By J.D. Lafrance
Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) is a film that asks the burning question: is police brutality ever justified? It is when you’re dealing with the likes of Al Capone and Frank Nitti – gangsters that had no problem blowing up children and killing nebbish accountants to get what they wanted. The film doesn’t exactly adhere to historical fact opting instead to go with John Ford’s famous credo of printing the legend and in doing so raising the characters and their exploits to mythic status. De Palma’s adaptation of Eliot Ness’ 1957 memoir of the same name had all the makings of a powerhouse production destined for greatness. It featured a screenplay written by legendary playwright David Mamet, expert cinematographer Stephen H. Burum was behind the camera, master composer Ennio Morricone was scoring the film, and Robert De Niro and Sean Connery were signed on to play larger-than-life characters. The result was an exciting, action-packed epic that helped revitalize De Palma’s struggling career (after the critical and commercial failure of Wise Guys) and earned Connery his first Academy Award.
It is 1930 and gangster Al Capone (De Niro) controls most of the illegal business in Chicago with a ruthless, iron fist. After a ten-year old girl is killed in a gang-related incident, Federal Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is brought in to clean up the city. His first attempt is an embarrassing failure so he tries a different approach. He decides to form his own task force of three men to help him take down Capone and his empire. He picks a veteran beat cop named Malone (Connery), who knows the city and becomes Ness’ mentor. He also selects Stone (Andy Garcia), a cop fresh out of the academy and ace shot with a pistol. Rounding out the group is Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a bookish FBI accountant who figures out a way to nail Capone. Together, they form an incorruptible group determined to bring Capone to justice.
De Palma and Mamet make it clear right from the get-go that The Untouchables isn’t going to be some half-assed, sanitized gangster film as they proceed to have Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) blow up a bar with a little girl in it. This shocking sequence, juxtaposed with Capone lying about not using violence to enforce his will, sets an all-bets-are-off tone as we get an idea of just how brutal life is in Chicago and how far Capone is willing to go to make a point. This is then contrasted with Eliot Ness’ blandy-McPlainWrap home life with a loving and dutiful wife (Patricia Clarkson) and cute-as-a-button child. We see just how far removed from Chicago Ness’ home life is and what a rude wake-up call he will get when he starts working in the city.
Kevin Costner is wisely cast as the stiff, idealistic Ness. He’s the least interesting character and plays the role straight, trying not to go the obvious heroic route. His all-American looks and Gary Cooper-esque style are ideally suited for the role of the last honest man in the corrupt town (which Oliver Stone would also utilize in JFK). His Ness is as straight an arrow as they come which makes the character’s arc over the course of the film an interesting one. He goes from staunch upholder of the law to someone who has adopted Malone’s by-any-means-necessary philosophy.
This allows Connery to rightfully shine as the aging cop torn between riding out his remaining time and retire alive or making a difference with Ness and his crew. Unlike Ness, Malone has grown up on and worked the mean streets of Chicago. He understands that they are at war with Capone and must do whatever it takes to bust him and break up his empire because he will be just as ruthless. Upon the first meeting, Malone imparts a valuable lesson to Ness: “Make sure when your shift is over you go home alive.” It seems obvious but is an important one to know. It is also the reason why Malone initially turns down Ness’ offer to form the Untouchables. Connery shows what a once great actor can do with the right material and this results in a truly inspired performance — arguably the veteran actor’s last great one.
Rounding out his trilogy of memorable cameos in the 1980s (including Brazil and Angel Heart), Robert De Niro put on the pounds again (which he first and most famously did for Raging Bull) and transformed himself into Al Capone. Like Tony Montana in De Palma’s Scarface (1983), Capone is surrounded by luxury and opulence but is still just a cruel thug at heart. In the few scenes that he has, De Niro makes them count and it is a thrill to hear a great actor say Mamet’s tough-guy dialogue (listen to how he says the word, “enthusiasms,” in a scene). The actor clearly relishes the role and treats the dialogue like he’s enjoying a rich meal and each word is a juicy morsel that he savors.
The supporting roles feature some fantastic actors, chief among them Billy Drago who exudes just the right amount of oily menace as Nitti. For example, there is a scene where he cordially threatens Ness and his family. On the surface there is the appearance of civility but we know what is true intentions are the it doesn’t take Ness much time to figure it out but by then Nitti is speeding off in his car – he’s made his point. Drago doesn’t get many lines or a lot of screen time but makes the most of the what he’s given, making a fine addition to De Palma’s roster of cinematic sociopaths.
Speaking of Mamet’s dialogue, it crackles and pops with intensity and provides many of the film’s classic scenes, perhaps none more memorable than Malone’s famous speech to Ness where he tells him how to get Capone. “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.” Sean Connery delivers this speech with the passion and conviction that rightfully earned him an Oscar. The other scene of classic Mamet dialogue is Capone’s infamous dinner table monologue where he talks about teamwork before braining a hapless flunky with a baseball bat for not being a part of the “team.”
Brian De Palma’s stylish direction is perfect for this epic story: long, uninterrupted takes, slow motion and excellent compositions within the widescreen format. He may well be one of the greatest practioners of this aspect ratio. Just look at a simple set-up in the scene where Malone takes Ness to a church and lays it all out for how they’re going to get Capone. Both men take up most of the foreground occupying either side of the screen. The camera is low looking up at them so that we also see part of the beautifully ornate church ceiling. It is this kind of shot that would be totally destroyed when shown pan and scanned on television. Then there is the much-celebrated train station shoot-out, which was a shameless homage to a famous sequence in the legendary film, Battleship Potemkin (1925). It’s a bravura sequence that is beautifully orchestrated by De Palma as he builds the tension leading up to the shoot-up for what seems like an unbearable eternity. The entire sequence is a brilliant lesson in editing and camerawork.
Although, De Palma does go a little over-the-top (even for him) with the Ness-Nitti showdown at the end, which features the director’s obligatory homage to Alfred Hitchcock. There is also silly bit of business where we see two old cops duking it in a rainy alleyway as Connery and veteran character actor Richard Bradford laughably beat each other up in a scene that I could’ve done without. Also, Malone’s prolonged death scene drags on for what feels like an eternity but these are really minor flaws in an otherwise unimpeachable stone cold classic as De Palma does his best to distract us from these histrionics with giallo lighting in the Connery fight scene and suspenseful point-of-view Steadicam work in the death scene.
In 1984, producer Art Linson met with Paramount Studio’s president Ned Tanen about adapting The Untouchables television series into a film. Tanen liked the idea but Linson did not want to do a sequel, a remake or a parody. He wanted “to create a big-scale movie about mythical American heroes.” Linson needed a screenwriter and thought of David Mamet, fresh from just having won a Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway play Glengarry Glen Ross. He met with Mamet and the writer agreed to do the film. The screenwriter was a native of Chicago and something of a gangster history buff. He envisioned a story about “the old gunfighter and the young gunfighter … It occurred to me, what happens if this young innocent, who’s charged with defending the law but only understands that in an abstract way, meets an old disenchanted veteran, the caretaker of the law, soured at the end of his career because of the corruption in the city?”
Mamet asked Paramount to show him two episodes of the original series and he liked them but felt that “there was nothing I could use in the movie.” Mamet wrote an original story after realizing that the real events – Capone being caught for tax evasion – were not that dramatic. Mamet created the character of Malone and gave Ness a family (he did not have one in real life). After eight months, De Palma was approached to direct by Linson after Mamet wrote the third draft of the script. The director liked that the script was more about the characters and did not see it as a gangster film but more like The Magnificent Seven (1960). He felt that the project was “different from anything I’ve done in the past, because it’s a traditional Americana picture, like a John Ford picture.” He, Linson and Mamet worked together on it with De Palma emphasizing the Capone character more. According to De Palma, the film “reflects upon the incredible pressure we place on our police by not equipping them to adequately fight criminals. Why are we surprised that some of them go overboard?”
For the role of Eliot Ness, Linson and De Palma initially considered William Hurt and Harrison Ford, but, according to Linson, they wanted “someone with the right combination of naiveté, earnestness and strength.” They ended up casting Kevin Costner who wanted to do the film because it was so different from the television series and Ness “has to ask for help. It’s the more modern notion that a smart man takes a step back sometimes – that to be a hero you don’t have to be Rambo.” For Jimmy Malone, the filmmakers wanted Sean Connery but assumed that he would not want to play a supporting role and take a pay cut. However, Connery was drawn to the project because of Mamet’s script and the chance to work with Robert De Niro. He ended up signing on for a percentage of the profits. For the role of Al Capone, De Palma wanted De Niro. Paramount initially balked at the actor’s asking price of $1.5 million but relented.
The principal actors rehearsed together for a full week and Connery tried to remain in character even when the cast was relaxing. By the time principal photography began, whole scenes had been blocked and unworkable ideas rejected. A rapport between the actors playing the Untouchables had also been established, which definitely shows in the film. In preparation for the film, De Niro put on 30 pounds between the end of his Broadway run in Cuba and His Teddy Bear and his days of filming scheduled at the end of the 70-day production schedule. He analyzed old Movietone newsreels in order to get Capone’s voice, movements and mannerisms. On an interesting note, the famous scene in the church between Ness and Malone as originally written, took place on a street, but Connery suggested it take place in a church – the only place left in the city where they could speak freely.
Principal photography started in mid-August 1986 and utilized over 25 separate locations in Chicago with the border raid sequence shot on the Old Hardy Bridge spanning the Missouri River because of its period look. The train station shoot-out cost $200,000 to light because extra light was needed to shoot the sequence in slow motion. It took six days to shoot the scene, which cost an additional $100,000. Not surprisingly, staging this sequence like the one in Battleship Potemkin was De Palma’s idea. The budget escalated from $17 million to $24 million thanks to the cost of production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein transforming an entire block of LaSalle Street in Chicago into the 1930s complete with 125 costumed extras and 60 period cars.
The production design for The Untouchables is fantastic, especially the opulence of Capone’s headquarters with Morricone’s score resembling a 1930s riff on the music from De Palma’s Scarface. This film is one of those rare big-budget, star-studded blockbusters that actually works. All of the right elements came together at just the right time and place and resulted in an incredibly entertaining motion picture. The Untouchables shows what a master filmmaker like De Palma can do with a director-for-hire paycheck movie. He may not be making a personal statement with this film but he still gives it his all in terms of style and virtuoso camerawork. This film certainly set a high standard for period gangster films, casting a long shadow over future endeavors like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) and the HBO T.V. series Boardwalk Empire.
Darnton, Nina. “At the Movies.” The New York Times. May 29, 1987.
Mathews, Tom. “The Mob at the Movies.” Newsweek. June 22, 1987.
Nightingale, Benedict. “Bottled in Bond, He’s Vintage Connery.” The New York Times. June 7, 1987.
Siskel, Gene. “De Palma Finds Untouchables within his Cinematic Reach.” Chicago Sun-Times. June 21, 1987.
Sujo, Aly. “Connery as Cop Plays on Childhood Memories.” Globe & Mail. June 11, 1987.
The Untouchables Production Notes. 1987.