Reeling Backward: The Untouchables (1987)
Brian De Palma and David Mamet's genre masterpiece is an opera of sentiment and sadism, the story of a good man who adopts the brutish tactics of his enemy but somehow remains untouched.
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I saw “The Untouchables” dozens of times during the summer of 1987, working in a movie theater before heading off to college that fall. I remember being astounded at the middling critical reception to it — Roger Ebert gave it 2½ stars and Pauline Kael called it “banal” and “morally comfortable.”
To me, there has never been a second since I first saw it I regarded the movie as anything less than a masterpiece. Its odd but intertwined mix of sentiment and sadism is still compelling, and puzzling. It’s an extremely manipulative film, and I mean that as the highest compliment.
The whole meaning of the phrase “The Untouchables” has been horrendously misplaced, almost on par with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” being co-opted as a patriotic ballad.
It was not meant to indicate Eliot Ness and his squad of agents commissioned with bringing down mobster Al Capone could not be harmed or threatened. Of course they could, and did so in Brian De Palma and David Mamet’s masterful drama — most famously, of course, with Sean Connery’s bathed-in-blood death scene, instantly one of the most iconic in cinematic history, and which no doubt put him over the top to win his only Academy Award.
Rather, the phrase is supposed to indicate that Ness and his gang could not be bribed or bought off. In a 1930s Chicago where virtually every cop and politician was on the take from the illicit proceeds of Prohibition, they were seen as outsiders who could remain untouched by the pox of corruption pervading all corners of the city.
And they are a gang. The very first lesson Ness, a young and driven U.S. Treasury agent, learns is that he can’t fight Capone’s Chicago Outfit using the normal levers of law enforcement and jurisprudence. He has to form his own gang to oppose Capone’s and operate outside the rules and structures that have been poisoned.
His self-described tutor in “the Chicago way” is Connery’s Malone, a tired old beat cop he happens across one night after his first, spectacularly botched liquor raid. Malone is nearly at pension age, probably about Connery’s real 57 years at the time the film was made, bitter and one of the few men in blue not on Capone’s payroll.
We actually learn very little background information about Malone during the course of the movie; Ness never even speaks his first name. Though we learn it is Jim or Jimmy through talking with Mike Dorsett (Richard Bradford), a fellow contemporary Irish who learned to take the graft and go along. Mike is now a high-ranking officer while Malone is still walking the streets, indicating he probably started off with a great deal of idealism that the years have smoked down to a hard cynicism, like fresh beef left too long over the coals.
“That’s the thing you fear, isn’t it?” Malone muses when he first refuses Ness’ conscription effort. After decades of wishing he could do something about the mafia pulling all the strings of power, he admits he’s grown afraid now that he’s presented with the actual opportunity — though he soon finds his misplaced mettle. “Well, the Lord hates a coward.”
Malone spends so much time speaking in such pronouncements, it’s almost as if he is carrying on an external dialogue with himself — because he considers most others in Chicago to be idiots, evildoers or weak-willed pawns.
The casting of Kevin Costner to pay Ness was quite controversial at the time. He seemed too young and wholesome, particularly when compared with the crusty Robert Stack’s take on the character in the 1959 TV show. The onscreen contrast with Connery, grim and weathered, was also stark.
(For the record, Costner was 32 when he played Ness and Stack was 40. The real-life Ness was just 27 in 1930.)
But I think the pairing of the old movie star with the young one works just as De Palma intended. He loves to mess around with genre expectations. By making Ness seem so impossibly pure, it lightens an otherwise very heavy, dramatic and blood-soaked story. And although Ness eventually follows Malone’s lessons — even committing murder and threatening a judge — we always see it as a good man leveraging the lesser evil to combat the greater.
De Palma leans into the portrayal of Ness as an incorruptible family man, with home scenes with wife (Patricia Clarkson) and young daughter that are so syrupy-sweet, with gauzy soft photography and aching string music, it flirts with parody.
“It’s nice to be married” is Ness’ repeated refrain, spoken either by him or to him.
Speaking of the music, this is one of Ennio Morricone’s most memorable scores. It actually seems like several scores, with melodies and cadences that are completely divergent from one another. He rightfully received an Oscar nomination for it.
There is the trilling, triumphant horn cue, used for scenes where the Untouchables enjoy success. Mournful cellos and a keening sax solo strike up when tragedy visits. Tense action is stirred up with a jaunty percussion-heavy piano played in low staccato pulses lasting just a few notes apiece (which also plays over the opening credits). Capone’s scenes are often accompanied by jazzy, indulgent wah-wah of muted brass over bell-like bright tones.
The film also got Academy Award nods for costumes and set decorations, which are absolutely superb and in many cases make use of real Chicago locations in stunning, how-did-they-do-that re-dressings to make everything look nearly 60 years earlier.
An egregious oversight was the lack of a nomination for the cinematography of Stephen H. Burum, who had previously worked with De Palma on “Body Double.” Like Morricone’s shapeshifting music, Burum’s cameras dance and pivot in myriad different ways for various scenes, from sweeping overhead views to circling around a table to Steadicam shots representing the perspective of a killer.
Both Capone and Ness are introduced from an obscured viewpoint: Capone from above, his face covered by a barber’s hot towel as reporters wait to record his utterances; Ness from behind as his wife enters the room while he’s reading a newspaper about the vicious bombing that killed a 10-year-old girl in one of the Chicago Outfit’s reprisals.
There is the now-iconic shootout at Chicago Union Station, a slow-motion orgy of blood that De Palma borrowed from the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisentein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” accompanied by Morricone’s tinny circus lullaby. For my money, I favor the slow-burn tension building of Malone being stalked inside his narrow shotgun house, the killer creeping from room to room.
Robert De Niro had to be convinced to play Capone, putting on 30 pounds, shaving his hairline and having a prosthetic scar splayed across his cheek. Though, in truth, it’s barely visible. The real Capone loathed the nickname Scarface and often wore makeup to conceal his riddled flesh, the result of a jealous tussle over a friend’s wife. De Niro’s garish suits were made by the same tailoring company that worked on the real Capone’s outfits.
Costner and De Niro only have two scenes together, a verbal spat in the lobby of the lavish Lexington Hotel, where Capone made his unofficial home, and the final trial scene. Capone dismisses Ness — “You’re nothing but a lot of talk and a badge” — using that phrase both times, first as a taunt by a guy who knows he has the upper hand and later as a powerless comeback by someone who has just seen his entire empire crumble.
In actuality, Ness and Capone never met. Though ostensibly based on Ness’ autobiography, the movie bears little semblance to the historical record.
The Untouchables’ work had little to do with the tax evasion charge that eventually brought Capone down, a legal tactic that had been in the works even before the unit was formed. Ness’ crew successfully intercepted or cut off large portions of the Chicago Outfit’s liquor distribution network, starving Capone for cash and impeding his ability to bribe local officials and thus protect himself.
Screenwriter Mamet, then known mostly for his work as a playwright, wisely regarded Ness’ book as a mere stepping-off point to tell an almost wholly fictionalized story. There’s very little about the script that’s factually accurate.
Take Frank Nitti, the flamboyant personal bodyguard of Capone played by Billy Drago. With his shark-like stare and white suits, Nitti acts as a sadistic secondary antagonist. It’s at his hands that Malone meets his fate, as well as Oscar Wallace, the dweebish Treasury accountant played by Charles Martin Smith, whose enthusiastic embrace of the gun-toting aspects of law enforcement provides much comic relief.
In the final step of Ness’ journey into moral ambiguity, he throws Nitti off the roof of the courthouse after capturing and disarming him, yielding to the assassin’s taunts about Malone “squealing like a stuck Irish pig” in his final moments. As the villain falls to his death, Ness hollers after him, “Did he sound anything like that?!?”
The moment serves as both an action movie hurrah cue and Ness’ realization that he has stepped through a door he cannot pass back through.
The real Nitti lived for nearly two decades after being convicted along with Capone (his cousin) of tax charges, being released a few months later and actually taking over leadership of the Outfit. He killed himself in a drunken depression upon being convicted again, and the first of three shots he fired toward his head merely passed through his fedora. De Palma recreates this moment with Ness shooting off Nitti’s totemic hat during their chase and scuffle.
It’s a good analogy for the film’s overall approach to historical fact — just enough to act as a flavorful garnish.
I’ve quoted a lot of Mamet’s dialogue in this essay, and could easily go on much longer. It’s one of the most quotable movies of the last 50 years. Much of the language is deliberately arch and “speechy.” It’s the sort of stuff actors wind themselves up to chew on.
Probably the most famous is Malone’s talk with Ness inside a church in which he demands, “What are you prepared to do?” — words that also become his death rattle. “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way.”
There’s also Capone’s “baseball” speech, in which he makes a seemingly humorous observation about the importance of teamwork to his lieutenants around a sumptuous dinner table, before viciously beating one of them to death with a bat.
(Before this most recent viewing, I had never put it together that the victim is the guy in charge of the post office whiskey depository, the site of Ness’ first successful raid.)
Really, though, the heart of the movie is summed up in the speech Ness gives in the judge’s chambers right after killing Nitti. Having learned Capone’s jury has been bribed, the judge refuses to take action, even as Ness fumes and bares his soul.
“There is only one way to deal with such men and that is hunt them down. I have. I have foresworn myself. 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 could have been a very cheesy moment and that dialogue in danger of coming out very stiff and inauthentic. But with all the death and mayhem that came before, and Costner selling the hell out of the line, it just works.
Ness winds up (off camera) threatening to expose the judge as being on Capone’s payroll, even though his name does not appear in the ledger they captured that formed the basis of the tax case. The judge goes along, switching the juries to foil the jury bribing, suggesting that he was part of the payola chain after all, even if the evidence was absent here.
The Eliot Ness of “The Untouchables” manages to wade through a veritable river of blood and human rot and retain his sense of wrong and right. It’s not enough to fight the good fight — you have to be able to accept the most grievous losses necessary to ensure a final victory.
“Not this man,” Ness pleads, pounding his hand on the floor as Malone spits out his last breaths in a red rasp. But I think both he and Malone knew this moment was predestined to happen. A “blood oath,” the old copper called it upon shaking the Treasury man’s hand, and such things are sealed in the letting of it.
Truly, no one who enters such a dark chasm of sin can ever remain untouched by it.