The Untouchables (1987)

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro

A single genre of film still remains that I haven’t quite warmed up to, and that’s the Western. Sometimes I don’t care for a particular actor, or maybe the story doesn’t engage me. It could just be that that particular era in general doesn’t strike a chord. I found to my surprise that the Italian Spaghetti Western does find its way into my heart, especially if Sergio Leone is in the director’s chair. But those movies would never be complete without the legendary Ennio Morricone as composer. Occasionally, the genre disguises itself, tricking me into enjoying the heck out of a particular story, as in the case of “The Untouchables.” Yes, it’s the 1930’s instead of the 1880’s, but the similarities are too obvious to ignore. Archetypes feature in place of actual characters, and there’s the familiar plot of the hero riding into town to take down the bad guy whose grip on the town is so tight that he lives like a king. And what do you know? There’s even a Morricone score! But the film takes place in Chicago, Illinois, instead of California, so we’ll call “The Untouchables” a Mid-Western.

This 1987 crime drama, directed by Brian De Palma, is based on Eliot Ness’s 1957 autobiography, and had previously been adapted into a TV series which starred Robert Stack and ran from 1959 to 1963 (and later a less successful series in the early 1990’s). De Palma’s film stars Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, and it unashamedly plays fast and loose with history. Some characters are entirely invented, while others meet fates which contradict that of their real-life counterparts. But this isn’t a documentary. In the end, it’s all about telling a good story, and De Palma is able to do just that, with the aid of a terrific cast. In addition to Costner, actors Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia make for fine additions to the foursome known as the Untouchables. Starring as the eloquent crime lord Al Capone is Robert De Niro, perfectly cast. Even more fun as a villain in this movie than De Niro is Billy Drago as Capone henchman Frank Nitti. The guy looks like he was born to play the role of a mobster. Speaking of Western archetypes, De Palma goes against that formula in the case of Nitti by having him dressed in a white suit and hat, a color normally reserved for heroic figures.

Sincerely, this movie is what it is because of Sean Connery. He takes over every moment of the movie in which he is present, starting with Malone’s lecture to Ness about the first rule of law enforcement: “Make sure when your shift is over you go home alive. Here endeth the lesson.” He may be just a beat cop when Ness first encounters him, but Malone is as wise as anyone to the level of corruption in every level of the city. If the Untouchables are the “good,” and Capone and his men are the “bad,” then Chicago itself as represented here is the “ugly.” In the early 1930’s, the United States was still under the law of Prohibition, which effectively banned the sale, production and consumption of alcohol. As if that was going to stop anyone. All it did was turn regular people into criminals, and ruthless cowards like Al Capone into businessmen. Malone knows all this and, unlike Ness, does not allow himself to be constricted by morals and righteousness in order to do the work that needs to be done. He’ll pretend to interrogate a corpse just to make the man’s still-breathing partner talk.

It cannot be said that “The Untouchables” is entirely Brian De Palma’s film. He didn’t even write the script. It also looks much more polished than his earlier films. Personally, I prefer the gritty look of his late 70’s/early 80’s work. Still, it is the most easily quotable of them all. De Palma is also able to use some of his old tricks, like the extended period of silence, courtesy of a terrific courthouse staircase shootout that owes certain visual cues (like the baby carriage in peril) to the Russian silent film “Battleship Potempkin” (1925). There is no other De Palma movie I have more fun watching, and it’s the only one I can think of that inspires a certain appreciation for a genre that it does not technically represent.

  1. CMrok93 says:

    Plenty of style, but still well worth the watch because De Palma always seems to know what he’s doing. Good review.

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