Friday, September 30, 2011

The Untouchables

 The Untouchables is a film I first saw in 1987 as a fresh faced 17 year old in my last year of high school. I can vividly recall the night a friend of mine and I saw this because it was an off the cuff decision to 'just go to the flicks'. I mean we didn't even know what was actually playing! We quite literally just brought a ticket and went in and sat down. Suffice to say two hours later we walked out dumbfounded at our inadvertent good luck to have just watched an outstanding film. I can't remember a damn thing else we done before or after. But I do recall it was an all round good night, and whilst the exact details have gone the memory of it hasn't. It was one of those occasions in life where you say to yourself ' it was great to be alive '.

 Because The Untouchables was such a fine film I can recall that night so well and it holds a special place in my memories. The next time I watched the film was the following year, 1988. I had left school and was working in NZ's capital, Wellington. I don't have fond memories of the two years I lived there I'm sad to say! Not because of the city but work and other shit. Since then I haven't watched the film again, and yet whenever I heard it mentioned that night in 1987 instantly sprang to mind. Of all the hundreds and hundreds of films I've watched over 4 decades The Untouchables is the one closet to my heart just from a sentimental/nostalgic point of view.

 I must admit though when I sat down last week to watch this for the first time in 23 years I didn't feel that nostalgia. But it wasn't with regret because as I'm sure you all know memories fade and dull. So I actually watched this as a film rather than as the nostalgia trip I thought I would. By the end of its 120 minute running time I was surprised at how much I had remembered. There were a few things I had forgotten but not many. The thing that also crossed my mind was how I viewed this film so differently than from 23 years ago.

 Back then film was entertainment pure and simple. It still is to a certain degree. But now with age, and hopefully a bit more wisdom, I look at film somewhat differently whilst still being entertained. The funny thing is that even as a 17 year old I knew The Untouchables was a good film. I'm delighted to say that it still is! In fact after some of my recent posts decrying the fact that the 1980's were not a great era cinema wise, it was nice to watch one of the era's finest films.

 Released on 3rd June 1987 The Untouchables became both a commercial and critically acclaimed success. Its approach and direction were praised, and it was subsequently nominated for four Oscars ( Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Costume Design, Best Score, Best Art Direction - Set Decoration ). Of course Sean Connery was to win a well deserved Oscar for his performance as Jimmy Malone. It was to be his only Oscar win in his long career. But when you look at it it should come as no surprise this is such a fine film. The script was written by no other than David Mamet who wrote the superb script for 1982's The Verdict. In the very capable hands of director Brian De Palma it became a very stylishly made film.

 Of course not all critics thought it a fine film but the overall consensus agreed that it was. Some critics thought the script poor with De Palma going for style over substance. But for me the fact this film still stands up extremely well 24 years later is testament to its quality. As a film based in the prohibition era I think De Palma has done a fantastic job of  replicating the times, not just visually, but with the violence the era bred.

 The film is based on Eliot Ness's autobiography which he co-wrote with Oscar Fraley, a reporter and writer. In fact Fraley did most of the writing with Ness providing the reminiscences! The book itself sold in excess of 1.5 million copies and spawned both the 1959 and 1993 television series. Unfortunately this version includes a number of historical inaccuracies. I will detail them later but suffice to say some are understandable, some not. A little one is the fact Eliot Ness only had one child and yet here he has two. Why bother changing such a small detail???! But other bigger details are changed to fit the medium of cinema, and I do appreciate that even though it galls the historian in me.

 I have to keep telling myself a historically based film is attempting to squeeze a certain time frame into 120 minutes. To do this liberties have to be taken to achieve that goal. I've been a real critic of this over the years. But as I look and read more behind the scenes material my view is softening, as I understand the film making process more. Of course this doesn't excuse outright historical inaccuracies. But I can live with a bit of bending of facts for brevity's sake etc. Actually whilst De Palma may have changed a few things he did use actual historical Chicago locations in the film.

  I think this is why the film has stood up well for nearly 25 years. In a previous post of mine I stated that Hollywood doesn't do period dramas particularly well. I still believe this to be true. Well compared to the English they certainly don't! But once in a while Hollywood does get it right, and The Untouchables is an example. It wasn't nominated for Best Costume Design for nothing was it?! But for me the whole feel of the film is right. I certainly did feel a great attempt was made to take the viewer back to the Prohibition era in the best way possible. Again this is why this film has stood the test of time so well because it is replicating an earlier period of time, hence it is in essence pre-dated. I mean the whole film has an almost brown tinged patina to it that takes the ' made in 1987 ' look from it.

 The other thing with The Untouchables is how extremely violent it is. I was surprised by how violent it actually was. Even 24 years later this is a graphically violent film. The funny thing is I watched Sly Stallone's 1988 Cobra the week before on telly. In its day this was considered the porn of violent films and yet it is now completely lame, lame, lame. I laughed at what a crock of shit it was then......and still is! And yet The Untouchables, made the year before is still graphic and uncompromising in its violence. I suppose because the Prohibition era was a violent era helps the film compared to the total fiction of Cobra. One just needs to think of the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre as an example of the very real bloodshed of the era.

 The surprising thing about the graphic violence was noted in 1987. It was found that almost 50% of the audiences who came to theatres were women. Again the quality of what the film is portraying is seen in this fact, because normally a violent film attracts a predominately male audience. And yet because this was a film with a historical background, and not a normal run of the mill shoot 'em up flick, it attracted an unusually high female audience.

 Of course a film is nothing without it's cast and The Untouchables has a good one. How can you go wrong with Connery, Costner, and De Niro??! Well you could if the script was a stinker, but whilst the script isn't perfect, it is strong enough to get fine performances from ( particularly ) Costner, and Oscar winner Connery. Robert De Niro though was singled out at the time for a seemingly disappointing performance. He was always De Palma's first choice to play Al Capone even though he had discussions with Bob Hoskins. In an amusing aside after De Niro took the role De Palma sent Hoskins a cheque for US$20,000 as a thank you. Hoskins replied asking if De Palma had any other films he didn't want him to be in!!

 I'm not sure if De Niro is disappointing or not. To me the film isn't so much about Al Capone as it is about Eliot Ness and his crew. Capone is meant to be a secondary figure. Interestingly in accepting the role De Niro put on a whopping 14kgs in weight in an effort to change the shape of his face to replicate that of Capone's somewhat rotund physique. I think he certainly looked the part and appears barrel chested as Capone did. But maybe, just maybe he doesn't quite capture the 'air' of Capone and his gangster empire. The infamous baseball bat scene is bloody yes, but somehow lacks a chilliness's that should go with it. De Niro's Capone comes across more as a common street thug than the boss of a big criminal organisation. I mean would Don Corleone at that stage in life have done such a thing?

Kevin Costner though is well suited to the role of Eliot Ness. I've always liked Costner and it is a shame his career has floundered for quite a number of years now. He isn't the most gifted of actors but he is always solid. This for me is one of his better performances and somehow his  'nice guy' persona is suited to Ness. This is a guy who has been given the unenviable job of cleaning up the burgeoning trade in illicit liquor coming into Chicago. He knows it isn't a popular decision to go after the gangsters, and deep down he doesn't really believe in Prohibition. But he is a professional and has been given a job to do whether he truly believes in it or not.

 For me one of Costner's best scenes is his first stakeout. We see him split open a crate that he suspects is full of booze, only to find novelty umbrellas. I love the startled, innocent look on his face as it pops open. His total ignorance of the situation in Chicago is there for all to see! Costner plays it superbly because he is a nice guy in an ugly situation, and well in over his head. It is of course this farce and his naivete that leads to his inadvertent meeting of Jimmy Malone, and his 'education' by the old war horse. I really do think Costner well suited to Ness. He plays the innocent who has to harden his heart to reality, and yet all the while he retains his decency. For me Costner has just got those three ingredients in him for the role.

 But then he is more than ably supported by a very, very good Sean Connery. Of course when the name Sean Connery is mentioned the name James Bond almost instantaneously crops up. Connery, even when playing Bond, was conscious that he would become forever linked to the role. He fought for years to distinguish himself outside of Bond. For me I love him as Bond but do recognise his other performances. To be honest his best acting came outside of the Bond films. For instance in Alfred Hitchcock's masterful 1964 Marnie, and even 1990's The Hunt for Red October. But without question his role as tough Irish cop Jimmy Malone must rate as one of his most memorable and best.

 Funnily enough though even whilst winning an Oscar for his performance he was condemned for having the worst Irish accent ever filmed!! I suppose when you have a Scottish brogue nothing is ever going to change that. He was similarly criticised for a similar failing in The Hunt for Red October in not having a suitably Russian accent!! But to be honest I didn't really notice his supposed accent failings in The Untouchables, as his performance is otherwise absolutely riveting. He is well cast as the beat cop who knows the score, and keeps his head down to stay alive for his retirement.

 The pairing of Costner and Connery is good. Costner as Ness brings his fresh face naivety, and Connery brings his age, wisdom and gruffness. The onscreen chemistry is excellent and even now it surprises me that Connery was killed off well before the film ends. Way back in 1987 I was appalled! This mirrors Alfred Hitchcock killing off Janet Leigh half way through Psycho. Logic states that a film would die there and then with the demise of a star of Connery's stature. And yet this is not so. The film goes on to its conclusion without Connery's on screen presence. In many respects Malone's demise only strengthens the film as the audience sides even more with Ness. In a subtle way it is something of a masterstroke.

 In 1987 some of the cast were still relative up and comers. Andy Garcia of course now needs no introduction, and yet in 1987 this was only his sixth major motion picture. Garcia's role is unusual because he is one of  'The Untouchables' and yet he has a very limited role. The lovely Patricia Clarkson was in her very first major motion picture. Charles Martin Smith of course starred in 1973's masterpiece American Graffiti. He is superb as the dorky accountant. I love how his eyes widen when Malone hands him a shotgun in preparation for the groups first raid on the post office! Of course the character is killed off early, but it is felt less as the death of Connery's Malone.

One other casting is very good and that is of Billy Drago as hitman Frank Nitti. Drago has spent his acting career somewhat type cast because he just has that 'look' about him. In The Untouchables he is extremely sinister as Nitti, which again plays on the audiences sympathy towards Ness. This is clever from De Palma, because whilst the film is stylish entertainment, it also takes the social stand against crime and what the likes of Capone and Nitti stood for. I really like how the film attempts to de-glamorize gangsters and show the violence and death their lifestyle brought about.

 The Untouchables then is regarded as a fine film, even great. IMDB has this with 8/10 which is saying a lot isn't it?! It was even nominated for inclusion on the AFI's Top 100 greatest films list. Again this is saying something. It was also nominated for the Top 100 Thrills list with Eliot Ness a nominated hero and Capone a nominated villain. But whilst The Untouchables is undoubtedly a fine film from the somewhat barren 1980's, when you take it out of its own decade it pales against the greats of others. I mean compared against The Godfather or Gone With the Wind there is no competition.

 This is where I have my only problem with The Untouchables. Where does it actually rate as a great film?? Certainly not within the top 100 I'm afraid. As a stand alone 1980's film it rates as one of the era's best undoubtedly, but it cannot be rated on that alone. To put it in perspective 1982's The Verdict is rated the 246th greatest film ever made. But as much as I like The Untouchables it isn't as good as The Verdict. So maybe it is just one of those films you have to recognise as a fine film, but one that slips into the almost no-mans land of being great, but not great enough to register as such.

 I really enjoyed my revisit to this film. It is a fine one no doubt and has stood the test of time extremely well. It will continue to do so. In the process it will always be recognised as one of the 1980's finest films. Historical inaccuracies aside it is a stylishly made film with two fine performances from Kevin Costner and Sean Connery. Both are superbly cast in their roles and hence gel extremely well on screen. The feel of prohibition is palpable and well displayed in the graphic violence that doesn't glamorise it. But is still central to the films look into the world of the gangster.

 Stylish, stylish, stylish!! A great film that will from here on in claim classic status. I think this is a film that will always look good. Yeah IMDB, 8/10 is probably right. It is an example of a film being great without being able to claim the epitaph of masterpiece.

Click here for a synopsis and more:

And click here for a juxtaposition from Rotten Tomatoes:

 As stated the film contains several factual errors. For instance Eliot Ness having two children. In fact he only had one, a son Robert, who was born in 1947, well after the Prohibition era. Also Ness's wife's name was actually Evaline and not Catherine. 
 The death of Frank Nitti is also incorrect. Nitti in fact committed suicide in 1943 rather than face trial and imprisonment.

 The number of ' Untouchables ' is also notably inaccurate. There were in fact eleven of them and none were ever killed. Two members of Costner's group are modeled on two actual members. Connery's Jimmy Malone was based on Martin J. Lahart, and Charles Martin Smith's Oscar Wallace was based on Frank J. Wilson. Lahart was in fact Irish, and a sports and fitness fanatic. Wilson was an ex-accountant who joined the US Treasury Intelligence Department. He went on to become the Chief of the Secret Service.

 Finally Capote's court scene is inaccurate. In fact the trial went to verdict and he was sentenced to ten years in prison for tax evasion. He also copped a lesser known years sentence for contempt of court after a separate investigation by Wilson. The film is wildly inaccurate in depicting Capone's lawyer changing the plea from guilty to not guilty without Capone's consent. This is prohibited in US courts as unconstitutional. It would more than likely lead to the lawyer facing serious disciplinary action, possible held in contempt, or disbarment. No judge in a US court could lend legal weight to such an act.

Source?? Wikipedia!!!

 Wikipedia is such a great tool. It provides quick abridged information that doesn't require hours of reading or research. I find it a great place to read up on things I don't have the time to go into too deeply or have only a short term interest or need to know in. If you want to now the real story of The Untouchables Wikipedia has many interesting pages and links that should fill in your curiosity.

The memorable publicity shot for the film.

The real Eliot Ness.

Al Capone's mug shots. Notice his weight that De Niro beefed up for.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Vanishing Point

 The only time I have ever watched 1971 offering Vanishing Point was way back in about 1978-79. I can't recall the exact year but it was playing on telly and I had to go to bed before the end!! I know how it ended because the next day at school it seemed as if I was the only kid that had missed it!! ( I remember one kid saying they quite clearly saw Kowalski jump out before the car crashed!! ) Suffice to say it has taken me just over 30 years to finally....finally watch it!! Of course Vanishing Point has gone on to cult status, particularly among the Mopar enthusiasts of the world. And yet after watching it last week I think this is a better film than it is given credit for.

 Vanishing Point to you heathens who aren't in the know is quite simply the greatest road action film ever made. There are others that come close, particularly the Mad Max films, and the poor pretenders to the throne in the Fast and Furious franchise. But for me Vanishing Point is the ultimate petrol head film! I know I'm one as I'm a muscle car owner. Its influence is immense with the likes of Canonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit, The Getaway, etc, all owing a debt to the master. But probably the best homage of all came in 2007 with Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.

 Tarantino in Death Proof also used a Dodge Challenger, even in white!! This film also references its source calling Vanishing Point " one of the best American movies ever made "...repeatedly! The license plate is also that of Vanishing Point's in being OA 5599. But even though Tarantino is a master film maker even his rampaging ego would acknowledge that even he can't get close to the original Challenger's mystique.

 Even though it has now achieved cult status on release in January 1971 Vanishing Point received mainly negative reviews, particularly in the US. Critics called it ' tedious ', ' lacking in point ', ' one for car addicts only ', ' will get car sick ',  etc. Funnily enough though one observation was made, and that was in regards to its 'sophisticated craft' due to its superb cinematography. More on that later. Conversely outside of the States it was the opposite, becoming a critical and commercial success, particularly in the UK and Europe. But it more than made its $1.3 million budget back taking $12.5 million at the US box office alone.

 Even the Fox studio had no faith in the film and it was initially released in small theatres throughout the US. But after its unexpected success in Europe it was re-released on a double bill with The French Connection. But its cult following really began after a nationwide television screening in 1976. The fact the film hasn't faded away is seen by the fact it has under gone the indignity of several re-makes. In 1997 Viggo Mortenson starred in a television film as Kowalski and Jason Priestly as the DJ who replaces Super Soul. Whilst this re-make is similar it removed all the originals mystical elements. Richard Kelly, writer and director of Donnie Darko is currently in the process of writing a script for a 20th Century Fox re-make. For me I say ' leave it alone why don't ya! '

 The original of course starred Barry Newman as Kowalski, a car delivery driver from Denver, Colorado. But like so many roles Newman was not the first choice for the role. Gene Hackman was initially cast but studio executive Richard Zanuck vetoed the choice and insisted on the casting of the unknown Newman. I have even read that before Hackman's casting Kris Kristofferson was considered. I'm not sure what became of Kristofenson but funnily enough his 1973 wife to be, Rita Coolidge, sang in one of the film's sound track songs.

 As a film it had social counter-culture themes running through it. It summed up the post-Woodstock mood in America with its popular alternative lifestyle of drug use, sex, nudity, rebellion, and rock 'n' roll. All this is seen from Kowalski taking speed to the nude girl on the bike. Then there is the sound track! Initially the score was to be from an album entitled Motel Shot  by Delany, Bonnie, and Friends. But the producers turned it down because the studio did not want to take the time in securing the rights to the tracks. Instead many of the tracks were written after filming had finished, and Delany, Bonnie, and Friends ended up writing three original songs for the film.

 The soundtrack is notable for the first ever recorded material from Kim Carnes who also wrote one of the tracks performed by Big Mama Thornton. Also future big musical score names Mike Post and Pete Carpenter had input. The soundtrack was released on vinyl at the time and is now well out of print but various studios have re-issued it on CD with two added tracks. I personally loved hearing Mountain's classic Mississippi Queen at one stage!!  In another musical aside the character of Super Soul, the blind Negro DJ, was modeled on the legendary, The Big Bopper. Initially the character was to be named Super Spic before being re-named Super Soul.

 One of the problems that Vanishing Point faces in being taken seriously as anything more than a car film is its 99 minute running time. 99 minutes is a fairly standard running time for many films. But because the studio was suffering financial troubles, Richard Zanuck cut the shooting schedule by a whopping 22 days from its intended 60. In response director Richard C. Sarafian decided to forgo certain scenes rather than have them rushed. Funnily enough though the UK/European version of the film included a scene where Kowalski picks up a female hitchhiker. This scene was cut out of of the US film. As an example of how quickly the film had to be shot is seen in the fact that Super Soul's scenes, played by Cleavon Little, were filmed in only 3 days in a small town called, Goldfield. 

 The big problem with shooting the film was also  the vast distances the crew of 19  had to travel in finding remote enough locations for safe shooting. Much of their day was taken up with just traveling.  Then, on top of that, a motel had to be found for the night. When you start looking at some of these issues then you can appreciate the film a bit more. Surprisingly though there were no mishaps on set. Barring the occasion where a civilian driver drove through a closed road block, forcing Newman to swerve off the road to avoid a head on collision!

 With this being a car film it is interesting to look at how it was filmed as well. For instance whilst the Challenger looks to be traveling at high speeds, the camera in fact was slowed down to half speed, while the car/s traveled at 50mph. Of course at normal speed they appear much faster. It wasn't exactly a new technique, but when you look closely it isn't as obvious as it can sometimes be in other similar scenes ( for instance the car chase in The French Connection ). On set there was a stunt driver but he encouraged and taught Brian Newman how to do many of his own. For instance the scene where Kowalski does a 180 turn in front of the bulldozers was performed by Newman. This was done without the director knowing who was driving! The other thing was that in many of the car scenes light weight cameras were mounted directly onto the front of the cars in filming scenes of the driver. This was done instead of the common practice of filming drivers from a tow vehicle. For me this adds a real feel of authenticity to the driving scenes.

 Barry Newman is the human star here ( who went on to a fairly ordinary career in film and TV ), but the real star of the show is the white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T! It was Zanuck's ides to use a Challenger because he wanted to re-pay Chrysler the favour for providing cheap rentals to the studio for many years. In fact almost every car in the film is a Chrysler! The stunt coordinator liked the car because its ' quality of the torsion bar suspension and for its horsepower'. Apparently 5 Challengers were loaned to the production, but they weren't all the same with several having the smaller 383 V8, instead of the 440 as depicted in the film. I have read varying facts and figures as to how many cars were used and wrecked. One source states all 5 cars were returned to Chrysler, whilst another states as they were wrecked, parts were cannibalised to keep the others going. I find it highly unlikely all 5 cars survived filming considering the places they were taken, and the jumps etc, they performed. But I believe there is a survivor in a small car museum in Gatlinberg, Tn. I believe the other survivors 'disappeared' because after release of the film Chrysler wanted to distance itself from it. I wonder why????!

 The cars with the 440 ci V8 were so powerful Barry Newman said of them " it was almost as if there was too much power for the body. You'd put it in first and it would almost rear back!!" The car in the film is of course white and this was for a reason. It was felt the vivid white of the car would stand out against the stark landscape of Utah and Nevada. It sure did because for me one of the highlights of the film is the scenery. This little detail to me shows the thought that went into the film. Several of the cars had to be re-sprayed. In certain scenes the observant viewer will be able to spot one cars original factory green paint showing in some of  the dents!

 And that brings me to the crash! The car that was used was not actually a Challenger but a 1967 Chevy Camaro that had the motor and gearbox removed. It was packed with explosives and towed into the bulldozers by one of the 383 powered Challengers. There was a 1/4 mile long tow rope between the two cars and the stunt driver, Carey Loftin, towed the Camro into the bulldozers at high speed. It was thought that the car would fly over the dozers but instead it was wedged between the blades. The scene wasn't re-filmed as this was thought to actually look better. I laughed at the use of the Camaro because now it is now a classic, and wouldn't even be considered for such a thing. Instead I'm sure it would be snapped up and restored. Then again would anyone in their right mind now drive a 1970's Dodge Challenger like this ??!!

 The end of the film has been debated ever since! There is a certain degree of mysticism and ambiguity about it. I think the viewer can read what they like into it. There are enough hints dropped through Kowalski's flashbacks that point towards at his state of mind. To me the way he turns around before the bulldozers and drives off and thinks in the desert says it all. I personally think it was suicide and a personal release for him. The gap between the blades and the shining light?? Again, read what you will into it!

 To me Vanishing Point is an incredibly overlooked film in regards to its social commentary. I mean Easy Rider done the same thing several years earlier. I think Vanishing Point is saying the same thing, but in a new decade. For me Vanishing Point is an incredible social look at an America caught between two definitive and divisive moments of its history, Vietnam and the coming of Watergate. I just love the 1970's 'feel', with the dark cloud of Watergate looming. 

 But have an even closer look. This is actually a beautifully crafted film. The cinematography is quite simply, stunning. The scenery of Utah and Nevada is both awe inspiring and breathtaking. The starkness, and yet stunning beauty of it, is an unpaid actor in the film. Seriously, if you haven't taken taken notice before, watch the film again and look behind the cars! But for me also the town scenes are extremely poignant. Inadvertently the film has taken a snapshot of small town south west America in the early 1970's. It is fascinating viewing because so many of the by standers in the film are towns people and not 'extras'. This is one thing I love about films like this that AREN'T filmed on a film lot. They are filmed in real locations which are now a quiet history lesson as to what things looked like back then. For me this added in scenery only adds to Vanishing Point's social commentary. This is a film that shows ordinary, real Americans, and their ordinary little towns in 1971. 

 The crafting also uses the clever device of starting just before the end, and then going back two days. The scene where Kowalski is back tracking from the bulldozers with the shot freezing as he passes another car is superb. Again a little detail like this, if seen, makes the viewer sit up and realise this is a better made film than they realised. Sure jumping back in time and starting at the end isn't original, but it is the way it was done that makes it stand out. Honestly take another look at this film and look behind the car chase and tire smoke. There is a lot more to see than you realise.

 Vanishing Point will never be rated as a truly great film. Sure it isn't great but it is also far better than given credit for. When you consider the constraints it was made under you can only admire the end result. It is a well made film and I cannot praise the cinematography enough. If it wasn't for the cars then it would go down as a great nature documentary of Utah and Nevada! So whilst the film lacks a script as such it compensates with stunning scenery, and a wonderful snapshot of a little seen America of 1971. But above all it is a social commentary that unfortunately isn't picked up on enough. I think this is as good a film in that regards as Easy Rider. Of the two I prefer Vanishing Point.

 This is a classic 1970's film that has so much going on which isn't seen by most viewers. It's cult status as a car flick is deserved and it is without question the best of them all. But to the more astute viewer there is more to see here than just a fast muscle car and tire frying action. I think this is a great example of 1970's film making even though the film itself isn't great. Surprisingly IMDB has this with 7.2/10. I would actually agree with that. Seriously watch this again, and I mean REALLY watch it, as it is a better film that it first appears to be.

 Click here for a synopsis and more: