[1 November 2004]
The Untouchables: Special Collector’s Edition DVD expands the old school gangster aesthetic to include cowboys. Director Brian De Palma explains, in one of the DVD’s four illuminating short documentaries, “Reinventing the Genre,” that he wanted to add a new twist to the genre by making a gangster film in the style of a John Ford Western.
No, we don’t have Robert De Niro wearing chaps as Chicago mob boss Al Capone. We do have a story of a (nearly lone) lawman standing up against the bad guys, replete with a High Noon type showdown. Set in 1930, the film follows Capone as he rules Prohibition-era Chicago with an iron fist and a taste for the whisky, which he and his mafia family smuggle across the Canadian border. As the unofficial “mayor of Chicago,” Capone controls everyone from cops to judges to politicians.
Enter Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), a naïve Treasury Agent oozing sincerity. He enlists Irish beat cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) to school him in “the Chicago Way” so he can catch Capone, and enlists the help of two more “untouchables” (incorruptibles): George Stone (Andy Garcia), a hotheaded police cadet hoping to give Italian Americans a good name, and Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), the geeky-chic accountant who cracks the case, by nailing Capone for income tax evasion. The paper pusher saves the day.
The gangster movie has always stolen from the U.S. frontier mythology, where the heroes resist villains, rugged individualism rules the day, and justice is achieved by violence. Ness embodies one element of this narrative, the civilizing force, the representative of the federal government seeking to resolve the armed chaos. De Palma here offers an epic morality tale rather than the aestheticized brutality of his earlier gangland classic, Scarface (1983). To make sure we get it, the film includes a scene where our heroes go out on a border patrol to bust smugglers, literally jumping on horses to meet the gangsters in their 1930s cars. For their shoot-out, Malone carries a machine gun rather than a six gun.
The Untouchables suggests that urban organized crime presents a new rubric for frontier justice, and that Mafia lore is just as mythologically rich as the cowboys’ in defining American popular culture. This layering is helped by Costner’s association with the excellent Silverado (1985), the somewhat compelling Open Range (2003), the painfully appropriative Dances with Wolves (1990), the spectacularly awful post-apocalyptic Western, The Postman (1997) and the tedious Wyatt Earp (1994), as well as a Connery’s work as the sheriff of High Noon in space (another chapter in frontier mythology), Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981).
In The Untouchables, frontier justice and family come together as a framework for violence and pathology. In this complex family structure, mob codes can sometimes mean killing one’s own relations or sworn blood brothers. The movie counterpoints graphic mob family violence with scenes of Ness family domestic bliss with his wife (Patricia Clarkson) and their child. The four lawmen’s brotherhood storyline provides a similar counter example; their bond is made stronger by the fact that they are a small group standing against a corrupt majority and that their cause could easily lead to them or their family being killed. They risk all for justice and for each other.
Based on a true story, and a popular TV series starring Robert Stack as Ness (1959-1963), the film achieves its epic goals. David Mamet’s script shoots off his signature rapid-fire dialogue, Ennio Morricone contributes an evocative score, and De Palma stages a Union Station shoot-out as homage to Eisenstein’s Potemkin. Throughout the film, the acting crackles, particularly that of Connery and De Niro. De Niro’s recent parodies of his gangster persona, in Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2002), contribute to the genre’s evolution into comedy.
The disc’s extras illuminate the film’s production history and its collaborations and include an original featurette and the theatrical trailer. The four documentaries feature extensive cast and crew interviews, both from the shoot and more recent footage: “The Cast, The Script,” “Production Stories,” “Reinventing the Genre,” and “The Classic” elaborate goals and contexts. In “Production Stories,” De Palma and producer Art Linson recount the director’s struggles, as when he threatened to quit, forcing Paramount to pay De Niro to star. Director of photography Stephen H. Burum explains that he wanted to shoot in black and white, but settled for a composition plan that captured the period through stylistic, repetitive images (rows of similar cars shot from overhead) and “negative space” (characters walking down near-deserted streets to suggest the era’s desolation).
The same documentary reports on the collective effort behind one of the film’s key scenes, Malone telling Ness how to “get Capone” while both kneel in a church. Though Mamet’s script had them walking down a street, Connery suggested a church setting as the only sanctuary in which the two might not be overhead, indicating Capone’s complete control of the city. As Malone tells Ness, “You wanna get Capone? Here’s how you get him. He pulls 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. And that’s how you get Capone,” they’re shot from a low angle, with a huge stained glass window framing them, linking Malone’s vigilantism to his faith. The scene, so carefully composed, exemplifies how the film opens a window onto an American cultural history.