The Untouchables: Kevin Costner and Sean Connery battles Robert De Niro’s ‘Al Capone’ for the soul of Chicago in Brian De Palma’s bravura gangland Opus

The Untouchables(1987), written by David Mamet and Directed by Brian De Palma, is the big screen adaptation of the eponymous T.V. Series, with Kevin Costner playing Elliot Ness and Robert De Niro as Al Capone.

“It’s like a John Ford western. A good guy is on a mission and gets help. At the end he walks off into the sunset. It’s a simple story told in a classical way.”

Brian De Palma on “The Untouchables”

Director, Brian De Palma made his name with avant-garde movies with loopy narratives, dislikable characters and filled with explicit scenes of sex and violence. Dismissed as a Hitchcock-wannabe for his reworking of many films and pet-themes of the ‘Master of Suspense’, almost everyone of De Palma’s films have been controversial for one thing or the other- mostly for being misogynistic in its portrayal of violence against women. Classical narratives, clean-cut heroes and villains, and happy endings are not his thing. In short: John Ford he’s not. But all that changed with the 1987 film, “The Untouchables”, which is the most John Fordian of all his films. The film marked a definitive change from the sexy, spooky Hitchcock-inspired thrillers like Carrie, “Dressed to Kill” and “Body Double“, and ultra-violent, revisionist reworking of classic Gangster thrillers, as in “Scarface“. “The Untouchables”- like many a John Ford movie- is a ‘straight’ tale of a bunch of good guys going against a bunch of bad guys in a ‘lawless’ land- the prohibition-era Chicago forming a great substitute for Ford’s wild old-west. Like Ford’s ‘Western’ masterpieces, “Stagecoach” or “My Darling Clementine”, the film finds a disparate group of characters coming together to fight a mythical monolith of evil. The Good guys- “the untouchables” of the title- consists of aging Chicago-cop, Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery, Italian- American sharpshooter, George Stone (Andy Garcia), and a bespectacled accountant, Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith); they are lead by Federal Bureau of Prohibition officer, Elliot Ness(Kevin Costner)- who, like the classical ‘Western’, hero, has newly arrived in the city of Chicago to set things right. The Untouchables are on a mission to rid Chicago of the illegal booze smugglers- lead by Al Capone (Robert De Niro)- in the waning years of the Volstead Act. Capone, with the help of his deranged, trigger-happy enforcer, Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) and an army of thugs, rules the city with an iron hand. He has the politicians and the policemen in his pocket. The press love him for his showmanship- he had a knack for delivering hard-boiled witticisms to an audience of posh journalists. Except for “The Untouchables” (dubbed so because they couldn’t be bought), everyone else in Chicago is either beholden to Capone or too terrified to move against him; which meant that “The Untouchables” could trust no one outside of their own circle, not even the cops with whom they shared the streets.

Ness’s initial efforts to take down Capone’s empire with the help of the Chicago Police department ends up in disaster; as Capone has informants everywhere, he always knew ahead of time whenever a raid was going down. After some severe public humiliation, Ness puts together a crack team of officers that he could trust and would follow him unquestioningly into action against Capone. Jim Malone, the wise, old beat-cop, becomes Ness’ mentor who teaches him how to do things “The Chicago way.” The twosome, along with Giuseppe Petri (who changed his name to George Stone to hide his Italian lineage) and Accountant Wallace makes several liquor raids that makes them very popular among the public, but has Capone getting hot under the collar- hot enough to kill his own men who were responsible for protecting these cache of liquor. Wallace discovers that Capone has not filed an income tax return for four years and suggests that the team try to build a tax evasion case against him (as Capone’s network keeps him well-insulated from his other crimes). Initially, Ness has reservations about this move, but he gradually comes around, when they get hold of one of Capone’s bookkeepers on a liquor raid on the Canadian border. But Capone is again one step ahead of them, as his goons manages to kill both the bookkeeper and Wallace.

After the death of Wallace, a disillusioned Ness wants to drop the whole thing, but he’s persuaded by Malone to hang on to the case, as he believes he can deliver Capone’s head bookkeeper, Walter Payne. Malone manages to find out the whereabouts of Payne, but before he can get together with Ness and go after Payne, he’s ruthlessly shot down by Nitti. Malone manages to stay alive just long enough to tell Ness that Payne is leaving Chicago by the evening train. Ness and Stone races to Union station- and after a fierce gun battle with Capone’s thugs, they manage to nab Payne. Payne testifies at Capone’s trial, but Capone remains calm- it’s later revealed that he has bought the judge and the whole jury. Ness observes that Nitti is wearing a gun in the courtroom and have him brought outside. In the course of interrogating him, Ness realizes that Nitti is Malone’s killer. A fierce gunfight breaks out between the two, which ends on the roof of the courthouse. Ness initially tries to arrest Nitti, but when the latter starts gloating about killing Malone, Ness loses control of himself and pushes Nitti off the roof to his death. Ness corners the judge with the information he has in his possession- as to who’s on Capone’s payroll, which includes the judge as well. Outwitted, Judge decides to switch the juries, Seeing the writing on the wall, Capone’s lawyer enters a guilty plea, although Capone is outraged and violently objects. Capone is later found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to eleven years in prison.

Though this simple, ‘Good Guys Vs Bad Guys’ storyline is not De Palma’s cup of tea, he does really well with the material. He uses his bravura technical craftsmanship to elevate a generic gangster thriller into a sort of grand opera. De Palma was coming of two back to back flops, and he was working towards making a box office hit any cost. Hence he has kept the narrative and the characterizations clean and straight. The characters are all mainly archetypes of the genre: the classical hero who goes on a life-changing journey to slay the evil, dark villain; the loyal wife and friends who help him in this mission; the wise-old mentor, who takes the new kid in town under his wings, trains him, assist him in his mission, and even lays down his life for him etc. etc. . One gets the feeling that De Palma was inspired by the success of his friend George Lucas, who adapted the same archetypes and ‘journey of the hero’ narrative structure most successfully for his “Star Wars” franchise- you can find a spiritual connection between the troika of Obi-wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and that of Malone, Ness and Capone. Despite being a more conventional entry in De Palma’s oeuvre, “The Untouchables” still contains most of the usual De Palma flourishes: wizardry camerawork consisting of gorgeous tracking shots and unusual camera angles, elaborately designed action set pieces, and lots and lots of movie-blood that spurt out of human bodies like water out of a fountain. Like all De Palma movies, this film too is visually arresting- his regular cameraman, Stephen H. Burum drenches Chicago in a sheen of glossy decadence; the director also brings his penchant for handsome physical design- both in its brightly saturated color schemes and the unique architecture of the settings. 1930s Chicago’s La Salle Street canyon- all decked out with period cars and extras and all- is stunning recreated for the screen. The film’s production designer, Patricia Von Brandenstein, imagined Capone as a decadent European monarch in the vein of Louis XIV- the ‘Sun King’, hence used a lot of sun symbols in designing Capone’s luxurious Lexington hotel set- which was created in Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building. De Palma also brought in the great Milanese couturier, Giorgio Armani, for designing the costumes. Working from photos of 1930s gangster films, Armani reworked period shapes into a style that was less stiff, and more visually appealing. He also switched the color schemes for the hero and the villain, by dressing the ‘white knight’ Ness in darkly glamorous three-piece suits; while Capone’s ‘angel of death’, Nitti, is clothed in gleaming white synthetics. Capone is also dressed mostly in light colors, except for the couple of times when he unleashes his violent fury on his fellow gangsters. Sean Connery did not like the costume that was designed for him, and created his own outfit, reflecting the ‘working class’ roots of the character.

The script of the film was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, who’s famous for his highly stylized dialogue and convoluted plot lines- as in “House of Games” or “The Spanish Prisoner”. This film has a little bit of the stylish dialogue- like Malone’s ‘Chicago Way’ line: “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 how you get Capone“; but not much of plot. Maybe because he didn’t have any real story to work with in the first place. In reality, Elliott Ness was a self-publicist of the first order, a philanderer and an alcoholic, and most of his operations against Capone were mere publicity stunts; Ness’ and his “Untouchables” didn’t do much to rattle Capone’s empire, it was IRS department who did most of the damage, and they worked independent of Ness. Also, Capone believed in buying cops, never killing them- it was bad for business. Ness and Capone never met. Ness never killed Nitti, and Capone went to jail for income tax evasion, which is not a very dramatic climax. So ninety five percent of the film’s story was made up by Mamet based on some existing genre tropes: on one side we have Elliot Ness- the family man, WASP puritan and idealist; on his opposite side is the debauched Mediterranean Monarch, Al Capone, who indulges himself in all the decadent pleasures of life; in their middle we have the Irish pragmatism of Malone, who chooses to side with Ness, and thus tilting (or rather equalizing) the power balance in Ness’ favor. The film mainly rides on six elaborate set pieces, which may or may not have been Mamet’s idea, but are executed with exquisite panache by De Palma. It’s in these self-contained set-pieces that De Palma’s filmmaking is at its greatest. Much of the dramatic portions of the film act as mere fillers to get from one big set-piece to the next. All these set-pieces follow the same pattern:

  • There is a long sequence where the characters wait for the main action to begin
  • Then, an unexpected element is introduced, which forces the characters to change their plan in proceeding with the action
  • Then the main action sequence takes place
  • It finally ends with a clever detail, or a twist that tops the action that has just happened

The first of these big set-pieces is Ness’ first liquor Raid in collaboration with the Police department. The one that proves to be humiliating for him: Hearing that an illegal shipment of Canadian whisky is on its way to Chicago, Ness stakes out the concerned warehouse with the cops. But then the intrusion of a photojournalist raises a false alarm. Later, Ness busts into the warehouse. It is full of crates pointedly emblazoned with red maple leaf –  recognized symbol of Canada. Wielding an axe, Ness instructs the photographer to take his picture while he smashes into the first crate. The shutter clicks just as he pulls out not a bottle of whiskey, but a pretty green parasol. The sequence is a masterpiece of scene designing and prop designing- until Ness takes out the parasol covered with hay, and it opens up, it looks exactly like a bottle

The second big set-piece is the ambush of Capone’s bootleg convoy at the Canadian border. this is the most explicit homage to John Ford and the ‘Western’; in this sequence, the film is liberated from the claustrophobic City premises to the big sky vistas of American wilderness, with Costner, Connery and others seen riding horses. First there’s the long stakeout, then ‘The Untouchables’ spot Capone’s convoy, but before they could move in, the Canadian police – going against what was planned- rides in alerting the gangsters. The action that follows is rousing stuff. The sequence ends with one of the most amusing and violent scenes in the film, in which Connery’s Malone blows the head off a corpse to intimidate the bookkeeper into cooperating with their investigation.

The third set piece is a long, unbroken, ‘single take’ shot that traverses the length and breadth of the police station, which begins with the DA addressing the press where he’s congratulating Ness for capturing Capone’s bookkeeper- this will help him build a strong case against Capone; and it ends with Wallace and the bookkeeper being shot dead by Nitti in the elevator- while Wallace is escorting the bookkeeper to the safe house. Another brilliant display of De Palma’s bravura filmmaking where the mood changes from euphoric to the tragic in the course of a single shot.

The next set-piece is the ‘Killing of Malone’, which is also mostly accomplished in a single, unbroken take- here we get another characteristic of De Palma’s camera- where the camera takes the point of view of a character, here it’s that of one of Capone’s goons, who breaks into Malone’s apartment with a knife. Malone spots him and chases him away with a gun, but then comes the twist- Nitti is hiding in the alley, and he ruthlessly guns down Malone. This is the most bloodiest of all the killings in the film; Sean Connery was injured by all the squibs going off from his body, and he had to be hospitalized. De Palma had to literally beg him to come back and finish the scene. Though Connery’s performance is terrific throughout- and he’s the only one of the cast who looks perfectly comfortable in that time and place, never mind that wavering Irish accent (he never should have put on that, he should have talked as he usually does)- it’s really this scene that sealed the Oscar for him. The aftermath of this scene, where Ness and Stone finds him near-death, packs an extraordinary emotional punch; especially in that moment when a bloodied and fatally wounded Malone cries out with his last breath: “Are you prepared to.…”, he dies before he could complete the sentence.

The next set-piece is the most famous from the film- the shootout at the Union station, where Ness and Stone takes on Capone’s thugs and capture Walter Payne. Shot in heart-stopping slow-motion, the sequence marks the zenith of De Palma’s fluid, energetic, inventive filmmaking. De Palma’s use of camerawork and editing is so precise that even with so much going on in the scene it’s easy to discern who the villains, heroes and victims are. He elevates the suspense of an otherwise generic shootout between cops and thugs by introducing a strong human element – of a young mother dragging her infant in a wooden pram through the station steps in the midst of the shootout, which also links it with the one of the first time such energetic montage was used in film: in Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin.” Shots of the pram’s wheels skittering down the steps are intercut with bloodied corpses and bullets ricocheting off marble. The scene also features a lot of sailors- another nod to Potemkin; some of them unlucky enough to be killed while caught in the crossfire. Ness is seen anxiously reaching for the pram while simultaneously shooting it out with the goons. The scintillating sequence ends with another terrific payoff- a tense standoff between Ness and a Capone thug, holding Payne as a shield, is resolved by Stone’s sharpshooting skills.

The final set-piece is the gun duel between Ness and Nitti on rooftop of the courthouse, in which Ness kills Nitti. This sequence allows Costner to cut himself loose a bit- Ness is such a bland, puritan character that it stiffens his performance for most of the film. But here, and the scene immediately following this, where he confronts the corrupt judge with the words that acknowledges his own character transformation: “I have become what I beheld, and I am content that I have done right.”, brings out the best in Costner. In addition to these sequences, each and every ‘Al Capone’ scene in the film comes across as a ‘stand-alone’ set-piece in itself. De Palma had bagged De Niro for the role after a lot of effort and expense; the studio’s original choice was Bob Hoskins- he was let go after De Niro took the role, but De Palma ensured that Hoskins was paid his full salary. De Niro appears for a sum total of about 20 minutes in this two hour movie, and his scenes are sprinkled at random intervals throughout the film: Right from the opening shot, where De Palma’s swooping camera descend on to De Niro’s face from God’s POV, every ‘Capone’ scene finds De Niro following a similar routine: he appears onscreen with great dramatic and musical flourish, strikes an attitude, deliver a lot of hard-boiled punchlines, and then disappear for a long time. We get the notorious baseball bat scene in which a furious Al Capone beats one of his associates’ head into a bloody pulp with a bat; we get a scene where Capone is fuming at the mouth after his liquor shipment is raided by Ness; we get the famous confrontation scene between Capone and Ness on the lobby of Lexington Hotel where the former mocks the latter for being “a nothing, just a lot of talk and a badge“, and then we get the final courtroom scene.. Robert De Niro followed all his usual method acting practices- from gaining weight to wearing Capone’s silk underwear- to create the role, but because of the way the character is conceived- more as a caricature filled with regular gangster clichés rather than a fully developed character- and due to the kind of actor De Niro is- he is the least theatrical of his contemporaries; Brando, Pacino or Jack Nicholson could have pulled off this kind of performance perfectly – the character (and the performance) just doesn’t register as effectively as it should.

The film proved to be the first bonafide blockbuster for Brian De Palma- the film made more than a $100 million at the worldwide box office on a $25 million investment. The success of this film allowed him to make more personal projects like “Causalities of War”, though he would have to wait for another decade to score another major box office hit- the 1996 adaptation of T.V. series “Mission Impossible”. The success of this film came at a critical juncture for all the stars involved in the film: De Niro hadn’t had a hit since The Deer Hunter (1978), and despite his short role, he got a lot of credit for this film’s success. This was Costner’s first big hit- till then he was famous for being the unseen corpse in Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Big Chill”, and the more flashy supporting role in Kasdan’s Western, “Silverado”- a part specifically created by Kasdan to atone for cutting Costner out of “The Big Chill”. Costner would emerge as one of the biggest superstars of his time, by delivering back to back hits in the late 80s and early 90s. Andy Garcia’s fiery portrayal of George Stone lead him to being cast in Francis Coppola’s “The Godfather Part III”- and paving the way for his career as a leading man. As for Sean Connery, ever since he left the ‘James Bond’ franchise, he hadn’t had a sizeable hit. So desperate was he, that he even returned as an aging ‘Bond’ in the unofficial Bond film, “Never say Never Again”. The success of this film rejuvenated his career, and revitalized his stardom, allowing him to have a strong final innings as a star\actor- in critically and commercially successful films like “Indiana Jones and the last crusade”, “Hunt for Red October” and “The Rock” . He also, finally, won a much deserved (and delayed) Oscar for (Best supporting actor) for his performance in the film; the lone Oscar that the film won from its 4 nominations- the other 3 nominations were for Production design, costuming and that pulsating Ennio Morricone score. Morricone’s score – which mainly consist of a belligerent and intimidating ‘Capone’ theme, a lush and rousing ‘Untouchables’ theme and a melancholic wailing theme- adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of the film. As opposed to the other scores of the 80s- particularly “Scarface”- this score hasn’t dated at all, and still retains its timeless quality.

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