This big screen, big star crowd-pleaser is a whopping entertainment yet too disjointed to satisfy as a gangster movie. It can ignore history to make its points, but what is gained by killing off the only characters we really love? Audiences didn’t feel shortchanged: Sean Connery and Robert De Niro deliver strong characterizations and Ennio Morricone’s music is ideal. Brian De Palma’s visual instincts are at full strength too; the show is marvelous to look at. It’s a real winner, at least when its not running in knee-jerk Scarface overkill mode.
The Untouchables 4K
4K Ultra HD + Digital
1987 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 119 min. / Street Date May 31, 2022 / Available from Amazon / 25.99
Starring: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro, Richard Bradford, Jack Kehoe, Brad Sullivan, Billy Drago, Patricia Clarkson, Steven Goldstein, Del Close, Clifton James.
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Art Director: William A. Elliott
Visual Consultant: Patrizia Von Brandenstein
Costume designer: Marilyn Vance-Straker
Robert De Niro’s wardrobe (and certain other wardrobe): Giorgio Armani
Film Editors: Jerry Greenberg, Bill Pankow
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Written by David Mamet suggested by the book by Eliot Ness & Oscar Fraley and the Desilu TV series
Produced by Art Linson
Directed by Brian De Palma
Bolstered with a visual polish that The Godfather could envy, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables 4K is a pleasure to watch, just to take in the ultra-plush interior of Al Capone’s hotel and to savor the look of the period city streets. The show pushes all the buttons to deliver a major audience hit; De Palma’s work was always hit-and-miss but we assume this one did the best between his Scarface and Mission: Impossible. I remember really being into the Ennio Morricone music score when we saw it at the Cinerama Dome — could have been in a 70mm blow-up?
Unfortunately, a number of Brian De Palma movies rub me the wrong way, for reasons that probably bother very few viewers. For that reason I don’t cover very many of his pictures — so be prepared.
We don’t fault The Untouchables for rewriting gangland history. Eliot Ness and Alphonse Capone never met in person during the investigation, but De Palma and writer David Mamet make it happen for the same reason Laurence Olivier and Charlton Heston meet in Khartoum — for more dramatic satisfaction. A movie 100% accurate about the Capone years would be as depressingly frustrating as our news headlines today.
Federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) arrives in 1930 Chicago. Ness is an idealist and a fastidious non-drinker, which makes him an exception among lawmen in the Windy City. He moves his wife (Patricia Clarkson) and baby daughter into a new apartment and gets going with a spirited anti-bootlegging operation. But the ‘cooperative’ Chicago P.D., led by high-ranking officer Mike Dorsett (Richard Bradford of The Chase and The Trip to Bountiful) sends the unwelcome outsider on wild goose chases. Most of the department is on the take. They enjoy making Ness look like a fool in the press.
Ness is stymied until he meets beat patrolman Jim Malone (Sean Connery), a good cop busted for being too honest. With Malone’s help Ness recruits two trustworthy outsiders. The skilled arms specialist George Stone (Andy Garcia) has changed his Italian name to avoid discrimination. Treasury Department accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) also joins this irregular, independent new unit. Oscar isn’t a field agent, but Ness & Malone make him a full member of their raids.
Malone tells Ness that their anti-Capone campaign must be done secretly, as the regular cops are on the side of the mob. They raid a booze distribution warehouse that operates out of a Post Office building, protected by bought city officials. Their next raid is the ambush of a major liquor shipment at the Canadian border (how Malone learns of the shipment isn’t explained). The action is a huge success. Several hoods are killed; Ness seizes all the liquor, all the money, and a copy of Al Capone’s payoff books.
With a good witness and plenty of accounting evidence linking crooked money directly to Capone, Ness celebrates a victory. But Capone’s enforcer Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) strikes back with a double assassination, wiping out the case against Capone. Malone is right: the only way to win is to play the game the dirty way, outside the law.
De Palma’s Scarface was a spectacle of obscene excess and overkill violence. The thrilling The Untouchables offers up two hours of lawman heroics and bold action. Its lavish production values also impress — handsome art direction and costumes that gave 1987 audiences a hint of what studio-era Vincente Minnelli pictures were like. The show also maintains a strong forward momentum. Historical facts don’t slow up the parade of flashy set-piece action scenes. Exposition baloney is kept to a minimum.
We have to be reminded that in 1987 Kevin Costner wasn’t yet a fully established star. All the attention (and fun) comes through Sean Connery and Robert De Niro. Their class-A dialogue and character nuances dominate the screen; every other character is colorful support, a thin sketch. Audiences love Jim Malone’s rough Irish pragmatism, setting the Untouchable squad on a path where the rule book no longer counts. Connery took full advantage of the meaty role and earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. In the screening I saw applause broke out when Connery’s Malone mutilates a hoodlum’s corpse, shocking a Canadian mountie. It’s all in a good cause, of course.
With perhaps fewer than 12 minutes on the screen, Robert De Niro sketches a superb Al Capone. He sells the mobster’s confident bluster and simmering rage with style and restraint. We forget that De Niro hasn’t the right body shape for the squat Capone; he compensates fully with brutally self-satistifed facial expressions. Jason Robards’ Capone in Roger Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre got the anger and sadism across well, wielding a straight razor and howling in Italian. But Robards wasn’t even close to being acceptable casting.
De Niro nails Capone without resorting to Italian-immigrant gestures. This Capone travels with a swank fat-cat entourage that includes his own son, the only man allowed to lay hands on him when restraint is needed. De Palma introduces Capone with an impressive moving shot — it may be one take — that begins on the sidewalk, cruises up the grand staircase of a fabulously ornate hotel, and right into a suite where Capone is served breakfast in bed. A whole floor of the hotel appears to have been converted into a brothel.
Charlie Martin Smith’s cheerful bookkeeper rattles off statistics about how much of the city and state Capone controls, but what we remember are images of the mobster’s Sultan-like power. De Palma and Mamet restage the notorious ‘baseball bat’ dinner party incident previously depicted in Roger Corman’s movie, and by director Nicholas Ray in Party Girl. Capone murdered a disloyal lieutenant in front of dozens of witnesses, with no fear of arrest. Ness and his three cohorts have little hope against the well-oiled mob machine: the city belongs to Capone.
After so neatly setting up this world. some of The Untouchables’ choices falsify history without improving the story. Making Eliot Ness a green idealist in need of Malone’s coaching has to be a laugh. He is supposed to be a seasoned Treasury agent yet initially assumes that Chicago’s cops are honest. They sabotage his first raid, making him the butt of a prank. This fairy tale version of Ness makes him the only hope for Chicago’s helpless population, as represented by the unfortunate little girl in the first scene. But the storyline betrays its own ethics by urging Eliot to abandon the law and the American Way out of sheer pragmatism — it’s the only way to stop lawless gangsters.
Forget Moral Integrity . . . it’s an ’80s movie.
The screenplay eventually makes everything personal. Ness eventually claims the right to forget the law and become a righteous vigilante. The hit man Frank Nitti is a monster so odious that his existence overrides Ness’s better values. When pushed to the limit Ness just murders the S.O.B.. My audience cheered in the depressing 1980s way encouraged in Stallone and Schwarzengger movies, seeing street justice served with maximum illegal sadism. A potentially meaningful thriller ends up celebrating vigilantism. Eliot Ness who? He might as well be Buford Pusser or Harry Callahan: Screw the law, ’cause “There’s no law against what’s right!”
Robert Stack’s Eliot Ness in the old Desilu TV show was a crime-fixated obsessive. David Mamet’s ‘new, pragmatic’ Ness is a teddy bear at home but learns to run his crime squad like a rival hoodlum gang. In the terms of film heroism, he’s treated a bit like Christopher Reeve’s Superman in Richard Lester’s Superman II — having Superman take petty revenge on a bully in a diner is so beneath the character’s dignity, it spoils the movie. We’re ready for true-blue heroes like Eliot Ness — America is crying for worthwhile altruistic heroes. Can nobody lay off the cheap cynicism?
Even the major supporting characters are given short shrift. Andy Garcia is on hand whenever a sharpshooter is needed but is otherwise reduced to a smiling spear-carrier. Patricia Clarkson’s wife is the ultimate virtuous accessory, supporting hubby rain or shine — and then staying out of sight. You’d think Frank Nitti would have a team of hoods tailing her before he makes threats. What is Clarkson’s missus doing in the final courtroom scene? Capone and Nitti’s ace in the hole is there for the taking, right out in the open.
We really resent what’s done with Charlie Martin Smith’s character Oscar Wallace. The pipe-smoking little guy suddenly morphs into a shotgun-wielding ace battle dog. Did Oscar serve in the Fighting 69th ten years before, and nobody told us? Just the same, we exult to see the spirited Oscar charge the enemy, even if it seems more likely that he’d shoot his own foot off. Using such a special character for a cheap violent surprise just abuses the audience. What happens to Oscar and one of Capone’s accountants in the Hall of Justice also doesn’t make sense. It’s annoyingly stupid — why would Ness leave his all-important prosecution witness so unguarded? Knowing what they know, why would Ness and Malone allow the Chicago P.D. anywhere near any of their key witnesses?
One detail in the elevator scene remains confusing, all these years later. When Wallace and the witness George (Brad Sullivan) board the elevator, a ‘knowing’ woman gets off. We follow her down the hall, where she enters the office of the District Attorney (Clifton James) — who is busy making a self-serving, coverup-type statement to the press. Aha! This nice bit of visual storytelling suggests that the D.A. is also on Capone’s payroll.
Yet in the later trial scenes the D.A. proves to be an honest good guy. Did we misinterpret the woman’s relevance? Is she maybe the mob’s mole in the D.A.’s office, telling Frank Nitti when and where to strike? This strange, distracting confusion begs for further elaboration.
Brian De Palma will borrow anything from anywhere. The filmmakers must have read that Treasury agents sometimes worked on horseback on the border, for we get a refreshingly ‘different’ ambush scene on a bridge to Canada, featuring urban cops that just happen to possess rough riding skills. Every critic has pointed this out, but audiences approved — after a short laugh, they appreciated the unexpected battle in the wide-open spaces.
For an image that says ‘the Untouchables are now a team,’ the four lawmen brandish their shotguns and lope down a night street, backed by triumphant Morricone music. (bottom image) ↓ I suppose if they just walked, it might look too much like an imitation of The Wild Bunch.
Yet most of The Untouchables plays well on popcorn movie terms, even if we think, ‘that would never happen.’ It’s certainly different than the old TV show. Although De Palma insists that the film is mostly David Mamet’s inspiration, it shapes up as a series of very De Palma-like ‘cinematic’ set pieces. When Connery’s Officer Malone drags himself across the floor of his apartment, leaking blood, we get a replay of De Palma’s Sisters . . . I imagined Jennifer Salt observing from a building next door.
Then there’s the big shootout on the railroad station stairway, which gives us Brian De Palma in grand show-off mode. It’s a by-the-numbers suspense construction — the drawn-out prelude-buildup to violence, the addition of elements like the sinister man who turns out to be benign. But the sequence plays like a parody of ‘profound director cinema.’ Putting a baby in jeopardy is a cheap shot to guarantee audience concern: ol’ Eliot is just a born protector of little babies, yet every time the movie needs us to invest emotionally, it threatens a little girl or a baby. The fact that Eliot is willing to risk the tot rather than blow his cover feels WRONG. Would he do that with his own daughter?
Did De Palma think his replay of Eisenstein’s famous runaway perambulator was the ultimate insider cinema joke? It feels forced even before we recognize its source. Runaway baby buggies and sleds named Rosebud belong in a Saturday Night Live spoof. We acknowledge that we’re prejudiced against Brian De Palma as a cinema genius. Let’s just agree that De Palma’s least creative formal steal from classic cinema came not from Eisenstein, but from Woody Allen’s Bananas.
De Palma does block the 3-way shoot out with admirable clarity — we understand the space relationship between isolated parts of the staircase, without showing a full master. As for the slow-motion shots, I guess he gets away with them — audiences liked the scene and found it thrilling. After all the cute/tiresome cinematic pyrotechnics in the director’s erotic thrillers and sub-Hitchcock pictures, I’m grateful that he didn’t finish with a storm of split screen effects. (For the record, I remain a big fan of De Palma’s Sisters and Obsession, and not just because of their Bernard Herrmann music scores.)
Once again I over-think and over-analyze a perfectly good cops & robbers action entertainment — perhaps I’m responding to the many fawning analytical critiques of De Palma that all but nominate him for filmic sainthood. Rocco Gioffre would remind me of John Milius’s The Wind and the Lion, when Teddy Roosevelt asks why anyone would want to louse up his perfectly good war crimes with ‘legalities.’ We’ve always enjoyed The Untouchables and are certainly not against it — but we’re also trying to understand the parts of it that seem so disagreeable.
Paramount’s 4K Ultra HD of The Untouchables highlights the film’s sterling production values. The excellent cinematography is by Steven H. Burum, who had extensive experience with Francis Coppola and Carroll Ballard, and appears to have started with Brian De Palma on Body Double. De Palma’s Panavision compositions are handsome and his choice of lenses always feels right. Redressed for 1931, real Chicago streets ‘play themselves’ — it’s better than a CGI effect. And we’re genuinely impressed by Capone’s hotel. A lavish red velvet playground for hoodlum VIPs, it evokes an earlier era of grand decadence.
Ennio Morricone’s lush music score contrasts nervous rhythms against brassy ‘Chicago’ outbursts. One sensitive cue reminds us of the ‘sad war defeat’ theme in the composer’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
The disc carries several featurettes, substantial pieces with good interviews by De Palma, producer Art Linson, D.P. Stephen H. Burum and Charles Martin Smith. An older, shorter Laurent Bouzereau piece from 2004 is formatted flat. They carry a lot of good information. Brian De Palma opens by stating he was a director for hire enticed by David Mamet’s completed screenplay. But continuing testimony shows us that De Palma took charge, changing things as needed. He had the freedom to stop filming in mid-shoot, break for a day and re-think a scene before continuing.
The trailer is a bit frustrating — how much graphic violence the censors allows depends on the prestige of the film and the clout of its producers. Around the same time, a gun and a potential victim couldn’t even share the same frame on the trailers I worked on. The Untouchables trailer shows Sean Connery sticking a gun in a man’s mouth!
The one disc is the 4K Ultra HD pressing — there is no backup Blu-ray disc. A card insert carries the code for the digital version.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Untouchables 4K
4K Ultra HD + Digital rates:
Movie: Very Good
The Script, The Cast
Re-Inventing the Genre
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature and featurettes)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD in Keep case
Reviewed: June 1, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson