Monday, June 4, 2012

The Untouchables Movie Review: 25 Years Ago This Month

In honor of this film's 25th Anniversary, here's a fresh look at a film I've seen several times before, but not in many years.

Kevin Costner was not yet a box office superstar when he landed his first big role in Brian De Palm’s The Untouchables, playing the Treasury Department golden boy Eliot Ness, the law man who got Al Capone. He was so much not yet a star that the first shot of him in the film he has his back to camera for the majority of the scene. It is his wife Catherine, played by Patricia Clarkson in her film debut, who gets all the face time in the scene. This is actually the second scene in the film following the bombing of a Chicago business establishment by one of Capone’s henchmen, the blast taking a 10-year-old girl as collateral damage.

These first two scenes suggest that two things were foremost on David Mamet’s (who wrote the screenplay sort of based on Ness’s autobiography) mind: the violence committed by Capone and the terror he inflicted on the city of Chicago; and the idea that Ness was a family man, a working stiff who primarily wanted to protect other innocents from the harm that befalls that little girl. After all, when we first see Ness on screen he’s reading the front page of the newspaper announcing the bombing and death of the child.

It’s not really a film about Capone or Ness. Regardless, Capone as portrayed by Robert De Niro is a larger than life character. He exudes menace in his every look, even when he’s giving what is meant to be a light-hearted interview to reporters. De Palma, never a director to shy away from violent images, makes no exceptions here. Policemen are gunned down, blood soaks the aftermath of violent scenes and in one of the film’s more brutal moments based on a real incident, Capone bludgeons one of his men with a baseball bat.

Ness is less important as a central character than the relationship of the eponymous group of lawmen who aim to take down Capone. Ness first recruits Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), an old beat cop who displays his integrity in their first meeting. They are soon joined by Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), an FBI accountant who hits upon the idea of prosecuting Capone for tax evasion, and George Stone (Andy Garcia), a young and eager police recruit. Together they represent the incorruptible arm of law enforcement. While Capone has his hand in everything from city cops to judges and politicians, these four men are in it for a greater cause.

Sean Connery’s career began for me with The Untouchables. It’s the first time I knew anything about him. Without any knowledge of his James Bond history, I didn’t see him as iconic. Instead his character’s role as a mentor to Eliot Ness came across in Connery’s performance which I now see for the first time is much more than an old guy winning a late Oscar for sub-par work. As the accountant Wallace, Smith glides through like he’s always excited to be along for the ride. He plays wielding a shotgun in shootout like it’s the highlight of his life.

De Palma has always had a great eye for shot composition and camera movement. This was his second time working with his longtime cinematographer Stephen Burum. Together they create signature shots that are still mimicked by other filmmakers and studied in film schools for their technique. They love overhead crane shots and long unbroken takes that tie together several story elements in a single shot. Rarely do movies simply look as good as this one. The color scheme recalls The Godfather, its most obvious thematic influence, with ambers, browns and sepia towns drowning out any hint of brightness. The suits designed by Giorgio Armani are simply gorgeous, befitting the time period and making me long for a time when men wore nice suits for general occasions. The production design places a strong emphasis on the decadence of Capone’s lifestyle. The d├ęcor in his hotel suite is ostentatious, showing his proclivity for living like an emperor high in his palace.

If this movie were made today it would exceed two and a half hours. Twenty-five years ago it clocked in at under two. Why is that? Why was David Mamet able to pack such a story into so short a running time? And that includes a long action sequence at the end without any dialogue that hardly advances the plot and could have been wrapped up in less than half the time. Mamet’s dialogue is best described as economical. He never uses three words where one or two would suffice. When he directs his own screenplays a very specific rhythm comes out of his actors’ performances that lift his dialogue to an almost poetic quality. In the hands of another director you can still here that Mamet cadence, but something is missing.

A story by producer Art Linson goes that the classic shootout at the train station at the end of the film was born of Mamet’s refusal to write additional scenes after turning in his finished product. Unable to replicate his signature writing style De Palma had to come up with a compelling scene without any lines. The train station scene is well-known to most moviegoers. Even if you haven’t seen The Untouchables, the scene pops up in montages occasionally and was parodied in The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult. Of course it’s also a direct homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s famous Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Watching it for the first time in many years I see how brilliantly choreographed it is, how the action is thrillingly set up from the moment Ness and Stone enter the station, the way the clock ticks away the minutes in real time. The silence of the station except for a mother with her baby struggling to get a carriage and a suitcase up the steps is eerie in its mounting tension.

Ennio Morricone’s sometimes triumphant and often melancholy score is the final element that fills in the missing gaps. Imagine the first liquor raid that Ness and his three cohorts conduct without the accompanying music, or the grand battle on the Canadian border as the four Untouchables gallop in on horseback. Take away Morricone’s themes and your left with something that might otherwise be regarded as an order action sequence.

All that is the glue that binds the edges, but the core of the film is the Malone and Ness relationship. Though Mamet’s screenplay doesn’t get too involved, it is rich enough to suggest a strong friendship without which the audience would just be subjected to another cops and robbers thriller. There’s real emotion at the end when Ness parts ways from the men he’s worked so long with, from the job he’s devoted three years of his life to. The more I think about The Untouchables, the more I think it belongs on anyone’s list of classic films.

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