Saturday, January 17, 2009

Screengrab - "Thats the Chicago way."

"The Untouchables" was released in the US in June 1987*. That marks it out firmly as a Summer Blockbuster, or at least states that it was intended as one by its studio. But it seems to possess an insane pedigree and class for a Blockbuster. Directed by a controversial auteur who has always had one foot in the arthouse (Brian DePalma), written by one of America's greatest living playwrights (David Mamet), with a score by Ennio Morricone, costumes by Armani and a cast including two of the Twentieth Century's great male screen icons (Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro) alongside a couple of then up-and-coming new stars (Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia), the film almost seems too good to be true. And it has the temerity to be incredibly entertaining, with two fantastic DePama set-pieces, while also slyly getting in its digs at the hypocrisy of American political policies, both in the Prohibition and (by extension) Reagan eras.

It is a film of great moments and great scenes, which lessen the impact of its structural problems. After the departure of Connery's character, the narrative never really recovers the same drive, though DePalma's Odessa Steps Train Station sequence distracts the audience in the immediate aftermath of his terrific death scene. But we are buoyed by the numerous brilliant moments we have already witnessed. There is DeNiro's baseball bat wielding "enthusiasms" speech (based on an actual Capone execution of two seditious mobsters), wherein he seems to allow himself to coast and grimace and leer, almost caricaturing his own persona to highly entertaining effect. DePalma ends the scene with a beautiful aerial shot, too. Then there is Connery's selection of Andy Garcia's character for a place on the team, baiting him with ethnic slurs, until Garcia pulls a pistol on him and sticks it beneath his chin with the words: " Its better than you, you stinking Irish pig." Garcia is shy and charming here in a way he never really recovered in his career, grinning as Connery praises him.

Then there is the gun battle on the Canadian border, in which Charles Martin Smith distinguishes himself in a berserker attack on two trucks of mobsters - DePalma depicting shotgun blasts as resulting in pink clouds of blood hanging in the air, Morricone turning in something akin to a Classical Western score, Connery ending a chase-scene with a volley of gunfire into the air and the words "Enough of this running shit." And then there is the exemplary first person POV stalking of Connery before he is assassinated, the director amusing himself with his facility with the medium itself, a filmmaker with enough maturity to take on a project like this, without the auteurist quirks and motifs of much of the rest of his work, and turn it into arguably his best "popular" film.

But the best scene is a brief exchange of charged dialogue between Connery and Costner, sitting in a church-pew, captured by DePalma in a showy two-shot. Because it demands - and gets - the best from Mamet, from the two actors, and from the Director. It sets the tone for what is to come, defines the battle at the heart of the film, and lays out the crucial dynamic between the hero and his mentor. Later, just before they bust down a door into one of Capone's distillerys, Connery tells Costner that once the door is open, there can be no turning back. But really, that moment is already passed. It came when Connery laid out the fight for him and Costner asserted his desire for it.

Mamet is a proud son of Chicago, and there is a lot of that city's working class hard-boiled straight-talking in his dialogue. But much of his work as a Screenwriter for hire feels like the hackwork that it undoubtedly is, his touch barely discernible, as if he is trying to lose what makes him distinctive, subsuming himself for the good of the project. However, there is the sense that he feels something more for "The Untouchables", key to the mythic history of his hometown as the story is. So his script is full of great one-liners, most of them given to Connery, and a couple of classic Capone monologues. It is also commendably tight and well-paced for much of its running time, excellent in establishing its characters concisely, and makes its odd conclusion - Ness has to break the rules, by murdering a man, in order to win - a crowd-pleasing moment. But the scene in question is the most concise and well-written in the film.
The dialogue exchange is as follows:

Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I'm saying is, what are you prepared to do?
Ness: Anything within the law.
Malone: And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they're not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead.
Ness: I want to get Capone! I don't know how to do it.
Malone: You wanna know how to get 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. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I'm offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?
Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.
Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward.
[Jabs Ness with his hand, and Ness shakes it]
Malone: Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?
Ness: Yes.
Malone: Good, 'cause you just took one.

The scene feels weighty and important, making such a brief exchange of dialogue almost shockingly short on the page. Mamet captures Malone's aggression and vigour and Ness' impotence and frustration in just a few lines. Connery, for his part, plays the hell out of it. He steals every scene he's in - it helps that he gets all the best lines - and here Costner's Ness seems cowed, even a little awed by him. But Costner's slighly stilted woodenness actually works in the film's favour. He is meant to be stiff, awkward, a clerk at heart; despite his initial scorn for bookkeeping as a means to arrest Capone. In the final courtroom showdown, the disparity between the intensity of performance displayed by Costner and DeNiro is a little shocking. DeNiro is so much more vital, so electric, even in such a small, shallow role. Costner's voice sounds weak, he lacks conviction and passion. And yet he has some movie star quality, and holds the film together despite Connery pulling it one way and DeNiro another. Costner is the still centre, vital in such a brassy, excited film. In this scene, his key line is "I want to get Capone! I don't know how to do it." which he spits through gritted teeth, like a frustrated child. Connery's needling has bothered him, stirred him somewhat. Their dynamic works.

DePalma knows this and he shoots the scene to capitalize upon it.

The economy and simplicity of that composition is beautiful. Both men look off to the left, complicit in their conversation. The ceiling of the Church - suggested by Connery as a location - curves above, a mural high behind. They are separated by a single stained glass window, off in the distance, its natural light glaring against the more muted shades of the church. The shallowness of field in the picture gives the scene a certain odd tension. The ceiling, though obviously high above, seems to press on the men. Their hands seem uncannily large in the foreground. Their faces - the natural focus - sit somewhere between these other visual elements, the distortion of perspective throwing off our spatial certainty, unusual in what would normally be a simple medium shot. DePalma then cuts to this shot:

Here the pressure is all on Ness, his face looming unnaturally large in the composition. Connery's Malone seems almost relaxed by comparison, though his delivery of his dialogue is aggressive, super-charged; he makes Mamet's short speech feel longer and better than it is on the page. We see other figures at worship in the shadows behind Connery, making the men's paranoia more understandable. It is odd, then, that the final "blood oath" part of the scene is its lightest, Malone adopting a jokey tone as he makes up his mind to aid Ness. Perhaps the key is the short instant between Ness' avowed desire to get Capone and Malone's "The Lord hates a coward". This is when Malone turns away slightly, considers, and decides. In effect he signs his own death warrant. Its also the moment Connery won his only Oscar, and its as if he knows it. Those last lines do have an unmistakably triumphant ring to them.

*What a classy pop culture summer that was, in retrospect. Leave aside the notable disasters (such as "Superman IV", " Spaceballs", "Ishtar", "Beverly Hills Cop 2" and "Masters of the Universe") and you have these films released between May - August 1987: "The Rivers Edge", "Predator", "The Little Mermaid", "Full Metal Jacket", "Innerspace", "Robocop"
"The Living Daylights" and "The Lost Boys". Not to mention the likes of "Dirty Dancing". A fine mixture of entertaining schlock and a couple of genuine classics.



Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I always think of the Nitti chase when I think of this film. Him running around in his white suit looking like some human/snake crossbreed.

He's in the car.

12:56 am  
Blogger David N said...


I refuse to believe Mamet had anything to do with that line. Or maybe he was just watching "Commando" on the day he wrote that scene. Hopefully Costner improvised it. I can live with that.

Gangster hitmen in white armani suits. Gritty realism, eh? Can't beat it.

1:09 am  
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