The Untouchables CE Review
I still remember the thrill of anticipation I felt in 1987 upon first seeing the trailer for Brian De Palma's The Untouchables. It had been a long three years since Scarface and even some De Palma fans were beginning to wonder if their man might have lost his touch. But it looked as if his thirties gangster movie was going to be something special - epic, operatic, even baroque - and, in the event, expectations were more than fulfilled. This is not a subtle film, but it is a hugely effective one.
Brian De Palma announces himself straightaway; elegant credits set to Ennio Morricone's pounding music; a slow zoom down onto Robert De Niro's bloated, vain and fussy Al Capone, handing out soundbites about his abhorrance of violence because it is "not good business" to a group of obsequious journalists; and then a bang, a big one, as a cute little girl is blown up by one of Capone's thugs in a rather obvious homage to Hitchcock's Sabotage. It's as if De Palma is saying, "I'm back" and the film positively races through the vaguely true story of how Al Capone was brought to book by the treasury agent Eliot Ness in 1930s Chicago.
Following a disastrous first day, in which a raid on a liquor warehouse hauls nothing but hundreds of boxes of umbrellas, Ness decides to assemble a team untainted by the endemic corruption of Chicago law-enforcement. The film follows a classic "Guys On A Mission" structure, as Ness gets his men - all outsiders - and experiences triumph and tragedy, fighting institutional apathy and treachery on his way to a one-on-one showdown with the forces of evil. Luckily, the film remains fresh thanks to three old fashioned virtues which can redeem even the most hackeneyed plot - star power, strong writing and stylish filmmaking.
Kevin Costner, in the pivotal role of Ness, is possibly the least interesting actor ever to become a star in Hollywood, but his quality of wooden naivity is ideal for this rather dull role, providing a solid centre around which the flamboyant supporting turns can revolve. Charles Martin Smith is fun as the accountant turned warrior, Oscar Wallace, and Andy Garcia has presence as the Italian rookie George Stone, but it's the two big star turns which impress most. Robert De Niro is at his most theatrical as Al Capone, dominating much of the film despite only appearing for about twenty minutes. He gets one of the best scenes in the film, as he rhapsodises on his love of baseball before battering in the head of a disloyal henchman, and it carries such impact that you dread what he might do next, which is, of course, the point of the scene. After this he doesn't have to do much apart from stand around looking like a particularly bad tempered baby.
However, the best performance in the film, and a career-highpoint for the actor, is Sean Connery's honest Irish cop Jimmy Malone. Accent aside, which begins as an attempt at Irish-American and then soon settles back into Scotland, Connery is so right for this role that he becomes the emotional centre of the film. We respond as much to the actor as to the character - indeed, Connery possibly realised this as he has been playing this part ever since - and Malone becomes an ideal father figure; honest, loyal, unambiguously righteous. It's a great star turn, reminding us that this icon, who has coasted a few too many times in recent years, really is as good as everyone says he is. His scenes in the second half as so powerful that they deserved the Oscar on their own, and his last scene in the film is like a combination of King Lear and the end of Duel In The Sun. He's also damned intimidating, obviously in pretty good physical shape, and there's a scene where he has a punch-up with the equally elderly police captain, played by Richard Bradford, which is horribly ferocious.
The decision to make this big screen version of the hit fifties' TV series was pretty inevitable at some time or another, but the decision to make it good was sealed by hiring David Mamet to write the screenplay. Mamet, whose plays show a miraculous understanding of the way men relate to each other, was an inspired choice, and his dialogue crackles with wit and a vernacular truth. His two big show-off speeches - Capone on baseball, Malone on how to get Capone - are marvellous character moments for the actors, but they also propel the narrative forward with immense fluency. Typically, Mamet is less successful with the trite Ness family scenes - cooing over the baby in embarrassing fashion - but he, thankfully, keeps them to a minimum.
The filmmaking is exemplary in just about every aspect. It oozes class and, let's be honest, big bucks. Ennio Morricone provides one of his best Hollywood scores, matching brute force with elegaic sadness in the manner of his work with Leone. The art direction is extraordinary - not quite realistic, but heightened in a way that recalls the melodramatically inflated locales of Scarface where Tony Montana's reign of coke-fuelled terror seemed to turn Florida into some kind of hell on earth. But it's really Brian De Palma's show and he is on scintillating form. He doesn't put a foot wrong in this film, which could have been made by a totally different director from the one who made the turgid, confused Body Double. From the sudden bursts of gory violence - this must be one of the most graphically brutal '15' certificates the BBFC has ever passed - to the vast set-pieces, he's in complete control. At one point, the action moves to the Canadian border, and the film becomes, to all intents and purposes, a Western, adding Ford to De Palma's long list of influences. However, if he were simply a plagiarist, as some detractors suggest, he wouldn't be an interesting director; nor would he have such an instantly identifiable style. De Palma combines homage - or theft if you prefer - with his passionate visual style to create something that is all his own. Few other commercial directors would have the sheer cheek to intercut the death scene of a major character with an excerpt from "I Pagliacci", but De Palma not only does that, he makes it work. The famous scene at Union Station, which is directly inspired by the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, is De Palma enjoying himself with one of the most famous scenes in cinema and then turning the image to his own ends. Eisenstein was making a powerful political point, but De Palma milks it for all its potential melodramatic fury, turning the iconic moment into what nothing less than a suspense production number. He takes it as far as it will go and then, as he did with the bucket of blood in Carrie or the slow-motion escape in The Fury, takes it a little bit further until it becomes witty. Actually, the scene is as much a steal from Peckinpah as Eisenstein but as it works so well, it would be curmudgeonly to carp. One might also point out that Sergei himself took more than a little inspiration from D.W.Griffith's Babylonian sequences in Intolerance. The point, I guess, is always steal from the best.
This is not, for purists, classic De Palma, lacking the intensity of his best work, but it's still the work of a great director at the very peak of his form - making Mission To Mars even more depressing in comparison - and a riposte to all those who say he's all style and no character. In The Untouchables the key emotional moments are delivered with as much power as the violent set-pieces and, in retrospect, it's that genuine rarity; a blockbuster with a brain, and even more refreshingly, a heart.
The Untouchables was originally released in the UK three years ago on a disc without significant extra features. This new Collectors Edition adds some featurettes but isn't otherwise particularly distinguished.
The film is presented in anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1, retaining the original Panavision ratio. As one of the most visually distinguished films of its era, a good transfer is vital and, in some respects, this disc comes up to scratch. I thought it improved on the earlier transfer in a couple of key ways. The colours seem a lot richer and the blacks seem considerably more solid. However, there is a surprising amount of minor print damage and blocky artefacting remains a problem in the darker scenes. There is a certain amount of grain but this is film-like and not excessive. The softness which the original release demonstrated is less problematic here, although the level of detail varies from scene to scene. It's still not as visually rich as I remember the original cinema release to have been but its certainly very acceptable.
The soundtrack is slightly less satisfactory. It's presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and, like the original release, this seems more like a Dolby Stereo mix for much of the time. Dialogue remains tied to the front channels and there's not a great deal of use of the surround channels. The .1 LFE mostly benefits the lower register of the excellent music score. Indeed, the best aspect of the track is the music which remains sensationally effective. The film was presented in most cinemas in Dolby Stereo but a six track surround mix was created for the 70MM showcase presentations. All in all, this is also quite acceptable but it doesn't make the use of the surrounds that it could have done. I suspect this is identical to the 5.1 mix used on the previous release.
There are five featurettes on the disc, four of them new and one from 1987. The latter is a five minute piece of fullscreen promotional fluff which can be safely ignored, particularly since most of the comments from the cast also appear in the newer featurettes. The four new featurettes are interesting but somehow bland and predictable. "The Script, The Cast", running about 15 minutes, deals with, er, the script and the casting. It features new material from De Palma and Art Linson and archive interviews with Connery, Costner, Smith and Garcia. Quite enjoyable to watch but the story about how Bob Hoskins was hired to play Capone and then paid not to do it lacks the wonderful Hoskins punchline which I will leave you to find out yourself. "Production Stories" runs about 18 minutes and contains more new interviews with De Palma, Linson, DP Stephen H. Burum, visual consultant Patrizia Von Brandenstein and Charles Martin Smith. Again, the sludge of self-congratulation is thick on the ground and the actual insights into the shooting process are few. "Re-inventing the Genre" runs 14 minutes and is an extension of the previous featurette with slightly lengthier considerations of aspects such as the death scenes and the border scene - which was directly inspired by John Ford but always makes me think of the bridge scene in The Wild Bunch. "The Classic" is five minutes of more smug back-patting and, apart from some affectionate memories of Ennio Morricone, contains nothing of interest. If you like the film then you don't need this to tell you why and if you don't, there's nothing here to change your mind. The four new featurettes are presented in variable non-anamorphic aspect ratios; fullscreen stills and archive interviews, 1.85:1 new interviews and 2.35:1 film clips. Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer in anamorphic 1.85:1; this is scored to Morricone's music from The Mission and a brief snatch of 'I Pagliacci'.
The film and all the special features, bar the trailer, are subtitled in English and a range of other languages. There are 24 chapter stops and nicely animated, elegant menus.
Whatever one's reservations about the film as a whole, The Untouchables remains marvellously exhilarating entertainment. This Collectors Edition release is certainly worth considering if you don't own the film but the slight improvements to the transfer and the new extras aren't strong enough to wholeheartedly recommend a purchase if you're happy with the original release.