Critic's Notebook: 'The Untouchables' 30 Years Later

The Untouchables (1987) - Still -Photofest-H 2017
Paramount Pictures/Photofest

In 1987, director Brian De Palma created a blockbuster dressed up in art house finery.

When I first saw The Untouchables as a teenager, I had never heard of Sergei Eisenstein or the Odessa Steps sequence that Brian De Palma masterfully cannibalized for the film's Union Station set-piece shootout. I knew serious actors sometimes transformed their bodies for a part, but never realized — until reading that Robert De Niro wore silk boxers to help identify with Al Capone — the lengths some went with preparations the audience would never see. And I'd never heard of its screenwriter, David Mamet, whose voice I'd soon encounter in both the plays others turned into movies (Glengarry Glen Ross) and the films (The Spanish Prisoner) he crafted from scratch as writer-director.

De Palma brought these and other highbrow elements together in a movie so well paced and entertaining that a budding cinephile could watch it on a sofa with friends whose tastes barely stretched beyond action blockbusters and broad comedy. The director had been smarting-up sleazy genre pictures for years by the time he made it, and had enjoyed success with the controversially violent Scarface; but here, almost 20 years into his career, was a four-quadrant hit like (if smaller than) those made by his contemporaries Lucas, Spielberg and Coppola. In terms of mainstream appeal, the only picture he would ever make to compete with it was the first Mission: Impossible.

The Untouchables is, in some ways, unrepentantly square. Kevin Costner, that sex symbol for Earnestness Monthly readers, plays Eliot Ness as a lawman so unmoved by the adrenal thrills of crimefighting that, while riding shotgun in a truck about to smash into a bootlegger's warehouse, he actually tries to rally his men by shouting, "Let's do some good!"

But Mamet's script undercuts accusations of naive idealism by having Ness' co-workers mock that exhortation the very next day, after the raid is a bust. A cop had warned the bootleggers they were going to be targeted, leading Ness to realize he needs a small group of incorruptible men. (It would fall to a sneering, on-the-take local official to hurl "untouchable" at them, incredulously, as an epithet.)

Fortunately, he has just crossed paths with Sean Connery's aging beat cop, a seen-it-all cynic who, in the famous "the Chicago way" scene, sits Ness down in a cathedral and spells out the brutality and balls he will need if he hopes to destroy Capone's violent criminal operation. Connery's Jim Malone got things done with threats and streetfighting, and in a post-24, post-Abu Ghraib America, it's slightly less fun to enjoy his rejection of civil-rights niceties. Still, we're delighted when Malone "kills" a gangster who was already dead, scaring his unwitting confederate into revealing the secrets of Capone's coded ledgers.

Ah, Capone. Upon its release, some critics complained the film didn't reveal much about the mobster and the workings of his empire. But its focus on Capone's facade is just what's needed for a story not about the criminal but those daring to prosecute him. Aside from a memorable dinner party, at which Capone's pep talk for his lieutenants ends with one getting his head bashed in, the movie most effectively shows him as a PR genius: With the assistance of fawning journalists, who hover around him laughing at every quip, he is able to create his own myth in the town, claiming to be a nonviolent champion of the people's right to circumvent Prohibition.

The movie's re-creation of Prohibition-era Chicago seduces from start to finish, making the most of opulent existing locations and detail-oriented production design. Top-billed Giorgio Armani was nowhere near as responsible for the convincing period wardrobe as costume designer Marilyn Vance, who earned an Oscar nom for her work. But De Palma finds room for appropriate modern aesthetics as well, especially when Malone is targeted by Capone's henchmen in his home: Here, the film uses a POV stalkercam, creeping back and forth through the cop's house as the unseen assassin tries to get the drop on him. It's a suspense-building technique right out of De Palma's voyeuristic Body Double or Dressed to Kill.

Just three years after De Palma's film, the Coen brothers would make a gangster masterpiece, Miller's Crossing, that allowed the venerable genre to step away from operatics and toward a close observation of character. But in 1987, no crime movie could approach The Untouchables.