Top names cluster in Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables. Allan Hunter met the director of a film that hosts Sean Connery and Robert de Niro in a tale of vice in Chicago.
The Untouchables has been one of the major triumphs of the American cinema in 1987, proof positive that there is intelligent life beyond the factory-line Bette Midler comedies and lazy sequels that glide effortlessly off the Hollywood treadmill. Written by David Mamet and audaciously directed by Brian De Palma it is a big, brash morality tale pitting the innocence of Federal crimebuster Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) against the malevolence of top Prohibition gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro). The action unfolds in a Chicago where everyone from the Mayor to the neighbourhood dog-catcher appears to be on the payroll. However, warily lurking in this barrel of rotten apples is the one decent cop whose blunt integrity will inspire Ness to courageous deeds.An Irishman, long past his prime. battered by years of paying contemptuous witness to a corrupt system he is revitalised by Ness‘s youthful zeal and becomes both his and the film’s conscience. He is Jim Malone and is played to perfection by Sean Connery in another outstanding performance ofgrit, humour and heroic endeavours that is of Academy Award calibre.
The real life Untouchables were an élite group of law enforcement operatives whose sole purpose was to end the reign ofcrime czars like Capone. Riding to power on the folly of Prohibition, Capone ruled
Played to perfection.
Chicago for over a decade building a millionaire‘s empire with seven hundred hoods under his command. Prohibition had made every ordinary American a member of the criminal class and Capone somehow seemed just the most flamboyant of a suddenly bountiful breed. He organised the St Valentine‘s Day Massacre. cracked skulls with a baseball bat and provided reams of headline copy for an ever-eager press corps that he had assiduously courted. Ness and his men weren’t tackling a vicious gangster but a minor folk hero who enjoyed wide public celebrity and who had already outlasted four chiefs of police, three
US District Attorneys and countless inquiries and investigations. The Untouchables were the white knights prepared to pay any price to restore the supremacy of morality over Capone’s triumphant disregard for the laws ofthe land.
The exploits of Ness and his men previously served as the basis for the television series The Untouchables that starred Robert Stack and ran successfully for four years and 117 episodes. Paramount Pictures owned the rights to the television series but producer Art Linson was determined that his film version would be different and distinctive, if no less hidebound by the need to observe historical accuracy. ‘At the very beginning there was some initial research done but David Mamet decided to make it a sort of mythical translation rather than a real, literal
Essence of the period
translation. When the facts coincided they were used but most of the time he was trying to create the spirit, in a very compressed time, of the confrontation between Ness and Capone. That period had been covered in many different forms and we tried to do it like a high, mythical drama and hoped it captured the essence ofthe period.’
In [984, Mamet had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Glengary Glen Ross. A native Chicagoan and a history buff he had even attended high school across the street from the site of the St.Valentine‘s Day Massacre and was obviously the pert‘eet candidate to write the screenplay, although as Linson cautions; ‘The interesting thing about a David Mamet script is that in the hands of the right director it could be fantastic. in the hands of the wrong director it’s a disaster. He writes very sparsely so there’s very little indicated. The scope of what you see on screen is not indicated in the script; the moment is there but it could be done a hundred different ways. Even in the character descriptions it's just “A talks to B". It‘s sort of like his plays which are extremely specific and very interpretive , that’s why actors love to do his stuff— you have a lot of
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range but you better be good.‘
The director entrusted with putting ﬂesh on Mamet's script was Brian De Palma. a master of the mechanics of suspense his greatest hits include Carrie and Dressed to Kill. Once described as a director ‘with a habit of never using a stiletto where a chainsaw will do‘ his recent credits (Body Double, Wise Guys) have shown him to be distinctly off form. However. with The Untouchables he bounces back, delivering a number ofstaggering set pieces,among them a homage to the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, and evincing a far greater interest in characterisation and humanity than
his previous work might have led you
to expect. In this he is ably assisted by an exceptional cast.
Aside from the technical problems of recreating a by-gone era and budgetary pressures from Paramount.the greatest challenge on The Untouchables appears to have been finding the right faces. De Palma recalls; ‘I think we talked about Harrison Ford as Eliot Ness but he wasn‘t even reading scripts. Then we talked to Mel Gibson but since he was making Lethal Weapon he didn‘t want to make two pictures back to back.Then. there was Kevin.lt sounds strange but it was very hard to find a 30 year-old leading man in America. There’s a whole collection of very young good actors. everybody knows who they are, but they were just a little too
young for Ness and Kevin was in a very, very unique category of3() year-old leading man who had a kind
4 The List 18 Sept — 1 Oct