Blog Directory CineVerse: Tall tales of bygone crimes in the Windy City

Tall tales of bygone crimes in the Windy City

Monday, December 4, 2023

Helmed by Brian De Palma, with a screenplay by David Mamet, The Untouchables quickly became a hit after its theatrical debut in the summer of 1987, drawing inspiration from the real-life endeavors of Elliot Ness and other law enforcement agents who banded together to take down infamous gangster Al Capone during the violent Prohibition era in Chicago. The film, produced by Art Linson, boasts a star-studded cast featuring Kevin Costner in the role of Ness, Robert De Niro as the notorious Capone, and Sean Connery (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), Andy Garcia, and Charles Martin Smith.

This picture skillfully blends historical events (it’s more of a “based on” than an accurate retelling) with compelling storytelling, delivering an engaging narrative that vividly captures the essence of the bootleg era and the battle against organized crime.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of The Untouchables, conducted last week.

What stands out about this 36-year-old film? It’s a throwback, in many ways—a retro love letter to the gangster and social message pictures of the 1930s and 1940s primarily made by Warner Brothers, especially in how it hones in on very clear good vs. evil themes and the need to bring extreme social villains like Capone to justice. The exaggerated if not implausible action scenes and bravura moments feel very Hollywood, and DePalma’s hyperbolic stylized tendencies make for an extremely entertaining narrative with characters that are easy to root for.

Yet, DePalma has the benefit of employing graphic violence and brutality to help sell the idea to the viewer that Capone must be stopped, at all costs, by any means necessary. Interestingly, this is the rare rated-R film with no nudity or sexual scenes and little profanity. It’s DePalma’s brand of blood, gore, and carnage that pushes this into restricted territory.

The Untouchables looks astounding, benefitting from a high-production-value sheen and Stephen H. Burum's cinematography, marked by iconic scenes and the effective use of visuals to heighten tension. Indeed, The Untouchables is one of the very best retro dramas evoked visually, thanks to careful attention to authentic details like shooting on the streets of Chicago (carefully dressed to look like the Windy City of 1930), fantastic period-authentic costumes and sets, and diegetic music of the time.

The gunfight at Union Station—created by DePalma on the fly when original plans for a showdown via helicopter chase fell through due to budget constraints—is a tour de force of stylized suspense, echoing the visuals and editing of the famous Odessa steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Some argue this is DePalma’s finest moment as a director. His choice to use slow motion and extend the tension is an inspired one.

Much of this plot is pure hokum, as many of these characters and situations are fabricated or embellished. Ness didn’t kill Capone enforcer Frank Nitti, the Canadian raid is fictional, as are the gunfights at the courthouse and train station, and the real Wallace (his actual name was Wilson) wasn’t murdered. Still, although it plays loose and fast with historical events, The Untouchables satisfies as a white-knuckle action film and police thriller.

There’s an impressive array of talent attached to this project, including DePalma in the directing chair, Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet handling screenwriting duties, venerable maestro Ennio Morricone scoring the music, and heavyweights like Connery, DeNiro, and Costner in the top roles. Some critics found fault with DeNiro’s extravagant take on Capone, while others commended his approach. Per critic James Berardinelli: “This is a cartoonish interpretation – a villain so black-hearted that it's impossible to root for him. Some critics have seen this as a flaw, but it's actually an asset. Let other movies paint Capone as a complex individual. De Niro's over-the-top portrayal is perfect for this context.”

“Right vs. might,” or the legal way vs. the Chicago way, is the key to appreciating this movie’s thematic center. Ness’ character arc begins with an earnest attempt to capture Capone lawfully and legally but his methods and mindset change as he realizes, like Malone told him, that he’s got to play dirty and outside the law to succeed in a town as corrupt as Chicago. Malone’s advice? “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.”

The Untouchables also touches on the benefits of rugged individualism and a hardened heart. Much of the film’s emotional conflict concerns if and how Ness will turn to the dark side, and how his inherent virtues and beliefs will be forever compromised or surrendered. Ness and company realize that vigilantism and emotional prejudice are necessary to bring down a ruthless criminal. Ness, a sensitive character attuned to the female sensibilities of women around him like his wife, his daughter, and the grieving mother, learns the hard way that he has to adopt a more macho, insensitive attitude against Capone, with whom he is consistently contrasted in the film.

Brian Eggert with Deep Focus Review wrote: “Capone’s masculinity defines him; he’s surrounded by tough men with guns, while other men in the press admire and laugh at his jokes. Never do we see a woman by his side. By contrast, Ness is surrounded by women: his wife Catherine (Patricia Clarkson) and their young daughter, to whom he gives delicate butterfly kisses. Butterflies symbolize Ness’ femininity. When the press mocks his initial failures, they call him a “poor butterfly” and liken him to the suicidal wife in Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly—a character who waits up for her husband only to be humiliated. Ness is a man bound by his family. He endearingly remarks, “It’s nice to be married,” and smiles at the note his wife included with his lunch reading, “I’m very proud of you.” But Ness is too close to the wholesome family ideology he’s trying to preserve. Capone sees Ness’ weakness and uses his slimy hitman Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) to issue a veiled threat to Ness’ family. Ness knows he must send away his wife and daughter—a pointedly feminine and therefore vulnerable family in these very classicized terms—to focus his energies on Capone.”

Ness’ line, “You tell Capone that I’ll see him in hell,” spoken before he kills Nitti, suggests that Ness has crossed over the threshold into lawless vigilantism and is morally damned for compromising his principles; yet, by the end of the film, he appears satisfied that justice was served and, we can assume, like Malone said, “Well, then, you've done your job. Go home and sleep well tonight.”

Additionally, this is a work that reminds us not to underestimate the underdog. Wallace proves he’s more heroic than the nerdy pencil pusher he appears to be; a lowly beat cop demonstrates that he’s the most savvy at strategizing Capone’s downfall; the short-statured and soft-spoken Stone is the most reliable and resourceful in a showdown; and Ness, despite the odds stacked against him and his inability to trust anyone besides his small team, cleverly outlasts Capone in the end, enjoying the satisfaction of telling Capone to his face: ““Never stop fighting till the fight is done!”

Similar works

  • Gangster pictures of the 1930s, including The Roaring Twenties, Public Enemy, and Scarface
  • Battleship Potemkin
  • Sabotage by Hitchcock
  • Modern retro gangster films like Public Enemies, Gangster Squad, Gangster Land, and Mobsters
  • The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen
  • Serpico
  • The King of New York
  • Once Upon a Time in America and Once Upon a Time in the West by Leone

Other films by Brian DePalma

  • Carrie
  • Dressed to Kill
  • Blow Out
  • Scarface
  • Body Double
  • Mission: Impossible

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