The Untouchables: Special Collector's Edition (1987)

Leigh H. Edwards

It's a story of a (nearly lone) lawman standing up against the bad guys, replete with a High Noon type showdown.

The Untouchables: Special Collector's Edition

Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Paramount
First date: 1987
US DVD Release Date: 2004-10-05

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.