De Palma’s ‘Untouchables’

Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” (1987) opens with an aerial shot of Italian American mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro) in a hotel room barber chair; media personnel form a half circle around him, ferociously scribbling in their notebooks as Capone feeds them soundbites. Capone certainly looks and sounds presidential; he’s in an ornate rotunda which makes you think of the oval office. He’s the king of the Chicago booze dynasty, blatently defying Prohibition laws while evading the feds.

In contrast, newly appointed U.S. Treasury Department agent Eliot Ness (a young Kevin Costner) is introduced quietly. The camera steadily pans out from the date on the wall (September 15, 1930) to a woman (Patricia Clarkson) packing lunch in the kitchen for her husband. As the camera turns down the hallway, we see the back of a man, sipping coffee while reading the paper. There’s little fanfare. Just a wife’s loving touch as she wishes him good luck on his first day of work.

The excellent camerawork (filmed by award-winning cinematographer Stephen H. Burum; edited by Jerry Greenberg and Bill Pankow; and directed by De Palma) is one of the reasons “The Untouchables” is a worthwhile study.

Another, is its moment in history. The story is based on Ness’ memoir, co-written by sports reporter Oscar Fraley. Ness and his secretive team of “untouchables” are known for bringing down Capone. Accompanying Ness include Irish beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), Agent Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) and rookie recruit Agent George Stone (Andy Garcia).

The real star, is the camera, who becomes another character. De Palma crafts many memorable scenes, teasing us with long one-take shots full of slow weaves and pans. In one such scene, we’re outside the home of a police officer, looking through the eyes of his would-be killer. The subjective camera lens shows the officer’s through a second story window, panning over brick walls. We see the killer’s hands on the window and door, as he creeps in. It looks like a scene from a first-person shooter game.

That’s not the only gimmick De Palma employs. He borrows western themes. Ness is the cowboy sheriff who rides into the seedy streets of Chicago, charged with avenging the children and women lost to the Prohibition war (Costner even somewhat resembles Alan Ladd’s “Shane” with the fedora doubling as a cowboy hat).

Alan Ladd (left) and Kevin Costner (right)

Alan Ladd (left) and Kevin Costner (right)

In one scene, we see a long sweeping shot of mountains panning to men on horseback. De Palma even incorporates a horse chase and shoot out (the Western saloon’s replaced by the public steps outside Chicago’s Union Station).

While De Palma certainly embellishes real-life events, “The Untouchables” is unforgettable. It’s not just the blood and gore and violence that you can’t get out of our head. It’s how De Palma painstakingly sets up the scenes (written by playwright David Mamet) before knocking everything down like a game a dominos.

“The Untouchables” is directed by Brian De Palma and written by playwright David Mamet, based on Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley’s book. 

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