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REVIEW: The Untouchables (1987)

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

In a nutshell – Chicago, 1930. Due to Prohibition, crime boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro) rules Chicago – with much of the police force under his thumb. Treasury Agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is brought in to form an elite team to take down Capone and end his rule of corruption.

Gangster films were a popular genre in the early 30s. Films like White Heat and Scarface, usually dealt with organised crime and bootlegging and were big hits. However, the genre all but vanished with the introduction of the Production Code (aka the Hays Code) in the mid-1930s. The censorship meant anything seen to glamourise crime or violence could no longer be shown on screen.  

By the 1960’s the Code was replaced by a much more sensible ratings system. As such, the genre was revitalised by the wave of New Hollywood directors with films like Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather, Mean Streets and. The early 1980s saw the release of the Scarface remake by Brian De Palma, based on the 1930 novel,  ironically based on Al Capone. Scarface was a success, yet De Palma’s next two films were misfires and so he was searching for another hit. So he jumped at the opportunity when Paramount offered him The Untouchables – based on the TV series (itself based on a book) that ran in the late 50’s.

“First rule of police work…”

Producer Art Linson, De Palma and acclaimed writer David Mamet weren’t interested in being loyal to the family-friendly TV Show, only keeping Ness, Capone and the period setting. Focusing instead on the blurred line between good and evil, the lure of corruption and the lengths people will go to do the right thing. As Connery’s Malone frequently asks, “What are you prepared to do?”

Indeed, while De Palma was a respected director, it was actually Mamet’s script that won over both Connery and Costner. It’s not hard to see why; Connery delivers some of his best work  (even with the dodgy Irish brogue) and Ness’ conflicted character was a career-defining role for Costner. Despite limited screen time, De Niro is gripping in every scene, especially when delivering an after-dinner speech which ends very violently.

De Palma said he wanted to “make corruption look fabulous” and he certainly delivers. In Capone’s scenes, the camera sweeps through his glamorous hotel, taking in sweeping staircases, plush velvet and a hive of activity. In contrast, on the other side of the law, the scenes of home life with Ness or Malone feel claustrophobic with up-close angles, and minimal drab set design.

Stephen H Burum’s cinematography captures some stunning Chicago period architecture – a mean feat, in pre-CGI times. Along with Ennio Morricone’s soaring score, the film has an epic quality that gives it a timeless edge. Whilst some could accuse De Palma of being a cold director, favouring visuals over character, Morricone’s score reinforces key emotional beats, from Ness’ family time or the deaths of key characters like Malone and Wallace.

“Family’s real important….”

One of the film’s few flaws is the heavy-handedness of Ness’ family life. From the outset, he is portrayed as an all-American family man. His loyal and understanding wife is the only female character in the film. During these tender family scenes, you sometimes forget they’re written by the same guy who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross. Yet for all the schmaltz, on balance is Capone’s fiery wrath; “I want his family dead! I want his house burnt to the ground! I wanna piss on the ashes!” as well as some blunt racism or the “aggressive methods” by beat cop Malone.

Whilst full of iconic dialogue, the film has its fair share of set pieces. De Palma deploys all his visual tricks and dips into different genres along the way. From the sweeping Western of the border raid scene or his trademark POV when Malone’s being stalked by an assassin border on being horror. However the most memorable part of the film (well, other than Connery’s attempt at Irish) is the gripping station shoot-out in the final act.

De Palma is renowned for borrowing from the greats, and this scene is a direct homage to the classic Soviet silent film, Battleship Potempkin (1925). Whilst not original, it’s still a masterclass in tension and the scene has been lampooned many times since. Ness and Stone nervously wait to intercept the book-keeper, while the number of potential suspects and collateral damage rises. Various sound cues add to the suspense; announcements for the train, the eerie pram lullaby, the crying baby and the mother softly comforting him, all the while Morricone’s score builds. Then it all kicks off, with Capone’s men and The Untouchables trading shots, with a runaway pram and several unlucky sailors getting caught in the crossfire.

“And here endeth, the lesson..”

Following the success, the 90s saw a revival of the genre, with classic films like Goodfellas (1990), Carlito’s Way (1993), Casino (1995), and Donnie Brasco (1997). The decade also saw the emergence of a side-genre, focusing on the current Black gang culture, with films like Boyz in the Hood (1991), New Jack City (1991) and Menace II Society (1993).

These days, in a time of comic book films, remakes/reboots, the gangster genre has struggled somewhat. Warner Brothers tried to recreate The Untouchables formula with Gangster Squad (2013).  Featuring another real-life gangster played by an Oscar winner (Sean Penn), a grizzled veteran (Nick Nolte) and up and coming star (Ryan Gosling), yet it failed to win over audiences. Michael Mann, renowned for modern crime epic Heat (1995), tried his hand focusing on crime legend John Dillinger, with the mediocre Public Enemies (2009). A big issue was Mann’s handheld, digitally shot style felt at odds with a period piece.

However, like The Untouchables original source, the genre has had much success on TV. In recent years, shows like The Sopranos, Narcos, Breaking Bad and Peaky Blinders, have all been top binge watches. If you really want to over-analyse it, isn’t Game Of Thrones, just The Five Mafia Families warring in fantasy land? “He pulls a knife, you pull a dragon! That’s the Westeros Way!” Just me, then?

Alternative Title: The Chicago Way

Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Bob Hoskins was offered and accepted the role of Capone, in the event De Niro was unavailable. He was paid $20,000 despite only having one meeting with De Palma!

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