The Untouchables

November 9, 2011

For all its explicit violence and mayhem, there’s something gloriously old-fashioned about The Untouchables. Not just because it recalls the Robert Stack television show; not even because it’s set in 1930 and evokes memories of hard-bitten Warner Bros. gangster movies.

No, The Untouchables is old-fashioned in more crucial and meaningful ways. It has the simplicity, for instance, to suggest that might doesn’t necessarily make right, and that a small band of men on the side of good may triumph. These days it takes a lot of gumption to support ideas like those, and The Untouchables has gumption in excess.

Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is the Treasury agent who rides into 1930s Chicago like a cowboy determined to rid the town of its black-hatted villain. The villain, of course, is “Scarface” Al Capone (Robert De Niro), who rules the city utterly, and has much of the police department in his deep pockets.

So Ness forms his own troupe of men: Malone (Sean Connery), a wise old-timer who tutors Ness in the Chicago ways; Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a Treasury accountant who studiously discovers that the blood-spattered Capone might be tripped up on a tax-evasion charge; and Stone (Andy Garcia), a young Italian sharpshooter.

The film delivers this investigation through a series of tit-for-tat encounters between Ness and Capone, a bloody citywide war that eventually has no limits. The playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) has written characters and dialogue that manage to be fresh while conforming to historical facts (and certain Hollywood traditions).

And he layers the movie’s straight-forwardness with some ironies; for instance, that the law Ness was defending, Prohibition, was a bad idea, which allowed organized crime to take over in the first place. And Mamet doesn’t shrink from the fact that Ness’s tactics begin to resemble those of the very men he’s sworn to put away.

Choosing Brian De Palma to direct Mamet’s script was a brilliant stroke. De Palma has already cut his teeth on the operatic crime film (his Scarface was actually an update of the 1932 film based on Capone). De Palma and cinematographer Stephen Burum find the kind of clean, unfussy period look that the material demands.

Yet when opportunity presents itself, De Palma is capable of taking wing. Two set pieces stand out: Ness’s men charging across the countryside on horseback to seize a shipment of illegal hooch, and a delirious sequence in a train station involving Ness’s capture of Capone’s bookkeeper in a furious crossfire. De Palma’s thrilling staging of these scenes marks a new virtuosity in his work.

A slew of good performances, too: Costner does well with the difficult task of keeping straight-arrow Ness interesting; Connery is marvelous in a role he inhabits with warmth and authority; Billy Drago contributes a chilling cameo as hit man Frank Nitti. De Niro, who replaced Bob Hoskins as Capone, is effective as usual, never more so than in a stirring speech about baseball that ends in his Louisville Slugger connecting with the skull of an incompetent underling. It’s a whole new suggestion of the true American pastime.

First published in the Herald, June 3, 1987

I recall how satisfying this movie was when it came along; it didn’t have to be great, it was just so very good. Which meant a lot in 1987. A prequel has been rumored for a while, and I have a strong feeling somebody’s going to remake this soon, and probably not stray far from the Mamet screenplay.