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Connection: director (Brian DePalma)
The Untouchables (1987)
Directed by Brian DePalma
Written by David Mamet
Starring Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Patricia Clarkson, Sean Connery, and Robert Deniro
119 minutes, Rated R
As I wrote the previous entry, I had to make a resolution with myself to stop being such a snob about the movies that do or do not belong in my labyrinth. Ultimately, this list is a catalog of personal favorite films, and I shouldn’t allow myself to be “embarrassed” to include a film that wouldn’t be included on scholarly lists of “the greatest films of all time.” If I like something, I like it, and I resigned to fight the urge to defend my choices.
Then, I started on the next entry and had to create an all new resolution for myself. And this one, somewhat, goes hand in hand with the previous one. The new resolution: stop gauging the quality of my favorite films based on whether or not Roger Ebert liked it. I’ve mentioned before that I admire his work, and I still do, but this is the third or fourth film I have included in the labyrinth that left me utterly flummoxed when I discovered that Ebert’s review was not as exuberant as my own.
To be fair, Roger Ebert did not completely hate The Untouchables. He gave the film 2 1/2 out of 4, which infers that that he found it fairly average. But there are quotes in his published review that imply that his review of 2 1/2 stars was being generous. The following is a direct quote from his review, published on June 3, 1987: “The Untouchables has great costumes, great sets, great cars, great guns, great locations and a few shots that absolutely capture the Prohibition Era. But it does not have a great script, great performances, or great direction.”
I disagree with pretty much everything Mr. Ebert contends in that second sentence there.
This film was written by David Mamet. You’ll have to forgive a brief anecdotal aside here because it is very difficult for me to come within spitting distance of his name without taking some time to fawn over him. I largely became a playwright because of his work.
I might have seen this movie six or seven times before I even realized that David Mamet was attached to it. It’s hard to say. I do know, however, that seeing The Untouchables, and falling in love with it, predates my knowledge of his authorship because I didn’t really become cognizant of David Mamet until my senior year in high school.
I was on the speech team that year, and I specialized in an event called Humorous Interpretation. For this event, the participant performed a comic scene of two or more characters by his or herself, using distinct focal points in the distance to differentiate between characters. This was important because the participant isn’t technically supposed to move from the spot on the floor in which they are standing. I’m not sure why the teacher who served as our “coach” suggested David Mamet to me. I’m even less sure why she suggested a scene from his 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, but she did. I enjoyed studying the piece enough to look into other scripts by this playwright.
In college, the professor of an acting class I was in was also enamored of the idea that I would perform Mamet. This time it was for monologue work, and he assigned me an extended speech from Mamet’s 1972 play The Duck Variations. It was a clever speech about hierarchy in the duck community– every flock has a leader, every duck follows that leader. It was an unusual speech out of context from the rest of the play, though, so I tracked down the original script. I found it at the library, in a massive door-stopper of a tome that collected every single play that Mamet had written to that point. I read every one of them.
By the end of my freshman year in college, my passions had diverted, so I transitioned my focus from acting into playwrighting. Guess which playwright I frequently cited as my inspiration and favorite?
Here we are, more than twenty years later, and I still consider myself a devoted acolyte. I have directed his plays twice. I have acted in his plays three times. I have seen various productions of most of his plays, both professional and amateur. I have read them all. He also has a book, a collection of essays entitled Writing In Restaurants, that served not only as a personal Bible to me for many years, but is very clearly the inspiration for my own style of writing. In this day and age, some of his material might be considered problematic”, but that doesn’t change how connected I have felt to most of his work for pretty much the entirety of my adult life.
I remember being quite shocked when I discovered that David Mamet had written this screenplay. His style is considerably more concise than this script would suggest. His dialogue is usually leaner. If anything, I was impressed that my beloved Mamet had been able to “pull one over on me” for so many years. Be sure of one thing, though: his attachment to a movie that I already loved only made me love it more.
Freely admitting that my love for the screenplay might have more to do with my love for the writer than the actual script, this script still feels like a pretty good script to me. For starters, it’s fairly concise and straight to the point. It doesn’t waste a lot of time with potentially-confusing plot twists and needless exposition. This is a script that, to quote an old writing professor, does instead of tells. The script itself is a loose adaptation of a television series that ran on ABC from 1959 to 1963. The television series and the movie only have two things in common: a character named Eliot Ness and a focus on a team of police officers handpicked for their courage and incorruptibility to fight crime in 1930’s Chicago. In the film, Eliot Ness is played by Kevin Costner. His team includes an accountant named Wallace (played by Charles Martin Smith), a sharp-shooting rookie named Stone (played by Andy Garcia), and an aged Irish beatcop named Malone (played by Sean Connery). Their adversary is none other than Al Capone (played by Robert DeNiro).
The plot moves swiftly from point A to point B. Like I said, not a lot of exposition. The longest stretch of nothing happening is near the beginning, in a few short scenes where Malone and Ness “interview” potential recruits. But even this sequence doesn’t waste time with recruits that don’t get the job. The film doesn’t subject us to a montage of the recruits being trained, or showing their worth, or being briefed on the big plan. We see them hired. We see them on the job. We see them persevere, and, yes, we see them occasionally, fail. This script trusts the audience. It doesn’t spend many frames explaining who Al Capone might be. It assumes that a viewer is already aware of Al Capone and builds upon a preconception with little to no surprises. A viewer feels for the characters that die and gives those that don’t plenty of room to grow (especially in the case of Ness, who begins the film unwilling to break any laws, but is so jaded by the end that he is completely capable of understanding the necessity of fighting fire with more fire). You root for their success because the script makes clear from the first few scenes that success is not guaranteed.
It can, I suppose, be rightfully argued that the characters are underdeveloped. We meet Ness’ wife (played by Patricia Clarkson), but we don’t really get to know her. Wallace seems to exist solely for giving Ness a clever way to bring Capone in when they have no evidence of wrongdoing otherwise. Stone exists merely for the final tricky gunshots that ultimately save the day. We know that Nitti (played by Billy Drago) is the villain because of his low-slung hat and squinty sneer. But this movie really makes you love Malone, and Sean Connery (who won an Oscar for this performance) is superb in the role.
Interestingly, the best development of Malone is done in an unconventional manner. In the beginning, we know almost nothing about his character except that he is Irish and relegated to the graveyard beat because of his age. But he’s been around a long time, seen it all, and by the movie’s end, we know him well. We know that he is clever (my favorite part of the movie: Malone scares a captive into talking by shooting the head off a man that their captive doesn’t realize is already dead). We know that he is tenacious. We know that he has troubled bones to pick with the Chicago police department. And we know that he is a damn fine mentor to our hero. What is unconventional about these developments is that the film reveals them to us in Malone’s actions without the benefit of explanatory dialogue. In the end, we know everything we need to know about Malone without really knowing anything at all.
Kevin Costner’s work in this film is also exceptional. I mentioned in a previous entry that I am not always a fan of Kevin Costner’s acting. But there is a particular character that he seems born to play, and the role of Eliot Ness is one of them. As a character, Ness is low-key, not easily rattled. But taking down Capone requires more than just finesse and subtlety. Kevin Costner depicts perfectly the struggle and conflict that a man like Ness might go through when forced to agree that his methods are not the best. A quiet man coming to terms with his own brashness. At the film’s climax, when Ness gives in to a more primal urge, we believe that he could have done it. We believe that he didn’t want to. But we also believe that he will be forced to live with it for the rest of his life.
Before I close here, I do want to mention Brian DePalma’s direction. Ebert says in his review of the film that “even the good use of sets and locations is undermined by Brian De Palma’s curiously lead-footed direction.” He adds that modifier of “curiously” because Ebert acknowledges in the same review that DePalma is usually the “most nimble and energetic of directors.” Essentially, Ebert seems to be saying that he thinks DePalma is a good director, but seems, this time around, to be “phoning it in.” I don’t think that DePalma is phoning it in.
There are two important sequences in this movie that, to my mind, could only have been directed by Brian DePalma. The first is the assassination of a pretty major character. In one fluid take, the camera follows the assassin, through the eyes of the assassin, along a building’s ledge as he peeks in through windows looking for his prey. Eventually, we see the killer enter through an open window into the apartment. Again, through his eyes, we get a tour of the apartment, from room to room, back and forth down hallways. It’s quiet and intense, building to a moment of shock. The second sequence is easily the most famous sequence in the film. This sequence– the shoot-out on the steps at Union Station– is a master class in film suspense. Ness stands on a stairwell, watching a door for the arrival of an important witness. It’s an interminable wait, and DePalma shows us every second of it. The clock ticks slowly to the expected entrance as Ness is forced to reevaluate his movements based on passersby, potentially disguised adversaries, the architecture of the building, and a single mother struggling to push a baby carriage up and down the stairs. This is a rather intense sequence– almost Hitchcock-ian in its ability to build suspense out of what isn’t happening. The sequence also doesn’t end the way that you think it might.
I do love The Untouchables. That shouldn’t be surprising. It should be clear by now that westerns and films or television series set in the Prohibition era are right in my wheelhouse. But I’m not convinced that my love for this movie is merely a predilection for the subject matter and screenwriter. I think we have a damn fine film here. Is this film perfect? Of course not. But if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it very highly.