EMPIRE ESSAY: The Untouchables Review

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Federal Agent Elliot Ness sets out to take out Al Capone; because of rampant corruption, he assembles a small, hand-picked team.


At the height of Prohibition, in 1930s America, Chicago was presided over by one Alfonso Capone. He ruled the town by the might of his fist, from the illegal speakeasy rackets right up through the ranks of the police and judicial system, holding them in thrall through bribery and blackmail. That was until the arrival of Elliot Ness, the incorruptible treasury agent assigned the role of bringing the Italian gangster to book. Faced with rank corruption, he surrounded himself with a team of cops dedicated to the cause: the Untouchables". This is all bona fide history, a series of events that were finally drawn to a close when the psychotic mobster — himself seemingly untouchable — was finally snared for simple tax evasion. He died of syphilis eight years after his release from prison.

Eschewing any attempt at historical accuracy (although the last surviving real-life Untouchable Albert H. Wolff acted as an advisor) De Palma chose to reinterpret the Robert Stack television series of the early 60s rather than the actual events. This is a morally blunt comic-book world more akin to Western traditions than the complex milieu of gangsters. Yet, within its own context, The Untouchables is richly rewarding. It fuses the grandiose style of its director with a cool mix of established names (Connery, De Niro) and new stars (Costner, Garcia) and a feistily-exaggerated script from David Mamet ("Just like a Wop to bring a knife to a gunfight") to recreate history on a movie template. Big, bold, and hugely entertaining.

Sean Connery deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of (fictional) beat-cop Jim Malone who instills the requisite street-wisdom in Ness to defeat Capone — play him at his own game. Ebullient and wry, he wraps the Connery gravitas in an earthier, harder cloth. So convinced was De Palma that De Niro would turn him down for Capone, that he actually signed a deal with Bob Hoskins to take the role, having to pay him off ($200,000) when the Italian method genius assented. And in typical fashion, he gained weight, slicked back his hair and, in a relatively short amount of screen time, managed to charge the film with exuberant menace ("I'mtalkin' about enthusiasms..." he sneers before smashing the brains out of a fumbling minion with a baseball bat). Costner was offered less: Ness is painted in strict lines — happily married, motivated by decency, leading by example — but the all-American masculinity with which he thrives fits the character like a glove.

The film has a pristine sense of place, a 1930s Chicago classify upholstered like a grand opera. Inverting the moralistic colours of tradition, the bad guys wear the white suits (especially depicted in Capone henchman Nitti (Billy Drago)'s all-white get up) and the heroes black. Much was made of Giorgio Armani designing the suits — a kind of functioning product placement — but De Niro, in fact, had suits knocked up by the very same tailors who made Capone's actual bespoke numbers. It is a world of tight lines, angular sets of doorways and windows as if in a comic strip (not a million miles from the stylized artifice of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy). Meanwhile, the god-like Ennio Morricone infuses the spirit of the age with a heart-quickening score that drives the drama like an express train.

De Palma, ever the trickster even with mainstream material, delights in the flamboyance of his set-pieces. A sly POV shot of the assassin tracking Malone through his apartment spirals out into a glorious juxtaposition of a bloody, dying Malone crawling for safety, cross-cut with Capone's hypocritical tears to the strains of I Pagliacci at the Chicago opera. Most celebrated (justly) is the director's "homage" to Battleship Potemkin's Odessa Steps sequence. Set at Chicago's Union Station; where the remaining Untouchables gather to snatch Capone's book-keeper out of a hail of bullets a pram tortuously bounces down a staircase in glorious slo-mo, it is an unforgettable slice of flashiness and pointed film history (if nothing else it brought the name Eisenstein to popcorn consumers). And, of course, there is De Palma's ever-present obsession with Hitchcock, with a facsimile of Foreign Correspondent in a shot of the good guys flying north in a twin-prop plane, a chase up a spiral staircase (a habitual motif) playing Vertigo, and the small girl blown to smithereens at the very beginning references the boy on a bus with a bomb from Sabotage.

The Untouchables is easily the most accessible of De Palma's work and remains (with the exception of Mission: Impossible) his most commercially successful movie. In stark contrast to the other gangster movies on show here, it is less concerned with the complex fabric of the crime unit than the earnest endeavours of the good guys. Bizarrely, this makes it a guilty pleasure.

Costner and De Nero shine.