I was a Brian De Palma fan before it was cool. No, wait, that can’t be right. I’m not that old. I was Brian De Palma fan in the long dry spells between his hits. And also in the twilight of his career. I was a fan right up until Redacted and his anti-American tirades got the spotlight during the second Iraq war.
Sort of a shame, since he could really use some fans about now, I’d guess. (And if you think he’s bad off, Joe Dante is in the same category for me, and it’s never been cool to like him.)
Is it possible to digress before you’ve even started on a path?
I should start doing ninja reviews, where I divert your attention and then bam! before you know it, you’ve gotten my take on things without even knowing it.
Anyway, in a career spanning some forty years, and ranging from films as diverse as Bonfire of the Vanities to Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables is undoubtedly De Palma’s greatest film. (Some people will say his best film is Scarface. Those people are all cocaine addicts.)
The Untouchables is the story of Eliot Ness and his squad of soldiers dedicated to defeating the bootlegging gangsters who owned Chicago from judges down to beat cops.
You have to set your libertarian impulses to sleep, otherwise you get embroiled in the whole “Wait, prohibition is really stupid, and this is a good illustration of why.” And for all De Palma’s love of moral ambiguity in other contexts, The Untouchables is a pure story of good versus evil, which actually fits in really well with his style of cinematography.
He’d retired the split-screen trick, which is good, I think—I don’t think audiences focus well on two things at once. (Though he did bring it back again later for one of his ‘90s movies, I think. Snake Eyes or something.) One of his other characteristic shots, where he’s got a person in the foreground and one far in the background, but both are in sharp focus, is used sparingly.
Mainly, though, he’d internalized a lot of the lessons he’d learned from aping Hitchcock over the past 15 years, and gives us well integrated suspense scenes. The final set piece both hearkens to Hitch, and the Battleship Potemkin and even The Wild Bunch.
Ennio Morricone’s lurid score recalls the TV series’ theme at points, with heaping helpings of trumpet-muted wah-wahs for the bad guy, and a good guy theme that would not have been out of place in Star Wars.
Have the actors ever been better? Kevin Costner as the good-hearted Ness. Charles Martin Smith as the nebbishy accountant who develops a love for busting heads. Andy Garcia? Well, he’s probably been better, but maybe never prettier. And Sean Connery as the Irish beat cop with a Scottish accent in what is probably his most iconic role outside of Bond. De Niro at his most evil. Patricia Clarkson at her most wholesome—even with her limited screen time, she radiates perfect wife and mother.
Billy Drago in the role he’d end up playing for the rest of his life. Though, in fairness, he was playing that role prior to that point. (I imagine that’s how he got the job.)
But when you think about it, De Palma has never had trouble getting good performances from his actors, even in challenging conditions. Style is something he oozes. So why is this a great movie, and not a jumbled mess?
I put the blame squarely on David Mamet. The visuals, the music, the action is all great, but it’s all held together with a script that is worthy of the struggle between good and evil. It’s not exactly Wizard of Oz as far as permeation into the culture, but can you go a day without hearing someone talk about “they pull a knife, you pull a gun”?
So, while the libertarian in me can’t help but notice that the situation is entirely the result of government meddling, the inevitable corruption that occurs when you try to outlaw vices, and a shocking abuse of police power that was ultimately unsuccessful, the moviegoer in me easily chokes the libertarian on popcorn and waterboards him with a 52 ounce cherry cola (unlimited refills!).
I’m saying it’s a good, even great movie. One of The Boy’s favorites. This was The Flower’s first time seeing it, and she enjoyed it a lot, though it is a guy movie.
Check it out.