New-Release Tuesday: The Untouchables

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

I saw The Untouchables on opening day, June 3, 1987 at the Uptown Theater with Shari Kooistra. I’ve mentioned before how arresting the title sequence of the film was, designed as it was not around filmed footage but graphics… and Morricone’s music. I honestly cannot think of a film whose tone was better set in its opening seconds than was the theatrical release of The Untouchables. And that tone was: style.

De Palma does not specialize in verisimilitude. That is to say, he is not interested in presenting “reality” on film; he knows that the artform is one of calculated deception and manipulated point of view, and he embraces all of that via impressionist cinema.

In painting, impressionism is known for an emphasis on “depicting visual impressions of a moment” rather than a photo-like rendition of the moment itself; in music, “clarity of structure and theme is subordinate to harmonic effects, characteristically using the whole-tone scale”; in other arts, impressionism “seeks to capture a feeling or experience rather than to achieve accurate depiction.” You can see how these descriptions can easily apply to many films–even certain documentaries like those of Errol Morris or Michael Moore.

De Palma’s approach to impressionism opts for heightened, stylized reality. He was aided in The Untouchables not only by Morricone’s score but by David Mamet’s brilliant, infinitely quotable script. Mamet himself specializes in stylized, impressionist dialogue, and the overarching stylized feeling or experience of The Untouchables is centered around the corrupting influence of the fight against evil: “I have foresworn myself,” summarizes Elliot Ness, courtesy of Mamet; “I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold; I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!” This is not a sentiment we are intended to endorse, mind you; as with the central message of Apocalypse Now!, it’s one that’s meant to be sobering. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, both films say, even if it would be horrific in other contexts.

Unlike Francis Ford Coppola’s grueling 1979 tour de force, however, De Palma’s meditation on upping the ante is both High Art and superb entertainment. In the mix are not only the genius of Morricone’s Oscar-nominated score and Mamet’s script, but the creative work of four brilliant actors. We need not say much about the legendary Sean Connery, who won an Oscar for his work here as Irish beat cop Jim Malone. But alongside him were three performers who would later become accomplished film directors in their own right: Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith, and Andy Garcia, each of whom delivered some of their best work here under De Palma.

Robert DeNiro was also pretty darned memorable as Al Capone. One memorable scene is the one following the opening credits, as Capone hosts a press conference while getting a shave. De Palma’s camera starts out directly overhead in a “God shot” as “the court” silently (and artificially) hangs on Capone’s next words. As the camera cranes down after establishing the shot, a reporter finally steps in to pose an obviously over-dubbed question: how is it that Capone, who runs Chicago, is not actually mayor? The barber takes the hot towel from Capone’s face, and Capone is both disturbed by the question and amused by it. Today, one can’t help but hear this indictment running through DeNiro’s head: “Fake news!” In Mamet’s words from DeNiro’s lips: “We laugh because it’s funny, and we laugh because it’s true.” At the very least, we are entertained by Mamet’s and De Palma’s Chicago “because it’s true” in a stylistic and moral sense, if not historically accurate.

The other of DeNiro’s most memorable scenes is the vision of what “Keep Chicago Great” looks like, as he hosts a dinner for all his lieutenants in the wake of Eliott Ness’s first liquor raid.

“A man becomes preeminent,” Capone pontificates; “he’s expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms, enthusiasms… What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which gives me joy? Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork… Looks, throws, catches, hustles. Part of one big team.” Standard big-business motivational speech. The kind of thing you might hear in the White House with the Cabinet.

“If his team don’t field… what is he? You follow me? No one. Sunny day, the stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? I’m goin’ out there for myself? But… I get nowhere unless the team wins.” Yeah, team work.

And Capone proceeds to beat a man to death with a baseball bat, just so everyone gets the point about whose team they are all really on. DeNiro’s Capone is truly a cat who needs a comedown.

Hence Ness. Costner’s transformation from the goodie-two-shoes crusader to jaded Treasury enforcer culminates at the courthouse during Capone’s trial for tax evasion–one of the few historical details which the film gets “right” in its quest for a stylistic “impression” of the case of “The People vs. Al Capone.” In open court, it dawns on Ness that Capone henchman Frank Nitti is up to no good–and on a legal pretext, he has Nitti removed from court and searched, finding evidence that he was the trigger man behind Malone’s murder. Nitti makes a break for it, and a chase ensues. When provoked, Ness ultimately throws Nitti from the roof of the courthouse rather than arrest him. (As we have noted, this is impressionist cinema, not realist.) Ness returns to the court and, with his memorable line about being content that he has “done right,” proceeds to blackmail the presiding judge into switching juries with the courtroom next door. Cue Capone’s meltdown, and his attorney’s resignation. A very impressionistic conclusion.

“Here endeth the lesson,” indeed. One that Costner would heed with his own Oscar triumph in Dances With Wolves, if got completely lost in with The Postman. But that’s another story.

How The Untouchables ends up with only 8 out of 10 stars on IMDb and an 89% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is beyond me. If you like Hollywood-style entertainment at all, you should find The Untouchables to die for.

But maybe it’s too stylistically violent for many audiences; or, perhaps, it conveys too strong an impression of a certain truth: that we are all complicit in the evils that our world creates, either through the enthusiasms and appetites from which these evils arise, or through the levels to which we are willing to stoop to eradicate them.

The Untouchables is available to stream at YouTube.