Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Strength Of The Righteous

Some links to see to before we get started today. Norma posted a cover reveal for P.K. Hrezo's new book at her blog. Parsnip showed off cacti at her blog. The Maple Syrup Mob had a visitor at the house. Maria writes about twist endings for movies. Eve has a poem today at Intangible Hearts. And Krisztina has her pic of the week at her blog. Check out my photoblog as well; starting tomorrow I'm getting into the Tulip Festival here in Ottawa and Gatineau. Today I'm doing a movie review.

"I'm gonna tell you something. Somebody messes with me, I'm gonna mess with him. Somebody steals from me, I'm gonna say you stole. Not talk to him for spitting on the sidewalk. Understand? Now I have done nothing to harm these people, but they are angered with me, so what do they do? Doctor up some income tax, for which they have no case." ~ Al Capone

"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, and that's how you get Capone." ~ James Malone

 "In Roman times, when a fellow was convicted of trying to bribe a public official, they would cut off his nose, and sew him in a bag with a wild animal and throw him in a river." ~ Eliot Ness

The 1987 film The Untouchables by director Brian De Palma takes on the story of lawmen going up against the organization headed by mobster Al Capone (Robert De Niro). It's a story that's been told before on television, and the script comes from David Mamet. A stylish classic that draws us back in time, the film boasts great performances and strong characterization.

It opens with Capone in 1930s Chicago, the ruler of a criminal empire based largely on shipping alcohol during Prohibition. He's a man with no regard for the law, enjoying the attention of reporters and putting on an affable public face while hiding his private brutality. He rules his interests with an iron fist, relying on men like his chief enforcer, Frank Nitti (Billy Drago).

A Treasury agent, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is assigned to take on the organization, and finds himself in over his head in an early failed raid. He seeks out the assistance of a beat cop, Jim Malone (Sean Connery) to find a way to bring down the organization. Malone's that rare thing in 1930s Chicago, an honest cop. After some reluctance, he steps up to the task, reminding Ness of what they're up against. They enlist two other men to form the core of their team. Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) is a bookish Treasury agent with an accounting background who has ideas of his own about how to take down the organization. And George Stone (Andy Garcia) is a cadet in the police academy, good with a gun and trying to hide his Italian roots.

The idea of taking on the story of Al Capone's downfall on the big screen had been around for awhile. Mamet has a stellar record as a writer and playwright, having had written works such as Glengarry Glen Ross, Wag The Dog, and The Verdict. His screenplay takes us back to the era, moving the story along briskly, essentially telling parallel storylines. On the one hand, we have the debauched arrogance of Al Capone and his henchmen. On the other hand, we follow the small band of lawmen. The two storylines meet rarely, and Mamet's script contrasts the two well, giving us themes of justice and arrogance. As things move along, and the lawmen find themselves not in a world of black and white but where things are in a shade of gray, Mamet's story still makes a clear distinction between both sides. It tells an entertaining story- even if that story might not be historically accurate. The case that brought down Capone was much more complicated, for instance, and Frank Nitti died many years after the events playing out in the film.

De Palma as a director has an eclectic history. He's directed the original Carrie, Scarface, Mission Impossible, and Femme Fatale. He doesn't always succeed, but even his failures are never boring. The Untouchables is one of his best films. Crime thrillers are one of his areas of expertise, and he infuses the film with action, but also tension, repeatedly. He doesn't mind adding in the odd bit of humour here and there, and he has a way of paying homage to the work of other directors. A sequence involving a train station staircase, for instance, is a nod towards Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. He filmed on location in Chicago and beyond, conveying the period along the way. The crew brings the era to life in costuming and set detail- the city feels decades in the past, and when things are taken out of the city and to a sequence set on the Canadian border, for instance, it still feels like we're back in the 1930s. The film was nominated for Oscars for art direction/ set decoration and costuming- both well deserved nominations. It also got a nomination for the score by Ennio Morricone. His composition is one of my favourite film scores (I borrowed the title of one of his score cues for the title of this post), and accompanies the film perfectly. His themes convey the arrogance of Capone, contrasted with the quiet family life of Eliot Ness. It contributes to the tension of the train station sequence in a brilliant way by mixing tense themes with a child-like lullabye. And when we get the fully realized heroic main theme make its presence in the film, particularly in the sequence at the border crossing, it brings a smile to the face- imagine that whole sequence without the score.

The performances are outstanding. I'll start with the villains. De Niro is perfectly cast as Capone. He gained weight for the role, and plays both sides of Capone as you'd expect. He seems entirely friendly while talking to reporters- though the darkness is right there under the surface. His true nature is the brutally violent sociopath, the monster who believes he's above the law, the sneering criminal with disdain for justice. It's pretty much accurate to what you would expect of the real Capone. He's surrounded by yes men and hired muscle, and one of them really stands out from the pack. Drago plays Nitti with an oily arrogance, a sadistic kind of man who's good at killing. There's a tone of menace when he speaks, and Drago's presence reminds one of a particularly nasty guard dog.

Smith plays Wallace somewhat for comic relief. Here we have a bookish accountant often with his nose in financial records, seemingly completely out of place with a gun- and yet he proves himself quite handy in action. There's a marvelously funny moment for the character at the border crossing, and it comes on top of this bookish character going fearlessly against hoodlums. Garcia plays Stone in a number of ways- on the one hand, he's cool and calm, a steady presence who's dedicated to help bring down the Capone organization. He hides his roots, perhaps out of shame, and is willing to stand up for himself. He gives Stone just the right degree of attitude. Connery rightfully won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for the part of the wise career cop. His Malone is disgusted by the corruption in his city, among the cops he works with. He's resourceful, ferocious, and smart, passing along his knowledge as a mentor, all things that Connery brings out in the character, and Mamet gives Connery some of the best lines of the film. This is one of Costner's earlier roles, and he inhabits Ness just right. It's a different take, perhaps from the real man- Ness was married several times, whereas here he is a devoted family man, happily married. He is fiercely principled, believes in the law, and yet learns quickly what compromises he'll have to make to bring down his adversary. He plays the role as both a decisive leader and a student, learning the ways of Chicago from his mentor. We believe him as Ness because he brings the gravitas and weight needed for the role.

The Untouchables has established itself as a classic in the time since its release. It thrills the audience, telling a story of the difference between right and wrong, between the law and the lawless. It infuses a strong sense of characterization from one of the great writers, with the brash style of the director, and the cast outdo themselves with memorable performances. If you haven't seen it for some strange reason, you should be seeing it post haste.


  1. Couldn't go wrong with so many excellent actors William.. Sean Connery a bad cop.. Never!

  2. I've never seen it..I feel robbed!
    Jane x

  3. Okay, so you're probably not going to be surprised when I say I haven't seen this movie. ;) I do love Sean Connery though.

  4. Saw this and enjoyed it. Sean Connery deserved his award!

  5. I've never seen it. This was my mother's kind of film, not mine...but you've done an excellent review, William!

  6. I've never seen it. Excellent review, William!

  7. @Grace: it's such a splendid cast.

    @Jane and Chris: you must remedy that!

    @Kelly: you should check it out!

    @Cheryl: he certainly did.

    @Lisa: it's such a good one.

    @Norma: thank you!

    @Auden: thanks!

  8. I haven't seen this one in ages! I do use it as an example of The Culture of Honor in a lecture though :)

  9. I saw this movie and did enjoy it but... it had so many things wrong.
    I had to keep remembering it is just a movie it is just a movie it is just a movie.
    On a side note one of my cousins used to date Al Capone grandson.

    cheers, parsnip

  10. OMG, has it been that long? De Niro and Connery look amazing. Over 25 years can bring a body down, but those two never seem to age. :)

    Adding to my list of oldies to watch again.

    Great review.

  11. I'm not big on gansta movies, but you write a compelling review. And i am interested in Al Capone. I'll have to put the Untouchables on my Netflix list.

    I did see The Verdict, and thought it was quite good. Another stroke in The Untouchables favor.

    Thanks for the review.

  12. I needed the follow-up button. For some reason, it doesn't always show up for me when I first post the comment. A little Blogger-Wordpress spat.

  13. @Meradeth: it's a good example.

    @Parsnip: that's a small world!

    @Diane: thank you!

    @Christine: you're welcome. Mamet's a terrific all around writer.

  14. Saw this but I like your review better than my memories of it. Thanks for the mention!!

  15. This was one hell of a great movie!


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