Hat-wearing gangsters armed with Tommy guns have been gone for decades, but movies and TV shows about them are as popular as ever. From The Godfather to Boardwalk Empire, stories about bootleggers, hoodlums, mobsters and the cops doing their best to bring them down still fascinate people. Some are based on fact while some are based on legends. Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), working off a script from David Mamet, seems to lean more towards the legend in order to offer more of a spectacle. Understandable, given the movie’s villain, Al Capone, is a legend of crime.
As it is a crowd-favourite, I had seen bits and pieces of The Untouchables playing on TV every now and then. I eventually rented the DVD to watch the whole thing with some nifty behind-the-scenes nuggets, something you don’t get today with Netflix and iTunes. It was my little ritual when I was finishing high school in Quebec City if I had nothing to do that weekend. Head to the video store, get one of those three for one deal, and discover a classic. Many gangster movies are classics so it was only a matter of time before I got to De Palma’s take on the genre featuring one of the genre's most-known villain.
A villain needs a good hero for counter-balance, and that hero came in the shape of Prohibition Agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner). Whether or not Ness was as idealistic as in the movie, Costner portrays him as a righteous man on a crusade. During Prohibition Al Capone (Robert De Niro) illegally supplied the city of Chicago with alcohol at whatever price he wished. Ness naively believes he could walk into town and take down Capone with the rule of law. As he raids a warehouse he believes is filled with booze, he yells: “Lets do some good.” To his disappointment the crates are filled with umbrellas. The press takes a picture and Ness is the laughing stock of the police department, who warned Capone’s men in the first place.
Feeling dejected at the city’s corruption, Ness meets Irish American cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery) who teaches him a thing or two about fighting fire with fire. It is impossible to fight a man who will not play by the rules, so forget about the rules. If Capone uses violence, the cops must respond ten-folds, or as Malone puts it, “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!” With that philosophy in mind they recruit George Stone (Andy Garcia), a superior marksman out of the police academy, and nerdy accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) from Washington D.C. The Untouchables are formed.
The four of them take no bribes, do not back down if threatened, and bust down the doors the Chicago police are afraid to knock. Of course as they up the ante, so does Capone. Threats are made against Ness’ wife (Patricia Clarkson) and his children. Capone’s top henchman Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) is tasked with taking out the cops by whatever means necessary, while Capone’s plays the “legitimate businessman” card to the press.
As the violence escalates, the cops cross lines they never thought they would. Ness evolves from a righteous officer to an angry man capable of killing an unarmed opponent in a fit of anger. Even the seemingly harmless Oscar the accountant becomes a force to be reckoned with during a raid at the Canadian border. Charging at the bootleggers on horseback, he comes alive as he attacks them with his shotgun. In one of the film’s lighter moment, he takes a sip of whiskey from a leaking barrel while no one is watching.
As a director, De Palma has always had great skills with intricate action sequences, and that is clearly on display throughout the film. One of the best examples is his homage to Battleship Potemkin when Ness and Stone fight Capone’s men at a train station to get their hands on a key witness. The sequence goes into slow motion as Ness fires a shotgun at gangsters in the station’s staircase, while a baby’s carriage is rolling down the stairs as the baby’s mom watches in horror. Cutting to Ness during the shooting, we see he still has his eyes on the baby carriage even while the gangster’s are shooting.
As to whether or not it all really happened that way in 1930s Chicago, that’s for the history books. I think there were actually six officers on The Untouchables task force, and Oscar was probably not the only accountant to think of going after Capone over his tax records. As for the characters onscreen, there is no doubt more depth to Capone than De Niro managed to give him, and Connery never shakes off his Scottish accent in favour of an Irish one. Still, The Untouchables is undeniably crowd-pleasing in its telling of an old-school story of cops vs. gangsters.