“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!”
Sean Connery exemplified the cinema of my childhood. One of my first memories of the movies was when my dad took me to see “Thunderball.” I saw him as bigger than life with a sense of masculinity and ease that I aspired to have. His “shaken not stirred” line delivery instilled (or distilled?!) in me a long fascination with cocktails that continues to this day. After hearing of his passing at 90, the best way I could celebrate his legendary impact was to toast him with a martini and watch his Oscar winning performance in “The Untouchables” (1987).
It’s his warm and commanding performance that grounds Brian De Palma’s film. When we first see him as the policeman Jimmy Malone who approaches a deflated Eliot Ness (played by a wet-behind-the-ears Kevin Costner), he brings such gravitas. There’s a deus-ex-machina quality to his late-night appearance on the Michican Avenue Bridge. The City of Chicago has put the Treasury Department Agent Ness in charge of the effort to stop Capone and his crime spree. Ness’ first approach – a raid using a squad of uniformed officers – has failed after he breaks into a warehouse storing umbrellas. He throws a newspaper with a terrible headline off the bridge. “Now, what do you think you’re doing?” Malone asks him. “You want to throw garbage? Throw it in the goddamn trash basket.” Connery delivers that line with his famous slight raised eyebrow – transferring that he’s not referring to the newspaper when he speaks about the trash. It’s a helluva entrance. He becomes the mentor who will guide Ness on his crusade to bring down Capone.
The film is a quite a rouser. As a kid I remember watching Robert Stack as Ness on the tv show “The Untouchables” on ABC. It fictionalized the stories of Ness and the team of crime-fighting agents who’d been chosen for their blamelessness. They fought crime as well as corruption in 1930s Chicago during Prohibition. This was history that had been made into myth – a fun serialized morality parable. De Palma’s approach is a cinematic take on that idea – creating a crime-fighting heroic tale – and it’s big, violent and stylized with gusto.
I’ve always been an admirer of De Palma and I anticipated this big studio production. It’s obvious that he’s an enormous fan of cinema – and he’s known for referencing his film influences – in particular Hitchcock – in his own work. For this cinephile, the goosebumps in watching “The Untouchables” are those moments in which he quotes other well-known films. There’s a coup de souffle in the climax which pays homage to the highly influential Odessa steps sequence by Sergei Eisenstein in “Battleship Potemkin.” At the Chicago Union Station, Ness has to stop Capone’s men from putting a key witness on a train, and there’s a big gunfight. On a monumental staircase at the Union Station, the tension of the showdown is heightened by a baby on a carriage slowly rolling down the steps – while bullets whiz by. It’s a jaw-dropper of choreography, angles and editing. The excitement of the scene is doubled by knowing that he’s reviving Eisenstein.
Another extraordinary moment takes place when Capone sends one of his henchmen to Malone’s assassination attempt – and voyeuristically the camera becomes the assailant — with extended takes outside the apartment’s windows through the bathroom and into the inside long hallway.
The production design – recreating a historical Prohibition period with a combination of accuracy and a mythical quality – is gorgeous. The architecture of actual Chicago landmarks is striking – made even more so by the angles in which De Palma shoots them. In the pivotal scene in which Connery asks Costner “What are you prepared to do?” the two men are seated on a pew, shot from a low angle. The ceiling of the Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica is shown in its intrinsic splendor. The Renaissance-style glass roof of the Grand Army of the Republic Rotunda – again seen on a low-angle – causes vertigo in the moment in which Ness finds key information outside Capone’s trial.
With all the wizardry, David Mamet dialogue, and Armani clothing, it’s Connery’s acting that coalesces it all.
Malone: “If you walk through this door now, you’re walking into a world of trouble. And there’s no turning back. You understand?”
Available to stream on STARZ (Via Cable/Satellite/Hulu/Philo & Prime Video) and to rent on Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, FandangoNOW, Redbox and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by David Mamet
Based on the book by Oscar Fraley and Eliot Ness
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith, Andy García and Robert De Niro
Production Designer Patricia Brandenstein & Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum on “The Untouchables”
Capturing the sense of period was crucial to the look and feel that De Palma, Brandenstein and Burum were trying to create. Burum began his preparation for the production by looking at the work of photographers from the period, such as Margret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Alfred Stieglitz, all photojournalists and industrial photographers of the time. “After looking at a lot of the photographic style of the period, we decided that one of the key design elements of the picture would be repetitive images. In the works of fine art photographers like Bourke-White, there are pictures of many objects that are the same shape and tone and that go on forever. “In the movie,” Burum says, “we did things with short lenses, like stack black Model A Fords in the repetitive images. In fact, we tried to have these images in most frames.” Perhaps the most crucial decision in the making of the movie, was determining the format. Burum and DePalma opted for anamorphic as opposed to the 1:85 format. Burum wanted more space in his framing and wanted to “protect the compositional integrity of the film when it was projected on theater screens. “By shooting anamorphic, you can hold the compositional integrity better, so that when the film is projected, the top and bottom of the frame is maintained, though in some theaters the sides get slightly clipped.” The compositional integrity in “The Untouchables” is carefully preserved even in the 70mm blow ups, by using Technicolor’s full 70AR process. The choice of using the anamorphic format was essential to the shooting strategy Burum had formulated, and is the philosophical key to how he approaches shooting this period film.
“People’s conception of period, usually extends to proper costuming. But it also should include movement,” Burum says. “Today so much time is spent with people in cars; people move faster, and things are constantly moving. You have a real feeling of movement in pictures now. You have a lot of long lenses. There’s a kind of claustrophobic sense, and that’s because people who are making pictures come from urban areas, where you get a sense of everything being compressed. You can’t see space. So it’s starting to be reflected in picture making, because it’s the thing that people perceive as the ambience of our times. “In a simpler time, there weren’t as many people and there was more space. So, we tried to represent that fact in the way we framed things. We have a lot of space around people and the shots aren’t so tight. We use shorter focal length lenses. You always have a feeling of the environment of the people. “If you’re going to show period or a certain time or place, one of the things that indicates this is what is around the people. You need some visual cue to tell you what the period is. So, it’s the architecture, it’s the props, it’s all those things, and you want to show them so the audience can feel they’re inundated by the environment. The surroundings are a dramatic element. We had to let the environment play.” Just how the environment was to play led to discussions in pre-production. Those discussions led to trips to the Santa Monica bookshop, Hennessey and Ingalls Art and Architecture Books, where photos and art from the period were acquired as part of the research process. “After reading the script, everyone does a lot of book work,” Burum says. “We used the books as visual references, because it’s difficult to talk about visual things and just use words.” One of the visual elements that also allowed the surroundings to play was the use of color. Like the still photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, color consultant for George Cukor, Burum was acutely sensitive, not only of how to use color, but also how to take out color. “When most people think of period pictures, they think of black-and-white, because that’s the way the pictures are represented to us historically. I think that the whole hypothesis that black-and-white immediately represents period is a little bogus. Now, I think black-and-white is a wonderful medium to be used, but it is rare to be allowed to shoot black-and-white anymore, so you must do period pictures in color.” (ascmag.com)
Casting “The Untouchables”
“I thought the part was very original and different,” Connery…wrote in an email to EW, “and a very interesting storyline.” The actor…, played a local cop named Jim Malone in the film and uttered the immortal line about doing things the “Chicago way,” one of the many quotable bits of dialogue written by Mamet. “I thought it was one of David’s best screenplays, so I said that I would do it,” Costner says. (De Niro was similarly a fan of Mamet, calling the writer “wonderful.”) Fresh off one of his first major successes, 1985’s Silverado, Costner was offered the lead role of Eliot Ness right after shooting No Way Out, which would be released soon after The Untouchables in the summer of 1987. “I didn’t have to read for it; all of a sudden, the career felt pretty good,” he recalls. Costner got further confirmation he was in a good place when he hit a personal milestone, making $1 million on a movie for the first time. “Three years earlier than that, I had no money,” he says. Paramount offered him $800,000, the most he had ever made on a film, but Costner insisted. “I said, ‘You know what? I don’t know if this is ever going to happen to me again, but I’d like a million,’” he recalls. “There’s still that kind of number, I think, in the psyche of Americans. It certainly was with me.” The studio managed it, and Costner used the money to buy his father a truck for Christmas — a Silverado.” (ew.com)
The History of “The Untouchables”
Signing on to make the movie “was the easy part,” De Niro says. Then came the hard part. There’s a certain level of pressure that comes with playing a historical character, especially one who has achieved such mythic stature in the collective imagination as Capone. Researching the part, the Oscar winner read a book (likely “My Years With Capone: Jack Woodford and Al Capone”) that gave him crucial insight about the legendary gangster. “It was supposedly written by a young kid, a piano-player, a prep school-type kid,” De Niro recalls. “Capone would take him around as kind of, I felt, maybe as a chronicler of his exploits, and he played at one of his speakeasies.” To physically recreate Capone, De Niro says he watched footage of the gangster and “tried to gain as much weight as I could and shave my head more so I could look as round as I could in the time that I had to prepare for it.” As for Ness, “I remember checking on him and his life — and it wasn’t as rosy as people might want to think,” Costner admits. “But the truth is, you’re stuck inside the lines of something that’s written… I understood history of him, but I really was having to play this character.” From there, “what we were trying to do was get the clothes right, because we had a really good script.” And such clothes! The cast’s sharp Prohibition-era suits are credited to Armani (though costume designer Marilyn Vance reportedly took issue with the designer’s credit). “I wasn’t even familiar with Armani, that shows you what a country bumpkin I was,” Costner says. De Niro remembers another piece of the mise-en-scene fondly: “There was a barber’s chair that I wish I had held onto. I think they paid $5,000 for it at the time,” he recalls. (He spends the film’s opening scene in it). “It was a great chair. I’m sorry I didn’t get it.” (ew.com)
About Director Brian De Palma
Brian De Palma was born on September 11, 1940 in Newark, New Jersey…De Palma, who was the son of a surgeon, became interested in movies during college. After receiving a B.A. from Columbia University in New York City (1962), he accepted a theatre fellowship at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York (M.A., 1964). While there he codirected (with Wilford Leach and Cynthia Monroe) the feature-length film “The Wedding Party” (1964; released 1969). The comedy featured early career performances by Robert De Niro and Jill Clayburgh. De Palma’s first solo features were “Murder à la Mod” (1968) and “Greetings” (1968), the latter of which was set in Greenwich Village and starred De Niro. After the 1970 experimental film “Dionysus” (also known as “Dionysus” in ’69; codirected with Richard Schechner), De Palma wrote and helmed “Hi, Mom!” (1970), the sequel to “Greetings,” with De Niro as a would-be pornographic filmmaker. It brought De Palma to the attention of the major studios, and Warner Brothers signed him in 1970 to make what they considered to be a counterculture comedy. However, the director was fired from “Get to Know Your Rabbit”- which was about a businessman (Tom Smothers) who decides to become a tap-dancing magician—and the film was finished by others; it was not released until 1972. De Palma rebounded in 1973 to make the cult thriller “Sisters”…It was the first of De Palma’s many homages to Hitchcock, featuring aspects of “Psycho” (1960) and “Rear Window” (1954) and music by Bernard Herrmann, who had scored a number of the British director’s films. “Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) was “Phantom of the Opera” retold as a rock musical, with stylistic references to several classic horror movies. It was a commercial disappointment, however, as was De Palma’s next film, “Obsession” (1976), a recycling of “Vertigo” (1958). In 1976 De Palma registered his first major hit with “Carrie,” a thriller based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King…De Palma’s success continued with “The Fury” (1978), another thriller about telekinesis, though set in a world of political intrigue…After the little-seen comedy “Home Movies” (1980), De Palma wrote and directed the controversial “Dressed to Kill” (1980)…De Palma next made Blow Out (1981), a conspiracy-theory thriller based on his own original screenplay. A tribute to Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” (1966)…De Palma then made Scarface (1983), an…updating of Howard Hawks’s 1932 gangster classic…
…The director then made “Body Double” (1984), about a young actor (Craig Wasson) who thinks he has witnessed a murder through his telescope—yet another of De Palma’s homages to Hitchcock’s Rear Window…De Palma shifted gears with the comic “Wise Guys” (1986)…”The Untouchables” (1987)… marked a return to form for De Palma. With a script by David Mamet, the drama chronicled federal agent Eliot Ness’s war against Al Capone in 1930s Chicago…the film earned arguably the best reviews—and biggest grosses—of his career to that point. Stretching in yet another direction, De Palma made the Vietnam War drama “Casualties of War” (1989), a David Rabe-scripted tale based on an actual incident…The film received generally positive reviews, but it failed to find an audience. Stung by that indifference, De Palma plunged into a big-budget adaptation (1990) of “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel of greed and corruption. In the end, “The Bonfire of the Vanities” became one of the most-notable failures in cinematic history. (A blow-by-blow account of the troubled movie’s production is chronicled in reporter Julie Salamon’s book “The Devil’s Candy” .)…In 1996 De Palma directed “Mission: Impossible”…Loosely based on the television series (1966–73), it helped launch a blockbuster franchise starring Tom Cruise as a secret agent. De Palma, however, directed only the first installment, which also featured Jon Voight, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jean Reno…”Mission to Mars” (2000)…failed to find an audience, and the thriller “Femme Fatale” (2002) was a return to his earlier works. Directed and scripted by De Palma, it offered Antonio Banderas as a photographer and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as a jewel thief…”The Black Dahlia” (2006), set in 1947 Los Angeles, was a…adaptation of James Ellroy’s noir novel about two policemen (Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) investigating the grisly murder of an aspiring actress. De Palma also directed the Iraq War drama “Redacted” (2007), which recounts the rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl by American soldiers, and the revenge thrillers “Passion” (2012), starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, and Domino (2019). (britannica.com)