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.


  1. Good grief what an amazing in depth review of a classic and I agree with most of your points.

  2. Thanks...I hope it was still of interest in its depth. The researching of these films is a lot of work but rewarding. I hope people who read it appreciate all theat work and effort!