Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables is a master class in cinema. From plot to characters, the stunning cinematography and amazing suspense, it’s a two-hour thesis on how film works.
The Untouchables marked the beginning of a trend for creating feature films based on television series. In addition to The Untouchables, 1987 would see big-screen versions of Masters of the Universe and Dragnet, with The Naked Gun: From The Files of Police Squad following the next year in 1988. The Untouchables TV series ran on ABC from 1959–1963 and featured Robert Stack in the role of Eliot Ness. The characters of Ness, Al Capone and Frank Nitti are all based on real people, while other characters from the film are fictionalized.
For those unfamiliar with the premise of the film, and the show, The Untouchables is based off real events during America’s prohibition of alcohol, when real-life Treasury Agent Eliot Ness was assigned by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to take down Chicago crime lord Al Capone. Capone was a larger-than-life public figure, much like depicted in the film, having started his reign as a crime boss at the age of 26 when current Chicago boss Johnny Torrio gave him control after being shot. Through alliances with local politicians and bribes handed out to law enforcement officers, Capone began a seven-year spree as an “untouchable” mob boss in Chicago. Ness worked at his job for two years, between 1930 and 1932, in which he and his squad of “Untouchables” would raid Capone’s supply routes and breweries, eventually gathering enough evidence to indict Capone on 22 counts of tax evasion, rather than the thousands of counts against the Volstead Act (a.k.a. Prohibition).
The film starts with Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) joining with the Chicago Police Force to raid Capone’s warehouses. It follows him from a solo-crusader against Al Capone (Robert DeNiro) to a hardened agent leading his squad of Untouchables, that include Jim Malone (Sean Connery), Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), and George Stone (Andy Garcia). Audiences get to immerse themselves, as Ness does, in his new role as G-Man while worrying about his family, his career, and his morality. The film ends with the indictment of Capone and the repeal of Prohibition.
Everything about the film from DePalma’s directing, David Mamet’s script, Stephen Burum’s cinematography, Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack and the great performances by DeNiro, Connery and Costner all do service towards telling a great and exciting story that enthralls audiences as much as it entertains.
What Are You Prepared To Do?
The film open with a “God’s-eye” shot looking down on Al Capone, surrounded by his barber, attendants and the press, while four members of Capone’s ‘operation’ look on separately. The composition of the shot, followed by a slow camera dolly into a close-up of Capone reveals everything about the character in only a short two-minute and fifteen second sequence. First the intricate geometric patterns of the parquet flooring draws the viewer’s attention towards Capone. It also shows the opulence of Capone’s living quarters, in conjunction with his numerous attendants and personal barber. These visual elements are in direct contrast with his humble explanations of his business models. He is the wronged businessman that the police and feds are pursuing illegally. Capone is asked by the British reporter why he hasn’t taken the mantle of Mayor, and wonders about the violence in the city. Capone jokes and smiles with the reporters. “And what of your reputation that you control your business through violence? That those that don’t purchase your product are dealt with violently,” the reporter asks.
The first hint DeNiro gives that this jolly character is not all that he appears is following the line above, when the barber accidentally nicks his cheek with the razor. Capone straightens, and the barber flinches, going almost white. He knows that he has done something tantamount to shooting the man. Capone composes himself and then he explicitly states that “There is violence in Chicago. But not by me, and not by anybody I employ. And I’ll tell you why, because it’s not good business.” The barber breathes a sigh of relief, realizing that today is not his day.
The scene changes to a local tavern, where a girl is coming to have her family’s porridge pot refilled. The owner is in an argument with another man about not wanting to buy “green beer,” to which the tough responds that they won’t bother the owner again. The girl spots a briefcase left by a third man in a white suit, and as she attempts to return it, the building is rocked by an explosion, blasting the audience out of their seats. It is evident that these two men worked for Capone, and that his denial of violence is only a story sold to the press to discredit police and sway the public. Al Capone is indeed the most dangerous man in Chicago.
By opening the film with such an explicit act, DePalma and Mamet create a landscape of violence and tension. They let the audience know that for the next two hours nothing is forbidden, and no one is safe.
You Just Joined The Treasury Department, Son.
The action continues with Eliot Ness being introduced to the members of the press and the Chicago Police Department. Mamet introduces the hero of the story to the audience as a do-gooder, setting the scene with concrete examples of Ness’s moral certitude. When the press asks him, light-heartedly, about whether he imbibes a drink now and again, he reminds them that prohibition is “the law of the land.” He makes a point to tell the assembled officers, that what they’ve done prior to today is none of his business, but they will no longer take “harmless” drinks. They must enforce the law and lead by example. Costner’s earnestness in portraying Ness showcases his characters forthright behavior, setting him up as a polar opposite to the character of Capone. While Capone will do whatever it takes to continue his business, Ness is a champion and abider of the law.
This moral inflexibility is not an act for the character, but a defining element. Ness leads the charge into his first raid with the phrase “let’s do some good,” which is later mocked by members of the police force. The film is unclear at this point if the naivité of Eliot Ness is meant to be seen as a good trait, when compared to the cynical officers, or if it will hamper is ability to take down Capone. Given the lengths Capone has demonstrated so far, it definitely seems like the latter. Capone, at this point in the story, is untouchable, and strong. The complete antithesis of the Ness character.
This becomes the main character arc for Ness in the film, and one of its greatest themes. Can man fight evil without sullying himself, morally? The Untouchables begins by portraying the Ness character as a naive rube, whose first raid is a bust, and one who doesn’t get any respect from the officers he’s in charge of. Thus, he meets Patrolman Jimmy Malone, who displays himself as an honest and trusting man, potentially more so than Ness. Malone, an older officer, is walking the streets at his advanced age, presumably, due to ruffling too many feathers on the force with his own morality. He chides Ness for littering (however accidentally) and then when he realizes Ness has a gun, asks him his business. Explaining that he’s a Treasury officer, Malone lets him go. Ness cannot believe the trust Malone places in him, and questions his motives. “Who would claim to be that, who was not,” asks Malone. And with that Eliot Ness has discovered his “North Star” and another trustworthy enforcer of the law.
Malone may be another honest cop in a city of bad apples, but unlike Ness, he has lost his naïveté. Years on the job haven’t made him cynical, as is shown with the other officers. Instead, he has gained a sense of wisdom that he sees fit to impart on Ness. In one of the most famous and momentous scenes, Malone takes Ness to a local church to see if he’s really serious about getting Capone. This is the “he pulls a knife, you pull a gun” speech, which is great writing, but it also opens the door to the seriousness of Ness’s mission. Malone questions him, asking what he’s prepared to do. Ignorant of the true consequences of his mission, Ness can only reply that he will use “any and all legal means at my disposal.” This sets up the central character question for him: does he continue to be a good man, or does he do what is needed to be done in order to protect others?
This theme is repeated several times, testing Ness’s ability to compromise his morality. Initially an alderman attempt to bribe Ness and his squad. Ness quotes what happened in Roman times when public officials were bribed. The alderman then coins the term ‘untouchable’ in relation to Ness’s refusal, telling him he’s made a mistake. Brazen by his team’s wins, Ness admits he’s beginning to “enjoy his mistakes,” of upsetting Capone. Another test for the character occurs on a raid at the Canadian border. After witnessing Malone pick up a dead man and threatening to blows his brains out in order to coerce George, a bootlegger, to give up the location of Capone’s bookkeeper, Ness averts his gaze. Eliot lets this slide even when the captain of the Mounties displays his shock and barks his disapproval. Ness is not culpable in the murder, or even the morally-grey actions of his partner Malone, and tells the mountie “Well, you’re not from Chicago.” But both of these episodes begin to strip away the moral armor on Eliot Ness, wearing him down for his biggest battle.
While Ness continues to make gains in the war against Capone, the gangster has been making plans of his own. Beginning with threats towards Ness’s family, and culminating with a two-pronged attack on the Untouchables. The first hit is against George, the man from the Canadian raid, and Oscar Wallace. They are killed by Frank Nitti posing as a police officer in the elevator of the police station. Capone sends a very direct message by having Nitti write the word “Touchable” one the wall in Wallace’s blood! This is followed by the assassination of Jim Malone, which affects Ness greatly. But the death of his friend also redoubles his efforts to get Capone.
After having made a case for Al Capone to be indicted under Federal income tax laws, things appear to be going well for the remaining members of the untouchables as Capone is finally seeing his day in court. Ness notices a man in a white suit, Frank Nitti (Billy Drago), wearing a gun in open court. They lead him out and find out he has a permit for the gun. In giving him his weapon back, Ness discovers a clue that leads him to realize that Nitti was behind the death of Malone. Nitti takes off for the roof, firing his gun to delay Ness. When Ness makes it to the roof, Nitti is climbing down a rope on the side of the building in an attempt to escape. Knowing now that Nitti has killed his friend and mentor, Ness has a moral quandary. He can shoot this unarmed murderer, or he can take him in for the murder of Jim Malone.
DePalma uses all the tricks in his book to extend this sequence as long as possible, building up the tension. It seems like Eliot will finally break and kill Nitti. But the scene resolves and he ends up hauling him back onto the roof. As they walk towards the stairway, Nitti taunts Ness one final time, telling him that his “friend died screaming like a stuck Irish pig.” That is the moment where Ness finally has had too much! He railroads Nitti towards the exit, but at the last moment turns Nitti to the side and sends him over the edge of the building, plunging to his death. In a very 80s line of dialogue, but also one showcasing the journey that this character has taken, Ness shouts after Nitti, “Did he sound anything like that?” as the former screams from the top of the court building. Ness has been corrupted by the very crimes he was tasked to end, but his choices are ones that appear to be decisions based on the better of two evils. While the killing of Nitti is an emotionally driven reaction, Ness’s ability to act proves that he has mastered the final lesson and in fact, will now be able to “get Capone.”
Up to this point, Capone was always steps ahead of Ness, who was unable and unwilling to stray from the path of righteousness. Once that wall came tumbling down, Ness is able to fight fire with fire, so to speak. Prior to the death of Nitti, Capone held the cards, having jeopardized the trial by getting control of the jury. Ness was incapable of convincing the Judge in the case to see the harm in this situation, being another jaded member of the Chicago institution. After killing Nitti, Ness is now capable of lying to the Judge, intimating that he too was listed in Capone’s ledger, even though he was not. Ness has lost his innocence, and has learned the real way things get done in Chicago.
The Chicago Way
DePalma’s use of location shooting in Chicago creates an authenticity that could not have happened in another city or on soundstages. Chicago becomes another character in the film, overshadowing all things, good or evil. The architecture of the city streets, the entrance to Capone’s hotel or Union Station all provide a realism to the scenes that “could have” happened in those locations.
Another amazing thought about the film shooting in Chicago in late 1986 is the fact that there was no CGI effects available to help remove any anachronisms from the location. Through set design, camera angles and careful work, the crew was able to turn 1980s Chicago into 1930s Chicago.
Existence in the city is seen as causing a rot. The fact that so many city officials and police officers are tainted doesn’t seem to be wholly on the fact that crime is rampant. Remember, that at this time during the Great Depression, life was tough for everyone. Anyway that someone can make an extra few nickels helped. In one shot there’s a man selling fruit on the street: “Help a Vet – Buy an Apple – 5¢ – Unemployed.” Those people adept at understanding and working “the system” (of life in Chicago) are the ones that can get by. So at the beginning of the film, only Capone and Malone know how to operate within the city. Capone knows what pressure to apply and the way to fashion himself in public to create a version of himself that is both feared and respected. Malone on the other hand knows what has to be done, but he does not yet have the ability to see it through. He requires Eliot Ness as a guide, and apprentice to enact the energy of youth in order to see it through. Malone also knows that the city is rotten and to get a team in place to stop Capone, they must “go to the tree.”
In visiting the police academy, Ness and Malone start looking at George Stone. Unfortunately something seems off about the character to Malone who questions him – uncovering that his real name is Giuseppe Petri, an Italian from the southside. Malone’s Irish blood rises, provoking Stone to draw his pistol on the older officer. The ethnic barriers of 1930s Chicago threaten to tear the team apart before it’s even built. Luckily, Malone sees a fire in the young man’s eyes and decides to back down, welcoming him to the team. Having individuals from different backgrounds work out their differences shows that only by coming together as a city, can Chicago reject the cancer that Capone has infected her with.
You Carry A Badge? Carry A Gun!
The perfection of the action genre in 1980s cinema provided many elements to The Untouchables. Brian DePalma took those action moments and combined them with some of his signature suspense sequences and created a thrilling and exciting piece of cinema.
Brian DePalma’s cinematic mentor Alfred Hitchcock once said that the difference between shock and suspense of film has to do with the audience’s expectations. Put two characters having a discussion at a table and set a bomb off; that’s shock. But put the same two characters in position and show the audience the bomb; that’s suspense. The audience will know that the bomb will be going off, but are helpless to do anything – thus generating tension and suspense.
DePalma starts off the film with a big shock! The girl getting blown up by the bomb is an almost literal translation of Hitchcock’s theory. The audience realizes the consequences about 5 seconds before the bomb detonates, but that is not enough to change the shock of the action. Once these stakes are set, the majority of the film is held under a growing suspicion of what else might happen to the characters.
The first big suspense sequence involves Capone hosting a dinner meeting with members of his organization. Ness and his Untouchables have just had their first win raiding the local post office/distillery, and Capone begins walking around the table holding a baseball bat. At this point the audience is already aware that something is coming. Capone starts talking about baseball and playing as a team. It’s uncertain which one of his lieutenants will pay for the screw-up, but someone will pay, regardless. Suddenly Capone lets the bat fly into the skull of one of his men. The blood pours out of the wound, slowly growing on the table as the camera rises into the ceiling, mirroring the opening shot of the film, but in reverse. The suspense of other scenes such as the Ness returning home to his family after confronting the alderman pays off after a scene like this, which affects the rest of the film.
As mentioned above, Ness rejects the alderman’s proposal telling the shill that he’ll “see Capone in Hell!” We’ve already seen the violent and unpredictable nature of Capone, so the audience is already on edge from this proclamation. The resolution is answered in the next sequence where Nitti sees Ness outside his home. “Nice to have a family,” Nitti tells Ness. “A man should take care, see that nothin’ happens to them.” With that he drives off leaving Eliot and the audience to wonder what horrors he may find inside his home. A few short moments later, Ness realizes that this was nothing more than a warning, finding his family safe upstairs. But it makes him realize that his actions have consequences and he needs to provide safety for his family.
Probably the centerpiece sequence for heightened suspense is the “Odessa steps” sequence, named after a similar sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Russian film, Battleship Potemkin. Stone and Ness enter Union Station, looking for the bookkeeper, who is being evacuated from town. Passengers are moving through the station, as the Untouchables keep an eye out for the quarry, knowing that it will probably come down to a fight. That’s when Ness notices a young mother with her son in a baby carriage, struggling to get him up the stairs. After moments of casing the situation, Ness decides to help, but of course that’s the moment that Capone’s men with the bookkeeper enter. Now, during the shootout, not only is Ness in danger, but the mother and her child, who begins to roll down the stairs once the action begins.
This scene goes on for almost 9 minutes and 30 seconds but seems like it’s much longer, due to the editing, camerawork and soundtrack. The tension is only partially resolved at the conclusion of the scene, because even though the bookkeeper is now in the hands of the Feds, can Capone still get to him? This is what makes the story work so well. Capone has been setup as an almost omniscient character that can touch other characters lives with impunity. What can possibly stop him?
Finally, the overly bloody elements of scenes like Capone’s baseball bat scene and the murder of Malone heighten the suspense and prove that the film was not made in the time it depicts. Many older films were unable to show the levels of violence that began gracing the cinema’s in the 70s and 80s. It’s logical to assume that there was still violent acts that took place in the 30s, but audiences wouldn’t know it by watching films from those days. DePalma stepped up the graphic levels of blood and violence in The Untouchables to heighten the effect of the dire stakes that Ness finds himself in and add in additional tension and suspense.
Here Endeth The Lesson
It would be a shame and a sin to talk about The Untouchables without mentioning Ennio Morricone’s amazing score. Known primarily for his work with Sergio Leone on his ‘spaghetti Westerns,’ Morricone provides an operatic or classical motif to films that are dirty and gritty. On The Untouchables he provides a series of haunting melodies that punctuate the action or suspense as if they were another character. The strong piano and bass beat on the opening theme creates an excitement, while the haunting violin melodies on “Death Theme” heighten the suspense of those scenes.
The film also provided opportunities for a number of the cast. Sean Connery was awarded an Oscar for Best Supporting Role in what is arguably his strongest post James Bond role. His charm and humor are on great display in this role which is strongly deserving of the accolade. Andy Garcia received much attention for his role as well. Even though he had been acting for a few years, the role of George Stone was a breakthrough for him, getting him roles in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather III (1990). Finally Robert DeNiro continued to prove his flexibility as a method actor, gaining weight for his role as Al Capone. While not winning any awards for his role, his iconic portrayal of the mob boss cements this film as a cornerstone role of his career.
The Untouchables may be Brian DePalma’s best work to date, taking everything he had learned from his previous films, adding to everything he had studied, and combining them it a taut thriller. The suspense from his early works, such as Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, are just as much as an influence as Scarface was. Those early films prepared DePalma to handle the tense scenes in this film, like the bombing of the bar, or the Odessa steps sequence, while the grittiness and violence of Scarface (coincidentally, a nickname for Al Capone) allowed him to practice the type of filmmaking needed to tell the story of Capone with an actor like Robert DeNiro. As a student of cinema, DePalma utilized techniques of his own in combination with those of Eisenstein, Hitchcock, and others, to produce a truly memorable film.
The central character journey of Eliot Ness leaves the character physically unharmed but morally changed. However, the audience gets a sense that things will be alright with Ness, and that he has not been too scarred, or changed, by his experiences. At the end of the film, the reporter that has followed Ness from his first failed raid, thru the trial of Capone, tells him that Prohibition is about to be repealed and asks Ness what he will do then. The implication is about the work that Eliot Ness will do now that he has brought Capone down. Ness simply states, in the final line of dialogue in the film, “I think I’ll have a drink.”
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.