tv shows completely fail to capture the period at all. De Palma’s opening overhead shot where everybody stands still for 3 minutes is pretty stupid. The baby stroller in the train station is the worst shootout in a movie ever. I looked at the old tv show on you tube and was shocked to see how bad it was, so yeah this was better, but not even close to history. I wish somebody would do a 1920′s Chicago Al Capone movie (or video game) that is based on fact for a change. It’s also clear that not a lot of guys look like mr Capone. Edward G Robinson was close, John Belushi was closer, but nobody really looks like him. Nobody.

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