“I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right.”
No matter how straightforward a movie Brian dePalma makes, they all get trickier the closer you look at them. David Mamet’s screenplay for The Untouchables places it squarely in what Michael Rogin called the “countersubversive tradition” of American culture and politics: the lawmen who have to adapt the tactics of the enemy to defeat the enemy, who do the bad for the greater good. (The greater good.) In Prohibition Chicago, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) journeys from uptight Fed to flat-out killer under the guidance of veteran cop Malone (Sean Connery, who scored an Oscar for this even if Sick boy sez “that means fuck all. The sympathy vote”) to bring down Al Capone (Robert deNiro); as in his screenplays for Hoffa and Phil Spector, Mamet pretty much ignores any actual history here in favor of a tightly constructed moral drama. That morality has resulted in some powerful fiction (The Shield, the police dramas of Sidney Lumet, approximately half of Clint Eastwood’s catalogue) and some ugly history, right down to literal present day. The Untouchables isn’t in the first rank, because Mamet never takes his characters to any kind of limit. Good and evil are clearly drawn and defined here, and they stay that way; Costner’s performance is serviceable but he never gives the sense of any conflict within Ness over what he does. His performance makes the most sense if you see it as the prelude to what he does in No Way Out, released a few months after this.
What’s fascinating about this is what dePalma does with it. What’s so disorienting about The Untouchables is how he films this lean, dirty story so lushly, even classically. The pacing here is stately, never frenetic, with slow builds to explosions of violence: his camera roves over every detail of Malone’s apartment and tracks through every room before the payoff; he slows down time all through the stunning scene in Union Station, building the tension towards a shootout that takes places entirely in slow motion and finishes up with two of the greatest moments of ownage in cinema history. (The reference to the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin is cool. That this is one of the rare cinematic shootouts where the finite capacity of guns matters is way cooler.) dePalma uses Chicago’s architecture as well as another great film in the countersubversive tradition from twenty years later, The Dark Knight. Ennio Morricone’s orchestrations are big and Romantic (compare them to the much sparer work he did in The Mission for a good contrast) and if everyone looks like they dressed in Armani, that’s because they did. Imagine Dirty Harry presented as an opera with everyone arriving in their finest eveningwear and you get a sense of the tonal dissonance here. Like so much of dePalma’s catalogue, beyond any question of good or bad, no one else could have done it.
The Untouchables streams free on Amazon Prime.