ALWAYS KEEPING AN EYE ON HOLLYWOOD!!!

Monday, November 7, 2011

JER'S TURN: FILM RECOMMEDATION OF THE WEEK- THE UNTOUCHABLES


JER: June 3, 1987… continued impressions and enthusiasm for better cinema was a thriving hunger that could never be satisfied. Graduation from high school was days away and a dream to direct film was still a nervous wish. Movie trailers and opening film dates in theaters acted- out like the night before Christmas… I waited impatiently for the opening of new films and weekends were planned by showtimes. Love and continued respect for a long list of directors kept growing and growing. Every day was another opportunity to learn more from the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Kubrick, Scott and Brian DePalma.

Director Brian DePalma
Brian DePalma had already established himself as a recognized director, although, some would argue if he has the respect that he deserves. With earlier films like CARRIE, DRESSED TO KILL and BLOW OUT… his filmography was criticized for reading like a list of over- produced B- movies mixed with cliché Alfred Hitchcock storylines and suspense ploys. This opinion was of some but not of mine. He would begin to mature as a film director when he surprised audiences and critics alike with his attempt to try something that would take him to the next level of his craft…the year was 1983, the film was SCARFACE! Starring A- Listers Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer and written by Oliver Stone, DePalma would take a gamble in the re-telling of the original Howard Hawks 1932 mob film by updating the storyline to 1980 Florida and involve the Cuban deployment of refugees into America. Oh yeah… let’s not forget the excessive use of drugs, violence and language to boot!

Fast forward to June 3, 1987: audiences and critics would waiting for DePalma’s next big film… could lightning strike twice? How about “yes” for an answer and how about a bigger lightning storm than the last. The date in question would release THE UNTOUCHABLES.
The original 1987 trailer


Martin Smith, Kostner, Connery & Garcia
STORY SYNOPSIS: It is 1920’s prohibition Chicago and Al Capone (Robert DeNiro) controls the streets. At the same time, newly promoted Federal agent to the Treasury department Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is assembling a group of men who will not take a bribe, thus ‘untouchable” to slipping onto the wrong side of the law. Learning that he cannot trust his own department, Ness takes it upon himself to outside the available pool of men and begins to build his own personal force. Along the way, he gathers a rookie officer fresh out of the Academy (Andy Garcia) and an accountant (Charles Martin Smith) while under the mentoring ‘streetwise’ expertise of an old beat cop that walks the streets of Chicago (Sean Connery). As the agents are hot on the heals of Capone, there are back- stabbers and crooked politicians doing everything to sidetrack the ‘good’ being down by the new squad.

Robert DeNiro as Al Capone
CHARACTER OVERVIEW: The overall take of the film’s feel is that no one is safe! That rule is established early in the film when a child is a murdered victim in a bar’s establishment bombing caused simply for not wanting to partake in Capone’s liquor vending. The bad guys are ruthless and Capone is an unstoppable force. He has two sides to himself: he has that ability to coyly smug for the reporters and act as if he is the Mayor of Chicago. He has a dry delivery in his humor with a rough Brooklyn accent… reminding all what streets he calls home. The flip side emulates the true businessman he has used to abandon the slums of New York with. He will claim what he wants and take anything he pleases and puts the price he wants on the things you buy from him. DeNiro’s portrayal of Al Capone is brilliant. DePalma actually teases us with Capone, using a ‘less is more’ technique by only allowing the audience brief encounters of his screen time. His presence is known and felt as a sort of puppetmaster that controls his henchmen to do his dirty deeds. He would never dare allow his hands to get dirty when someone else can do it for you! His appearance is stocky, as DeNiro gained weight for the role. He is a prime example of a Chicago mob boss. He has the cigar dangling off the side of his mouth, the pushy talk and the relentless attitude that he will prevail.

Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness
The film’s “untouchables” are ones to root for. A sense of ignorant innocence establishes Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Ness from the beginning. He is a devoted husband and father who just wants to be proud of what he does. His idea of justice is by the book and becomes a task much greater than expected. He is given the disposal of Chicago’s police force to aid in his first attempt at cleaning the streets based off an alleged reliable tip. When the raid becomes an embarrassing failure, Ness takes it as a lesson to learn from. Instead of crawling back from his shame, Ness cuts out the newspaper clipping and posts it on his office corkboard… serving as a harsh reminder that he will do right the next time. Costner may play Ness with a sense of blandness, compared to his previous bit as the two- gunned 'loose cannon' role of Jake in SILVERADO (1985). But I believe that adds a level of innocence... we do see Ness grow from unaware to insightful throughout the course of the film.

(left) Sean Connery as Jimmy Malone
Riddled by his failures, an unexpected run- in with Officer Malone (Connery) sets him right and informs Ness that he must literally fight fire with fire and possibly break certain rules to uphold the rules he was sworn to protect! The audience gets to see a different man grow from the changes in his life beginning with minor victories favoring his unit. Ness grows darker still as he is challenged and his work becomes more personal… threats against his family’s safety and the mortality of his men are tested. No longer can he be so squeaky clean… he almost needs to think with a criminal mind in order to survive the concrete jungles created by Capone. The rules have changed!

The Untouchables aided by the Canadian Mounties
TECHNICAL ASPECTS: Cinematographer Stephen Burum would have a career history with director Brian DePalma. Previous to UNTOUCHABLES, Burum would lens the cameras for BODY DOUBLE (1984) and then do future work with films CASULATIES OF WAR (1989), RAISING CAIN (1992), CARLITO’S WAY (1993), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996), SNAKE EYES (1998) and MISSION TO MARS (2000). Many wonderful photographic opportunities were bestowed in shooting this film. The film opens with a wonderful overhead shot of Capone sitting in a chair having a shave while a few men of the press ask questions. Other views begin with capturing the streets of Chicago: daylight shots are very crisp and colors are vibrant and sharp. Nighttime brings a casting- over of blue lighting against outside walls and streets. Towards the middle of the film, we are introduced to a sequence occurring at the borders of Canada: DePalma calls UNTOUCHABLES a western, not an action film. The scenes definitely defines the director’s views as we open with a great crane shot of the Canadian hills on a wide- open plain. A pan upwards reveals the men and the Mounties on horseback overseeing the bordering bridges that Capone’s men must pass with the smuggled liquor. A gorgeous opportunity is presented in the cinematography within these scenes. However, nothing can top two great moments caught on film.
Frank Nitti rides with George and Agent Wallace
One has accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) escorting captured henchman George with an accompanied police officer… turns out it’s Capone’s right-hand executor Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) in disguise as the elevator doors close, already guessing the fate of the two unsuspecting men. Walking into the scene with great timing is both Ness and Malone walking up the hallways discussing the birth of Ness’ son. The camera shot is one continuous scene showing the men entering the elevators and then panning over to the others coming up the hall without an edit to another scene for quite some time… capturing a continued sense of tension and growing concern for the innocent.

The second is what I personally consider to be one of the best sequences ever shot on film involving a continually growing intense moment occurring within the Union Station towards the latter half of the film. The set piece is actually pays homage to the Odessa Steps sequence in the silent classic BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925). Capone’s accountant is accompanied by an entourage of henchmen taking a train to safety away from the law… however, a tipped- off Ness and fellow cop George Stone (Andy Garcia) are already there. Also at the station are a cavalcade of people arriving and leaving including a few sailors and a single mother carrying her luggage in one hand and pushing a baby’s carriage up the long flight of stairs. Timing is literally everything as Ness, Stone, the accountant, the henchmen, a few sailors and our unsuspecting mother are all caught in a heart-pounding, slow- motion sequence of peril and suspense as shots are fired in all directions: ever- guessing where the next bullet will land! Again, fine work brought forth by Burum: classic and contemporary at the same time, if that makes any sense at all!
The Union Station shoot-out!

Composer Ennio Morricone
Another key ingredient to the film is the Academy Award nominated soundtrack written and conducted by Ennio Morricone. Even though he didn’t win Best Original Score in 1987 for THE UNTOUCHABLES, Morricone received an Honorary Academy Award in recognition or his contributions to the art of music in film. His soundtracks include memorable scores including A FIST FULL OF DOLLARS (1964), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966), ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968), LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (1978), THE THING (1982), CINEMA PARADISO (1988) and BUGSY (1991) just to name a select few. A man able to construct music using smaller orchestrations, THE UNTOUCHABLES proved to be an achievement in music using a larger, more expanded orchestra utilizing more classic instruments including woodwinds and strings to more contemporary devices such as a well devised drum machine for the film’s introduction theme. As has been the key instrument in more classical “spaghetti westerns” scored for Sergio Leone films, Morricone has a revisiting harmonica manifesting throughout the entire film’s score. A sad and low playing harmonica, similar to the occurring notes used in the theme for Charles Bronson’s character in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. The orchestra is best utilized in a wonderful, stand-up-and-cheer musical piece used in the introduction of the Canadian sequence and again the closing theme of the film.
The piece can be heard accompanying the following scene!

Overall, the film is a masterfully designed contemporary classic that should not be taken for historical accuracies, as it is solely based on Ness’ memoirs while pursuing Capone.

A definite highlight in what was an already marvelous film career for director Brian DePalma proving that his talents would not be pigeon- held into the gems of his thriller/ suspense films that he best be remembered for.

JOHNNY CHAZZ: 1987 was an intriguing year for movies including the likes of "The Last Emperor", "Moonstruck", the underrated yet wonderful "Au evoir Les Enfants" from France "Babette's Feast", "Full Metal Jacket" and of course...."The Untouchables", a film we are discussing this week.

From the outset of the film ("The Untouchables"), audiences are confronted with a mob situation in Chicago primarily due to the effects of prohibition sparking organized crime and prostitution activity not just in Chi-town, but Nation-wide. Meanwhile, Chicago police were turning a blind eye to these irregular and questionable activities. Still, this was the method for the mob to build their new empire. 

 
It is perhaps the plot of the film and the narrative that primarily drives us that keeps our interest complemented with an honest and pertinent musical score that heightens at every climactic moment of the film. The train station shoot-out scene probably stands out as a real highlight in the film as far as action, suspense and score are concerned. Thus, these elements in conjunction are what make "The Untouchables" work on at least some level as a crime / mob / dramatic film. 
Costner with DePalma
It's not "The Godfather" or "Once Upon a Time In America" nor even "Casino" or "Scarface", but perhaps this film is on par with the likes of "Donnie Brasco" or "Goodfellas" (a film I always considered to be vastly overrated). Still, DePalma's style is apparent in "The Untouchables" as he once again faces dark themes head-on and as Jer said - it was a "definite highlight" in a tremendous career for the director. Perhaps that is what DePalma has always done so well - give the audience a contrast between the sweet life and the violent aspects of the mob / gangster world. His films are a play on juxtapositions in theme, sound, color, costume (the gangster's Armani suits), sets (the red carpets and lush interiors) and more - and in some ways, it works.

It's become a bit of a cliché, but you really can't go wrong with DeNiro in a film unless of course you try to "Analyze this and that....." - Ok, bad humor there. Still, the truth surfaces in jest. Infamous gangster and Chicago boss Al Capone is played by Robert DeNiro who oversees the operations and dealings of the speakeasies, the bars, the backroom casino gambling, and the prostitution. You stand in his way and it is really quite simple - you get gunned down on the spot.


There are concerns with the film however. Kevin Costner seems to receive a strong reputation for everything he does and in the majority of his films he seems to offer a lackluster and robotic / passionless performance. Sean Connery was a plus however and Andy Garcia also lent solid support to the casting.
Capone gets a shave in the opening scene
Hollywood and DePalma pretty much changed history here. The true facts of what Al Capone was all about and the world around him were skewed in "The Untouchables". Capone always boasted ‘I own the Police’ and the film needed to play more off of that philosophy. He was the real and true ‘Scarface’ of his time and very few of the characters in the films really felt like true "racketeers" to me. Another shortcoming of the movie is that Al Capone and his associates really only play a relatively minor role in the film and for some reason Hollywood and DePalma only choose to focus on the four law enforcement men - and frankly speaking, that is boring. Capone's role was, in essence - underdeveloped in the film and that is a crying shame.


The screenplay also has issues of its own. It seemed dummied down for audiences thru and thru and compared to the likes of "Casino" or "Once Upon A Time In America" and "The Godfather" it simply falls short.

Television's THE UNTOUCHABLES
In sum, "The Untouchables" is watchable, but only classifies as a decent mob film. For those who really understand mob history (I do classify myself in that realm) - the original television series "The Untouchables" in 1959-1963 on ABC was so much more realistic and impressive. It was the Great Depression that was focused on and what anyone would do to sell, cheat and lie their way through it.


The vast majority of movie lovers and even some critics feel that this is DePalma's masterpiece in comparison to the likes of "Scarface" and perhaps "Body Double". So I am going to nutshell this for our readers and see what their take is: "The Untouchables" was nice for the time period, but the 80's really had little to offer in the way of outstanding films. As a mob film, it is marginal - and the only parts that really stand out to me are, well - once again, the score and the sets / costume design. It seems as if it had been years since Hollywood had seen a mob-film and especially a period piece that surfaced during the 80's when films were primarily focused on the sci-fi and action genre. It is the harsh truth, but some of us film critics could easily have disposed of the 80's all-together and nothing would go amiss.

'Hey, JC: you're alotta talk and a badge!'
It is not a stretch to say that many of us could list at least five (5) or six (6) gangster / mob films before "The Untouchables" was even up for discussion. This is not a powerhouse film, and there are holes in specific point of the film - primarily in the dialogue, periodic dull performances, and an account of the life of Al Capone that was created by Hollywood for Hollywood. Where is the passion? Where is the sensuality and focus of the film? Al Capone's final words in the final scene are quoted as: "You're nothing but a lot of talk, and a badge." Perhaps that is the way I view the "The Untouchables" as a film - a lot of talk, and no chalk. There is little merit here, and in now way can it be included with the likes of the great mob and gangster films that have spoiled audiences over the years. "The Untouchables" simply does not measure up to what we have seen before 1987 and after. *** PICTURE POINTS: 6.5/10.

JER: I am a bit, no, overly surprised with your take on this film.  Not only did you take an upper jab on what is an absolute favorite film of mine but you also kicked me in the groan with your comment about the films of the 80’s in general!
 
Screenwriter David Mamet
To begin with, I think you are understating this film by large degrees. I do not understand what is meant by the comment of “dummied down” ...meaning that the audience could only comprehend a film of this caliber by having the author (in this case Playwright virtuoso David Mamet) keep the language to a lower- grade so that general audiences could get the dialog and make it easy to follow? I think it was a smartly written screenplay and the dialog plays very realistically with its protagonists and antagonists alike. The words may seem a little ‘operatic’ or play- like but I think that it works for the era that our story takes place. Human language and tones used to communicate change at almost every decade and we most definitely speak and communicate far differently then they did in Chicago back in the 1920’s!

I think that THE UNTOUCHABLES plays fairly to what the film is supposed to be portraying…after all, the title is a reference to the men who cannot be bribed and after Capone and likes of…it isn’t titled CAPONE or MOB BOSS. We cannot expect the film to be taken- over by the baddies as it focuses on the good being done and the temptations along the way. I think director DePalma played the appearance of DeNiro’s role carefully by not overdoing it and showing too much. The timing was right and should be left alone, not a minute more!

Andy Garcia as George Stone
Could it be very Hollywood to take the story of actual events and make it more than what it really is and take liberties in its storytelling? Yes… alright, I will give you that. It tells, however, the tale well and the ‘spirit’ of the thrill and the pursuit is never exhausted…rather heightened to give an audience more to feel and be a part of. Is exaggerating or embellishing the truth a necessary evil to draw audiences into the scope or feel of things to make them truly understand the plights of true events? When is it considered a line drawn or crossed… meaning, too much is simply too much? In the case of THE UNTOUCHABLES, although historical, it isn’t a historical recounting that all Americans know like the first man on the moon or the assassination of JFK.

Shot as seen: Chicago!
Going back to the fact that it was made in the 80’s (1987 be to exact) doesn’t phase the film negatively for me. I couldn’t or wish for it to have been made 10 years earlier or later… it was made prior to the days of the dreaded CGI, meaning, the film was shot on location throughout the greater areas of Chicago for authenticity. DePalma was on the top of his game and was ready for this! He proved to be a wise and perfect director for this project. It has been known that DePalma understands his limits. He actually passed- on the project of TAXI DRIVER to Martin Scorsese simply because he felt he was the better director for the project. That shows much integrity as far as I am concerned.

JC, once again, I feel that you are in the minority on this one. What are you honestly expecting? Bare in mind that you have often times expect too much and I am wondering if that isn’t the case again with the topic at hand. The talk is talked and the walk was definitely walked! Taking a quote from Connery’s Malone character, “So endith the lesson."

JOHNNY CHAZZ: Let's remember that it is the "film" that I am concerned with and upper jabs and groin kicks are certainly not intentions of mine. I think your comment about Hollywood taking liberties with the storytelling is just a part of the whole concern with this movie. True, a film like "Casino" was 90% accurate (and maybe more) and that was what gave it such merit and value - and you will probably find that there are more "Casino" lovers out there in the film world than "Untouchables" fans.

Now, this is not a battle between "Casino" and "Untouchables", but I do expect (taking a look at your last paragraph) a better script, a primary focus on the mobsters themselves (not the agents) and a historical account that is true and, for the most part - accurate. It also seems as if DePalma is more concerned about who is starring in his film and giving them ultra-camera time instead of focusing on the real story at hand - that disturbs me and detracts from my interest in the film.

 

Additionally, it is not the fact that "The Untouchables" was made in the 1980's that lessened the rating of the movie for me. It is simply the idea that we have seen far superior mob-genre films prior to this and even after this time period. This is the case for most of the films in the 1980's and to prove the point, simply one look at AFI's top 100 films of all time (not that we should consider that gospel....but it is a strong reference) it is hard to find any film in the 80's in the upper-half of that list as most films fall in the 1940's-1970's. This does not even include foreign films which would likely topple this list by a landslide.

As for DePalma passing on the "Taxi Driver" project, well - let's be thankful for that or the film would have probably been set in Chicago and casted Sissy Spacek in the role of Iris (Jody Foster's role).....mercy.


Director Brian DePalma
Was DePalma really that strong as a director? If so, what was his true message? I'm still not sure. Since 1993 we have seen nothing from this director ("Black Dahlia" and "Redacted") were both a disaster and a complete embarrassment and some of his films from prior decades were also forgetful - "Get to Know Your Rabbit?"; "Mission to Mars?"; "Bonfire of the Vanities?", "Casualties of War?" - Yikes. I could probably name 10 films on this director's list that could never make the cut. That is a miserable track record.

Maybe "Scarface", "Blow Out" and "The Untouchables" were his best work, but if that is all that we see in a career from this director, we can look elsewhere - and well, I do. None of these films were really outstanding and each would be lucky to surpass a 7/10 rating on my list.

Yes, I am critical - and that is done for the sole purpose of our fans who consider themselves both shrewd and discriminating (used in the proper sense of course). They deserve to know the good, the bad and the ugly. Still, I strongly believe that the value of what we offer here in Cinema: Counterpoint is two (2) perspectives that both make valid points in respect to "The Untouchables". So now, I guess we leave it to our readers to see what their thoughts are regarding this week's topic: "The Untouchables" (1987).


JER: To cap this off… if Director DePalma’s concern was “on- screen” time for his actors, then half the film would have been about Robert DeNiro and the other half about Sean Connery, since they were the two biggest names in the film. Connery is a supporting character as well as DeNiro.
Watch a memorable DeNiro moment as Capone

I also think it was a low- blow to bring up the ‘disastrous’ films DePalma has directed. The topic at hand is THE UNTOUCHABLES and nothing more. If so be the case, I would say that every film director has had a ‘miss’ or ‘disaster’…some more than others. Some will argue that Brian DePalma is more of a director than you are giving him credit for and I may decide to pay my respects to him and his works on CINEMA: COUNTERPOINT some day soon. I cannot wait to see what that will stir up!

Until our “Thrilla In Manila” arrives, I will say that we always have a high respect for our individual comments and we know we can duke it out right here! We definitely look forward to your comments and thoughts… what do you think? Please chime in! Keep it locked- in when JOHNNY CHAZZ takes a turn on the cinema speedway..as always, we will SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!

Have you visited the official CINEMA: COUNTERPOINT page on YOUTUBE? Check out classic and contemporary trailers, scenes and other great trips down memory lane! Just click the link and check out the "Favorites" on our site! Enjoy!


6 comments:

  1. Hi Cinema Counterpoint: I do agree that the 'Untouchables' was a pretty good film for the time but as JC said, there have been so many more mob and gangsters type of movies that have proven superior to this one. As for Depalma as a director, some of his movies were ok, and maybe Untouchables and Scarface were his best work but alot of his other stuff was pretty much average and forgetful. Thanks! Chris @ Corvallis, Oregon.

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  2. THE UNTOUCHABLES. A STRONG CAST, A GREAT STORY AND VERY WELL DIRECTED. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN ONE OF MY FAVORITE MOVIES.CONNERY'S PERFORMANCE WAS ALSO EXCEPTIONAL AND THE MOVIE REALLY KEEPS THE AUDIENCE ON EDGE. (DENNIS - MICHIGAN)

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  3. Hmmm...think i will be with Johnny on this one, while a great film, and one I enjoy a great deal, its not on my fave raves list. Kevin Costner just isnt one of my favorites. I can only think of two movies I have enjoyed him in.

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  4. WOW! Got some some great comments and replies...thank you all!

    Dennis- I will totally agree with you on this one! One of my favs indeed!

    Chris- greatly appreciate your honesty and thank you for sharing. I (Jer) happen to consider DePalma one of my favorite directors but I will always accept someone else's opinion :)

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  5. There are so many gangster-like mob movies over the years that I have liked. I remember the first one I ever watched was the UNTOUCHABLES whcih I thought was really entertaining and cool. I still think movies liked GODFATHER, GOODFELLAS and CASINO are the best though. My friends also really like RESERVOIR DOGS and SCARFACE.

    @ Keesha - Ewa, HI.

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  6. Aloha Keesha and thank you for sharing...

    It looks to me as if UNTOUCHABLES is getting some love afterall!

    Wow, some great films mentioned on your end including RESERVOIR DOGS! Hmmm...maybe a little love needs to be thrown towards Tarantino...future blog topic, maybe?

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