Sunday, May 29, 2011

Brian De Palma: The Untouchables

No one in The Untouchables, either cop or criminal, seems to have anything in the way of a moral code. Their lives are far more existential: the criminal steals because he is a thief, and the cop upholds the law because it is his job to do so. When a reporter asks Bureau of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), dedicated defender of Prohibition, what he would do if the government repealed the 18th Amendment, he replies without hesitation" I think I'll have a drink." Until that day, however, "It is the law of the land."

As for everyone caught in-between, life under a system of legislated morality has seemingly divorced individuals from a sense of right and wrong. Ness' efforts to conduct raids on bootleggers fail because of corrupt cops tipping off Al Capone's men in order to get a few drops of the material they're helping to hide. The title refers to the team of uncorrupted policemen Ness and Irish beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery) recruit straight out of police academy to ensure their unblemished records, but it just as well describes Al Capone and his empire, which has such control over the desires of the common American that the boss can openly chat with reporters about bootlegging.

In comparison to the hedonism of Scarface, The Untouchables does not show anyone particularly enjoying the thrill of illegal consumption. Flapper-filled speakeasies seem to be in some other dimension entirely from the world Ness and co. traverse to take down Capone. Those smoky, alcohol-serving dens are in the underworld, but the point here is that the cops need not descend into it to find law-breakers; the most flagrantly criminal people live topsoil. Not only that, they leave in lavish mansions fit for holding the aristocracy at court for the winter.

In such matters, De Palma's attention to detail and suggestion has never been better: period costumes and set design are immaculate, and the director clearly shoots for an accurate representation of the social turmoil caused by Prohibition, not simply in the resulting crime spree but in a skewing of values that led to romanticizing that crime. For example, he immediately juxtaposes the scene of Capone chumming with sympathetic reporters as he assures them he just runs a business and does not use violence with the bombing of a bar that refused to sell Capone's wares, killing everyone inside (including a young girl).

However, De Palma's capacity to let wooden performances go uncorrected has rarely been so apparent. Divorced from his Brechtian satire, De Palma crafts a remarkably straightforward Hollywood picture with The Untouchables, but that only means that the actors have nowhere to hide when one examines their work. Costner, who would go on to convey something resembling human emotion as a crusader in JFK, here barely modulates his voice, speaking in a flat tone even when yelling. Connery, playing an Irish cop, appears to have decided the best approach to the accent would be to speak in his normal voice but occasionally make it a bit more nasal. Thankfully, he only tries to keep up this charade for about five minutes, at which point he simply speaks like Sean Connery, full stop. Only Robert De Niro, who plays Capone like a more unassailable and confident version of the fat Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, puts any effort into this.

De Palma, too, uses little of the prowess so freely on display in his usual style. The film has its share of Steadicam and crane shots, including a first-person roam outside Jimmy's apartment that has all the trappings of the director's voyeuristic, playful élan. But so much of the movie feels stiff, too mannered, as if the starch in everyone's suits bled into them and into the film itself.

This is all the more perplexing given that it was written by David Mamet. Though certainly not as madcap as Oliver Stone, Mamet nevertheless works best as a vulgarian wordsmith with an ear for detail, and only a few isolated moments of wit ever surface. The rest of the time, we get treated to farcical sub-slapstick—"Where's your warrant?" "He's my warrant!" comes the response with a sucker punch that makes the criminal's eyes bug out cartoonishly—that clashes with the somber tone of the rest of the film.

In fairness, the shootouts are fun, even if the famous rip-off of Potemkin's Odessa steps sequence feels like just that, lacking the creativity De Palma usually puts into his quotations. The lead-up to the fight is masterful De Palman suspense, and the actual gunfight in slo-mo is also entertaining, but where Obsession, Dressed to Kill and Body Double warped, inverted and experimented with his love of Hitchcock (to say nothing of minor variations on influences sprinkled throughout his work), this just feels like plagiarism.

I honestly don't know what the point of this movie is. People call Carlito's Way an "apology" for Scarface, but I would point to The Untouchables as the likelier candidate for a direct response to that film. If Scarface dove headfirst into the underworld (and potentially cracked its skull on the bottom), The Untouchables never really ventures anywhere outside the respectable world, but the point De Palma was making carries no weight without seeing how the respectable members of above-ground society are precisely the ones to sink into dens each night to get plastered and dance. The open wealth Capone enjoys is the only hint at the transparent garishness of the wealthy during the Great Depression, a financial catastrophe caused in part both by massive income inequality and the effective second economy created by Prohibition that made men like Capone so wealthy that, when the law cracked down on bootlegging, it collapsed the legitimate economy in addition to the illegal one.

But this is all projection. The Untouchables lives up to its name in that even the director seems reluctant to grab a hold of these people and really throw them into the muck. It runs in the opposite direction of Scarface, presenting a sterile view of crimefighting not even fully alleviated by the presence of blood. De Palma and Mamet do suggest that the characters want to be in a more violent movie, however: when one of the team, Wallace, starts tracking the accounts of every business tied to Capone and suggests getting the mobster on tax evasion, Ness waves him off, unwilling to take down a murderer with a prosaic approach.

After under-performing or flopping with most of his '80s features, The Untouchables proved a much-needed hit for De Palma, though I can't help but lump it with the likes of Wise Guys instead of legitimately good mainstream fare like the director's next film. By the end of the film, Ness has eroded his law-abiding façade, killing an unarmed man and lying to a judge to ensure the outcome he wants in Capone's trial. Had the rest of the film put more effort and care into crafting a moral viewpoint, this downfall would only enhance the irony of Ness' final statement, the aforementioned quip about post-Prohibition what-ifs. As it is, these end-game occurrences are merely the first signs of life after two hours of watching De Palma fuss over everything but what's important. At least it secured him a few large budgets for his next couple of features. When not even an Ennio Morricone can liven your film, you've got problems.


  1. A schizo movie. Connery is fabulous, elevates every scene he's in, his relationship with the Irish cop suggesting depths that the movie refuses to wade into. De Niro makes a strong entrance and a little later wields a mean baseball bat, but puzzlingly fades into the woodwork. Ness is a stiff, both in Costner's performance and Mamet's conception of the character. (Costner starred in "Bull Durham" immediately after this, and his liveliness was a shock.) The cartoon Nitti may be the biggest disappointment: I'm not a big fan of Mann's "Public Enemies," but at least that movie showed that there's a lot more to that character than sneering and leering. And you're right about the "Odessa Steps" sequence. Kael said that it lacks a punchline: You expect one, like in nearly all of De Palma's elaborate setpieces in his films, but it never does. On the other hand, I've been in that train station several times over the years, and each time I've overheard somebody in passing say, "Oh, that was in 'The Untouchables'!"

  2. I don't get that "lack of a punchline" idea--Andy Garcia's gunshot while holding up the pram with his legs and then finishing the henchman's count provides an immensely satisfying punchline. I also don't get the idea that one cannot get over the "plagiarism" of this scene-- because first of all, De Palma is not trying to put anything over on anyone as far as where he got the idea for the pram on the stairs, but second of all, there is so much more going on here than just the pram on the stairs, which De Palma has made the grounding element of a brilliant suspense setpiece that is quite a variation on the Eisenstein piece.

    All that said, this is a great write-up on THE UNTOUCHABLES. I've been enjoying your pieces on De Palma's films, and am looking forward to the next one-- keep up the good work!

  3. By punchline I think Kael really meant a "sick twist." Garcia's shot is funny and satisfying but it's not unexpected, and with De Palma you can usually count on the unexpected.

  4. I completely agree with Kael; this film always feels like it's leading up to some grand De Palman climax and it never really arrives (and honestly, throwing a guy off a building almost doesn't even rate in a canon as wild as his).

    Geoff, maybe plagiarism was the wrong word, as you're right, he's not passing it off as his own. But that's actually the problem; rather than sublimate it into his own craft and work with it, it just hangs there as an obvious homage. The lead-up is suspenseful, but the actual shots of the baby falling do nothing for me because the director really doesn't do anything unique after the homage kicks in. The sequence, like the movie itself, feels like it's about to be something more, then it isn't.

  5. Here is one of those rare De Palma films that I keep coming back to because of its sequences, not because of its story. I can respect that it was one of his more studio-oriented pictures, but, at the same time, a movie like Mission to Mars actually seems preferable in that department.

    Now, I agree with Geoff about De Palma's intent with the Odessa homage; what De Palma seems to be trying with The Untouchables is to make the most of a surprisingly banal screenplay written by one of our finest screenwriters. I don't expect Mamet to dish out "Mametspeak" with all of his screenplays, but Christ: if he could produce a restrained-yet-masterful draft of The Verdict for Sidney Lumet, there's no reason why he should have been taking a day off in drafting a Prohibition gangster flick for De Palma. Methinks he was too preoccupied with writing/directing House of Games at the time.

    I enjoy The Untouchables, but I'd say it's the least satisfactory of De Palma's gangster flicks (although I haven't seen Wise Guys). With Oliver Stone he got a Scarface script that was exuberant enough for his sensibilities, and with David Koepp he got a Carlito's Way script that was personal enough. But Mamet's Untouchables script is neither of these: it doesn't give you the impression that either the writer or director loved the project all that much. De Palma, like I said, makes the most of some unforgettable sequences... but the movie, as you've said here, Jake, doesn't have much of a purpose.

    To me, De Palma and Mamet missed out on a grand opportunity to explore the possibilities in Ness' transformation from a good cop to an antihero. There's got to be palpable FEELING in Ness throwing Netti off the roof, and it's got to stick with him. The movie can't just end with Ness dusting himself off, smiling and going off to have a drink, as if he's suddenly gone back to being the good cop. That's not realistic -- and, more importantly, it's not like De Palma.

    In Blow Out, Jack is able to eliminate a serial killer but fails to save the girl, and takes his guilt with him back into the studio. In The Black Dahlia, the Hartnett character murders somebody and clearly is able to exit the movie a changed person. Similarily, in The Untouchables there should be an added weight to Ness' dark transformation. But instead we get a likable, innocent Kevin Coster, who sometimes shows true emotion in other films (JFK; A Perfect World) but is just totally unconvincing here as a once-good cop who is finding his entire code of ethics unraveling.

  6. I agree especially with your last point, Adam. Costner doesn't do anything to sell Ness, even as a stunted, self-blind lapdog who will sacrifice his ethics to protect a law he demonstrates he does not really believe in. He enforces it because it's the law, which he stands by even when he commits a number of crimes to bust Capone. Even the music sells the pithy final line, which in any other De Palma film would be the ironic punchline that brings down the house, as a completely sincere little chuckle. And I can't argue that De Palma is playing with us because Costner so fails to modulate Ness that one can only read into the literal ending and not any darker subtext.

    Like I said, I'm glad it gave De Palma a much-needed hit, but this remains easily one of my least favorite of his pictures.

  7. Adam, we actually have Mamet's screenplay drafts and research notes for The Untouchables in our archives. I agree it's not his best stuff, but from the amount of detail it's apparent he wasn't phoning it in.

  8. Really!?? Are there more complicated scenes of emotional buildup in his drafts that De Palma wound up cutting out or something...?

  9. I haven't read the drafts in careful detail, but at a glance Mamet's approach seems as esoteric as you'd expect, more interested in the gamesmanship between Ness and Capone (and the sideplot between Malone and his Irish counterpart) than in any "human element." He's not really into action scenes or elaborate set-pieces. De Palma brought those to the table, Connery and Charles Martin Smith brought what exists of the emotion.

    Still, I love tracing the evolution of a story through manuscripts. There's a thick wad of Prohibition-Era newsclippings in the collection, followed by an empty folder with Mamet's ideas scrawled all over the front and back of it. Then come a few "treatments" (mainly scene and story ideas), then actual drafts up to the finished script.

  10. Man, I'd love to read those drafts. You can see the period detail all in the film, but of course De Palma isn't someone interested in reflecting reality. He certainly has an eye for detail, but he likes to throw people off. It's funny that the biggest flaw of the film might be its lack of excess. It keeps acting like it's about to go off the rails and never does, to its detriment.

  11. Craig, it sounds like you work or live near the Austin University of Texas, where they have the DeNiro collection? I really want to go visit that collection.

    I think I read this in one of Art Linson's books, but Mamet was kind of done mentally with THE UNTOUCHABLES once filming began, and Linson and De Palma often had trouble getting him to do rewrites. De Palma solved one problem in which Mamet either refused to or avoided rewriting (or adding) by inventing and filming a virtually silent scene in which Nitti lets Capone know about Malone's death while Capone is at the opera-- none of Mamet's great dialogue in that scene. And of course, the whole "Odessa Steps" sequence was developed overnight by De Palma when the budget would not allow them to film the sequence as written, and in the location they had planned. Instead of moving trains and helicopter shots, Linson told De Palma they could only afford the stairs, some extras, and some guns. And a big clock.

    I just happened to pick up a book off my shelf this morning called "It Don't Worry Me" by Ryan Gilbey, in which he devotes a chapter each to several "revolutionary" filmmakers of the seventies, including De Palma. At the end of his chapter on De Palma, he discusses how De Palma's endings usually leave no satisfactory completion or sense of finality, allowing the mystery to be preserved in the viewer's mind-- "it still has the potential to impinge upon our consciousness," he writes, adding that this is why "the end of a De Palma movie is often such a rich source of ambivalence and speculation." He then delves back into the ending of OBSESSION, and then concludes his chapter with the following paragraph, which is interesting in light of the above discussion:

    "In these moments, a crucial transformation is effected. The director who measures out his films shot-by-storyboarded-shot with no margin for spontaneity becomes joint signatory with the prankster who loves to slay an audience with a punchline, or the gaping absence of one."