Brian De Palma Month: “The Untouchables” (1987)

After Mission to Crap, I needed to review one of De Palma’s best movies.  Yes, 1987’s The Untouchables is my favorite Brain De Palma film, but it is not the movie that inspired me to do this “De Palma Month” thing (I love keeping suspense!).  This movie is right up there with John Carpenter’s Halloween, A Clockwork Orange, and Inception in terms of movies that constantly inspire me to talk about filmmaking.  Let the fanboying commence!

The Untouchables is directed by Brian De Palma and written by David Mamet.  Stars-Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, and Robert De Niro.  Premise-During the 1930’s prohibition in Chicago, federal officer Eliot Ness (Costner) creates a team of “Untouchables” to aggressively take down crime boss Al Capone (De Niro).

De Palma was in a bit of a rough spot after the financial disappointments of Body Double and Wise Guys (his previous two movies).  Before he could get back to making movies he wanted to make, he needed to secure funding.  The solution?  A big-budget, studio funded, star-studded, blockbuster.  Along with producer Art Linson, De Palma went to Paramount Pictures (who owned the rights) and they were given the project; a film adaptation of The Untouchables TV shows.  From there, they went to David Mamet (writer of The Verdict) for the script.  What followed was risky decision after risky decision, but boy did they pay off.

I have not seen any of The Untouchables TV shows, from what I researched, they were pretty popular and successful.  Making a movie out of it would require precise casting and excellent writing.  From the opening title sequence, you know this movie is gonna be awesome!  This brings me to the first great thing about The Untouchables; the music.  The score from this movie is in my top ten movie soundtracks of all time.  It is done by the impeccable Ennio Morricone (hot off of The Mission).  This is why I love scores so much!  A comment on that video says, “Ennio Morricone captioned [captured] the essence of corruption here.”  The movie takes place in a very unstable/dishonest time in American history, and Morricone’s music encompasses the emotion and tone of the picture indescribably well.  It’s one of those soundtracks that fits perfectly with the visuals.  I’ve listened to it while I write reviews (including this one), and makes every part of this movie 10 times better.

What most people remember about this classic (yes I believe that it stands as one of the best mob classics of all time) is the ensemble cast.  Paramount didn’t really care about this project, according to De Palma, “They [Paramount] said we didn’t need big stars.”  Mr. De Palma is very good at deciding what actors can play what roles in his movies.  In the case of The Untouchables, he couldn’t have done better.  After watching Silverado, he decided on newcomer Kevin Costner to play the incorruptible (aka “untouchable”) Eliot Ness.  Charles Martin Smith was someone he wanted to work with since seeing his potential in American Graffiti.  Andy Garcia was originally supposed to play Al Capone’s right-hand-man, Frank Nitti, but he convinced them to let him play George Stone (a member of Ness’ Untouchables).  Robert De Niro (one of the two actual stars cast in this movie) was Brian’s first choice to play the legendary gangster, and after a lot of waiting, he signed on.  Fun fact: De Niro worked with De Palma on Greetings, The Wedding Party, and Hi, Mom! in the late sixties/early seventies before he became an Oscar-winning actor in The Godfather: Part II in 1974.  In Sean Connery’s case, there was no better actor to play Jim Malone, the ancient beat-cop who teaches naive Eliot “The Chicago Way” of police work.

The Untouchables practically made careers for Garcia, Martin Smith, and Costner, and they deserve it.  I am one of the few people who legitimately believes Kevin Costner is a good actor (see Dances With Wolves, Hidden Figures, Field of Dreams, or McFarland USA), and he does the “eager, likable, good cop” character extremely well.  De Niro is amazingly over-the-top as Capone, check out this bat scene for proof (minor spoiler).  He put on weight and mastered the accent.  Pretty much every single scene he occupies is quotable.  No one holds a candle to Sean Connery though.  I can’t overstate this; Connery’s performance in this movie is one of the most effortless, authentic, charismatic, entertaining, and iconic performances I have ever seen.  Screw James Bond, this is his best role!  Mamet gave Malone really good dialogue, and Connery delivers it with so much charm.  For his awesomeness; he won the Oscar and Golden Globe, and was nominated for the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor in 1988.  Let’s just say, he’s the best thing about this movie.

The positives don’t end there my friend!  If you watched that first video, you may have noticed that Gorgio Armani was credited with the wardrobe.  Yes, the Armani helped design the costumes for this movie, and they look incredible!  This film is one of the most convincing period-pieces I have ever seen.  The crew went through a little production hell during filming.  The budget was stretched, and a few scenes had to be cut because they couldn’t afford it, but everything evened out in the end.  Chicago in the movie looks nothing like it does now.  Everything from the vehicles, buildings, costumes, props, filming locations, and interior designs look flawless to me.  Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, who has shot many De Palma films including Snake Eyes and Mission to Mars, has a very distinct style that I don’t think was ever better displayed than in The Untouchables.  There is a church scene that shows off what makes Brain De Palma films so artful (one of those things being split-screen shots like this).  The combination of Morricone’s thrilling music, De Palma’s talent, and Burum’s camerawork creates some extremely tense action sequences.  The best of which is a scene that takes place at Union Station.  I can’t say much about this scene (spoilers n such) other that it’s a definite M.M.M. with a very clever homage to The Battleship Potemkin.

Unfortunately, this movie does have a few flaws but most of them are nitpicks.  For one, the editing is very abrupt.  At one point, it felt like a scene was on speed when it cut to the next one (without the sound fading out or anything).  The movie has a slightly fast pace (and that keeps it from getting boring), but the tonal shifts can get jarring.  In one scene, a child becomes collateral damage (i.e. dead), and in another scene, Costner is holding a Hawaiian umbrella and looking like a fool.

A major criticism of this movie is that it’s too goofy.  I agree with that in terms of tone, but I don’t think the film was ever meant to be as dramatic as The Godfather.  I mean, come on, this is an adaptation of a TV show, which was an adaptation of real life events.  If you watch the movie, you’ll see that they definitely took some artistic liberties and changed up a few things (for one, Ness and Capone never met face to face in real life).  This movie is more of an action/thriller with a setting that took place around a serious time in history.  I was invested in the drama because I liked the entertaining characters, and when the climax (a brilliant hybrid of action and courtroom cleverness) arrived, dang it felt satisfying!

My only major gripe with this movie is Ness’ family.  He has a wife (played by Patricia Clarkson) and a daughter.  They have absolutely no character.  His wife is more or less “the supportive cop’s wife” and his daughter is just, his daughter.  Things get pretty serious for Ness at times, but beyond moving them to a secure location, he barely talks about them.  Heck, they don’t even have a complete character arc; they just disappear from the movie a little over the halfway point.  They could have been written out of the movie, and the plot would be 100% the same.

Again, the few problems with this movie (except for Ness’ family) are essentially nitpicks.  I can’t describe how much fun I had while watching this.  It’s the kind of movie I’d be trying to reenact as a kid.  Running around in daddy’s coats, pointing my plastic revolver at the air and proudly proclaiming “Here endeth the lesson!”  Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables is one of my favorite movies of all time and it gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an A.  Seriously, get your hands on a copy, take out 2 hours of your day, and enjoy.


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