The Untouchables 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. Suspiciously Scottish accent aside, 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 seems to have taken more than a little inspiration from D.W.Griffith's Babylonian sequences in Intolerance. The point, I guess, is 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.
This was one of the most requested films for DVD release and Paramount's release was eagerly awaited. It's hard, therefore, to conceal a slight sense of disappointment at the finished product. It's not bad - indeed, it's well above average - but there's a constant sense of "It's not as good as it could be" creeping into this viewer's mind as he watches it.
The film has been given a new anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. This is a good start, since De Palma uses the entire frame with great skill, and panning and scanning ruins the compositions, and renders some scenes unintelligible. Indeed, the good news continues with the rich colours which grace the transfer. You're unlikely to feel disappointed with the richness of the different shades - note, for example, the blood spattering the dinner table in the baseball scene and the marvellously blue, clear sky in the border sequence. It's a sharper picture than I had expected from some of the early reviews, but there is a slight lack of detail in places - the slightly blurry appearance of the stack of newspapers at the start of chapter 7 for example - and occasionally bland contrast that stops the film looking as stunning as it should do. Another problem is grain. This is not constantly present, but the darker exteriors reveal it, notably in parts of chapter 15. Artifacting is evident at times, especially during the opening credits, but the film does improve in this respect. This is certainly not the grave disappointment I had feared, but it could have been better. It will be interesting to see what the Region 2 PAL release looks like when it eventually arrives.
The soundtrack is less satisfying overall. It's sounds muddy in places, with a definite lack of range in the 5.1 mix. I saw this at the Empire cinema in London on first release with a 6 track surround soundtrack, and I don't remember it being as unspectacular as this. I don't find the problems with dialogue that other reviewers have, but the foley effects definitely have an unnecessarily artificial feel to them. There are surround effects throughout the film, but the dialogue often comes only from the centre channel. The music, however, comes across very well indeed, with a full, rich sound that makes the most of Morricone's arrangements - the strings in chapter 15 are simply gorgeous. There is also a 2.0 surround mix on the disc, which some reviewers find more satisfactory - I think it has most of the same faults myself, without the punch of some moments in the 5.1 track.
The only extra on the disc is the original theatrical trailer, presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. There are a reasonable 24 chapter stops. The menus are static and unimaginative. We don't even get a booklet in the packaging, just a piece of paper with the chapter headings and a reproduction of the - rather horribly orange - front cover. We might well ask what was wrong with the blue of the original theatrical advertising.
The Untouchables is probably De Palma's most popular film, and certainly one of the better Hollywood films of the eighties. Fans are unlikely to be totally disappointed with this release, which remains a worthwhile purchase, but they're also likely to be frustrated by how much better it could have been with a little bit more care.