Monday, 2 April 2012

The Untouchables (1987)

Dir. Brian De Palma
Starring: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia

The Untouchables came out 25 years ago, and it is still hugely fun to watch. Despite a screenplay written by no less a figure than David Mamet this is not a film that leaves the audience confused about what has just gone on, or has them pondering the big questions of life. It is a straight-down-the-line blockbuster action thriller of good cops against bad gangsters. It looks great, sounds great and plays great.

Treasury agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner – minus his American Flyers moustache thankfully) is sent to Chicago to clear up the Mob. The city in 1930 is effectively under the thumb of one man – gangland kingpin Al Capone (Robert De Niro). By controlling the bootleg liquor markets during Prohibition he is the richest man in town, the uncrowned king of crime. Capone owns the mayor, the courts, the cops. No one can lay a finger on him. Ness’s first raid is abortive; the gangsters had been tipped off. And so Ness, despite his insistence in playing by the rules is forced to resort to Capone’s own violent methods. He is taught how to fight “the Chicago way” by veteran Irish beat cop Malone (Sean Connery, who won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award despite his roving accent). Together with sharp-shooting rookie George Stone (Andy Garcia) and enthusiastic accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) they takes the fight to the Mob, eventually nailing Big Al on tax evasion charges.

The film could have hinged on ethical decisions: what bad acts does a good man have to do to take a bad man down. Malone himself asks Ness this very question in none of the film’s most famous exchanges before he comes on board: 
“You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see, what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?”“Anything within the law.”“And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they’re not gonna give up the fight until one of you is dead.”“I want to get Capone! I don’t know how to do it.”“You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull 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!”
Ness started off stating his intentions to remain within the law, but what he actually does is, essentially, create a paramilitary unit that uses lethal force to attack the criminals. Ness is at first aghast when he has to kill a man. By the end of the film he is quite willing to push Capone’s hitman Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) off a roof (albeit after some goading). Frankly, such police tactics would not be tolerated today – and rightly so. But here the audience go along with it. We know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and we can see that the good guys remain good despite the measures they have to take – witness the famous homage to Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin Odessa Steps scene at Union Station where Ness and Stone take out the villains, capture the witness they need and save a baby. As Ness says to the judge, “I have forsworn myself, I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold,  I have become what I have beheld and I am content that I have done right!” And the audience knows that he has done right too. To be honest I’m glad the script didn’t get bogged down with ethical dilemmas. It left it as a simple black-and-white struggle, and this makes for great storytelling.

And, yes, it glamorises violence. It glamorises gun play. The coolest single moment is possibly Stone sprinting into the firefight at the station and tossing a fresh gun to Ness as he dives. Seeing the four Untouchables ride out on horseback to intercept the handover at the Canadian border, guns blazing, Ennio Morricone’s fantastic score soaring majestically, makes the heart swell. My God, it’s magnificent. But it is not just a glorification of violence and firearms as seen in De Palma’s previous appearance in this blog – Scarface’s “say hello to me leetle friend” moment – it’s a glorification of violence for what it can do. The guns are tools to bring about justice. Guns can be used for bad deeds, but they can also be used for good ones. It isn’t the guns that are the problem; it’s the people using them.

In this, it could be an American attitude. It’s a common theme in the American media. American heroes are rugged physical specimens. Thinking, culture and deviousness are all Old World traits. Wallace is the brains of the Untouchables, and actually the one that realises how they can nab Capone, and he is the comic relief out of the four of them. Capone spends half his time dressed up in white tie and tails and cries with emotion at the opera – obviously someone to watch out for. The infamous baseball bat scene contains that mix of civilised elegance and absolute brutality. And the Canadian Mountie officer with the clipped moustache and clipped vowels brings his men into the border ambush at the wrong time and then blusters that he does not approve of Ness and Malone’s methods in getting George the bookkeeper to talk. Ness’s response? “Yeah, well – you’re not from Chicago.” In American films and novels the heroes act directly, they act fast and they act hard and they never overthink matters. Why do you think the cerebral classical-music-loving British-accent-toting mastermind has become such a staple of American films? Brawn, skill and determination can defeat brains, culture and guile any day.

I said before that it looks great and it sounds great. The period atmosphere is perfect. Whereas Scarface was a mass of terrible, terrible taste, The Untouchables looks impeccable.  It is beautiful to watch. Dirty deeds just look better when they are done in a  pinstripe suit and wearing a trilby. The costume styling was done by Giorgio Armani, so no wonder it looks so luscious. In particular check out the white-suited killer Frank Nitti. And the look is complemented by the rousing score. Ennio Morricone is most famous for his spaghetti Western soundtracks, but here he produces something more in keeping with the ‘30s setting. The film launches straight into a very simple set of credits with no build-up action; watching it and hearing that classic dark, low, urgent Untouchables theme ('Strength of the Righteous' I think it's called) with its high spectral harmonica ghosting over the top for the first time in probably a decade immediately brought me in to the genre. I was living in a world of shadows, investigation and skulduggery before I saw even a single character. But the music could soar as well, complementing the action and turning it into something more epic is scope and scale. That first moment when they gallop off to intercept the ambushed whisky convoy is more than stirring. Frankly, it made me want to be there alongside them, whooping with Wallace’s infectious joy.

It had been a long time since I had seen The Untouchables but I could remember enjoying it. Re-watching it now I can say that I loved it. It isn’t an overly complicated movie. It’s a simple cops and robbers tale. But, my God, it’s a good one!

Stone (Andy Garcia), Malone (Sean Connery), Ness (Kevin Costner)
and Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) make crime-fighting look good...

What have I learnt about Illinois?
”Welcome to Chicago. This town stinks like a whorehouse at low tide.” We only see Chicago, not the rest of Illinois, but what we see is a city that, in, 1930, was great and glittering. It had high society, it had opera, it had grandiose luxurious hotels. And it was rotten to the core. The courts, the cops, the politicians, were all in the pockets of the mob. Whoever had the dough could do as he pleased, and it was Capone who had the dough. Prohibition had criminalised the sale of alcohol, but nothing could be done about the demand for it. So those who were prepared to break the law by bringing in and distributing liquor could make a fortune. They were, quite literally, making a killing. Capone’s hoods had to keep the competition down while greasing the wheels that allowed them to operate. This they did very successfully. As the largest city in the Midwest – and being located not too far from the border with Canada, where booze flowed freely – Chicago was the nexus of this criminal industry.

Can we go there?
The film was shot on location in Chicago (and also in Montana – the bridge where the border raid takes place is the Hardy Creek Bridge over the Missouri River, south of Great Falls). Filming was done carefully so that only period buildings were shown, rather than the city’s more modern skyscrapers. The police HQ was set in the Rookery Building, S La Salle Street. In fact S La Salle Street is shown several times; its prime scene is when Ness leaves at the end of the movie, walking away with Chicago bathed in golden sunlight. On the same street (in fact, directly opposite the Rookery) is the City National Bank and Trust Company Building – this was used for the exterior of the Post Office where the Untouchables conduct their first successful bust.

Malone’s apartment was in fact really located at the junction of S Racine Avenue and W Harrison Street. It is no longer there now, as the entire area has been built over by the University of Illinois at Chicago. His church, where he gives his oft-quoted pep talk to Ness, is Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, W Jackson Boulevard.

Roosevelt University, on S Michigan Avenue, was used for the front entrance and lobby of the Lexington Hotel, where Capone lives. Ness and Capone’s confrontation on the staircase was shot here. (The upper foyer of the Chicago Theater on N State Street was used for some of the interiors) The baseball bat scene was shot further down the S Michigan, in the Crystal Ballroom of the Blackstone Renaissance Hotel. The Michigan Avenue Bridge (or the lower pedestrian deck of it anyway) is where Ness first meets Malone. While the courtroom scene was filmed in the studio, the confrontation between Ness and Nitti (first outside the courtoom and then up the stairs to the roof) occurred in and atop the Chicago Cultural Center on E Washington Street. The staircase of the Cultural Center also stood in for the lobby of the opera house where Capone pontificates to the press. And, yes, that is the real Union Station on S Canal Street you can see when Ness and Stone manage to stop Capone’s bookkeeper getting on his train to Miami. I wonder how many times people have gone there to try and recreate the gunfight on the steps?

Overall Rating: 5/5

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