Friday, 30 October 2015

The Untouchables (1987)

Brian De Palma (above - front left) has made many excessive films, sometimes manipulative, sometimes misogynistic -and sometimes both. He has also frequently homaged (ripped off would be the unkinder term) the distinctive genre styles of other directors, most notably Hitchcock. Perhaps this is one reason why De Palma such a favourite of Quentin Tarantino's - also a pastiche merchant.

He is at his forte however, in The Untouchables, which has for De Palma the rare distinction of being blessed with an excellent script, by David Mamet - who can also be a little rough at the edges, and has since moved on to bigger things himself. Mamet's hard-hitting and no-nonsense adaptation of the popular 1960s TV series starring Robert Stack, here pits Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) at the forefront of a good-versus-evil yarn where the evil is tremendously active in the form of Robert De Niro, no less, as Al Capone - effectively the Emperor of Chicago, or its unofficial mayor (in history as well as in the film.) Ness's allies - condensing the work of several of Herbert Hoover's appointed FBI agents to deal with the problem of prohibition in 20s Chicago - include of an Italian American police trainee (Andy Garcia, emerging as a new star in the making) on the right side of the law, and a meek accountant (Charles Martin Smith), who ultimately has the final solution that will bring down Capone. Beautifully simplified on both sides, but also deliciously put together, particularly with stars as representative as De Niro and Costner.

Chief ally of Eliot Ness however, and in effect also his mentor, is grizzled, cynical but knowledgeable and dignified and honourable Irish cop Jimmy Malone, destined never to rise too high up the ranks in a Chicago police force that is just as corrupt as the bootleggers. A great role for Sean Connery, and also a deserved Oscar winner.(SPOILER) De Palma's most brilliant touch was to cast a major star for the cop who dies for his convictions - another reference to Hitchcock, killing off his most famous face before the end of the film, and giving the story quite a dramatic punch.

The void that Connery creates after his loss has a similar impact to that of Gandalf or Obi-Wan Kenobi, and it pushes the remaining untouchables to fight their corner all the harder. De Palma soon pulls out all the stops, and is at his most brilliant and excessive in the staircase battle in Chicago station, a shameless rip-off of the most famous scene from Battleship Potemkin. For those who haven't seen Eisenstein's film, this is a bravura piece of tension-building (and was also itself sent up in the third Naked Gun film).

I came to The Untouchables late, just after it had finished its main theatrical release, when I had decided to edge uncertainly back to the cinema of my post-childhood (see Cry Freedom blog). The opportunity eventually came round for me on rental video, the pan-and-scan not doing justice to Stephen Burum's stylish Panavision photography (not forgetting of course a rousing and typically punchy score by Ennico Morricone), but was still surprisingly effective as a gangster entertainment of basic good versus evil.

Kevin Costner has never had a better vehicle, taking on his daunting opponent De Niro with father figure Connery keeping him in check. It may not be as layered or as dark dramatically as other gangster or crime thrillers (De Palma often paints his characters with a broad brush), but the combination of toughness, sincerity, style, Connery, De Niro, De Palma, and Costner, makes for cinematic dynamite.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films