Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Chicago Way

In 1987, I was metaphorically kicked in the ass by Brian De Palma's film The Untouchables. I don't think any other film had affected me quite in the same way, at least not then. I would have been 11 or 12 when the film came out. I remember being awestruck months previously by the trailer (I specifically remember being jazzed by the shot of what would turn out to be Frank Nitti, played by Billy Drago, being launched off the roof), and though I don't remember specifically, I'm betting I saw the film on opening day, or at least opening weekend.
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I knew the film was about Al Capone and his downfall, brought about by intrepid Treasury officer Eliot Ness. My dad having been an FBI agent, I was already fascinated by stories of gangsters and G-Men (or T-Men, in this case). Being a dumbass kid, I was resistent to old movies, but this one would cater to my interests while being in color and rated R! So I got to see the film with assorted brothers and parents, and The Untouchables instantly became, and remained for some time, My Favorite Movie Ever. I was so absorbed by this story of good cops fighting corruption in their own ranks and massively powerful gangsters that on subsequent viewings (on VHS, rented from Errol's, until I was able to get my own copy) that I found myself really paying attention to the credits. Not just the big name actors (Robert De Niro and Sean Connery), or Kevin Costner (who wasn't a big name at the time, but he was the star, after all) but also Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith, Drago, Jack Kehoe and Patricia Clarkson. And not just them, but Brian De Palma, the director. And David Mamet, the writer. And Ennio Morricone, the composer (the only other composer I really knew back then would have been John Williams). And Patrizia von Brandenstein, the costume designer. There was an Untouchables magazine published to coincide with the film's release -- one of those one-issue magazines that is all about one film, and which were pretty common in the 1980s, but which I don't think really exist anymore -- and after I'd read the shit out of it, I cut it to shreds and plastered my room with the cut-out pictures.
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All of this because I'd never experienced anything like De Palma's film. It was so big and soaring, it gave me every little thing I asked of it (except boobs, which I'm sure I was holding out hope for, despite the essential absence of any women in the film -- how ironic that De Palma, of all people, couldn't see his way to granting me that one last wish). The violence was brutal, the blood strangely purple, and the dialogue was tough, idiosyncratic and completely wonderful.
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But why should I, though?

Did he sound anything like that!?

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, and that's how you get Capone.

You got 'im?
Yeah, I got 'im.

Somebody steals from me, I'm gonna say you stole. Not talk to him for spitting on the sidewalk.

What the hell. You gotta die of somethin'.

And so on. Speaking of dying of something, I cried hard when I first saw this movie. When Oscar (Charles Martin Smith) dies, and Morricone's beautifully sad piece (on the whole, I'd say this score is one of Morricone's most underrated -- it's really amazing) begins as the camera pans across the elevator to reveal that Nitti has written the word "Touchable" in Oscar's blood, I broke down. Yeah, and so what of it? Similarly, when Malone (Sean Connery) chases the goon out of his apartment, only to find himself staring down the barrel of Nitti's Tommy gun, everything inside me deflated, because I knew there was no way out for him at that point, and there wasn't, because Nitti hit the trigger and tore poor Jimmy Malone to pieces. But that son of a bitch Nitti got his, when Ness snapped and chucked his miserable ass off the roof of the courthouse.
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(As an aside, when Sean Connery won the Oscar for his portrayal of Jimmy Malone, a lot of people chalked it up as a career award for an old guy who might not get another shot with the Academy. All of which might well be true, but it also ignores the fact that Connery is really damn good in the film.)

The film made me giddy. My pre-teen self was as exhilerated by The Untouchables as my current self was by Inglourious Basterds, and for many of the same reasons (given the influence De Palma has had on Tarantino, this probably isn't surprising). The Untouchables cut right to the heart of what I wanted to see in a film about Eliot Ness and Al Capone, and it did so without ever having to ask me. I wanted the good guys to get the crap beat out of them, because their job was near impossible, but then to rise up and defeat evil -- not just defeat it, but humble it, and do both completely and without ambiguity. When I first saw the film, I had no idea how accurate the film was to the history of Ness and Capone, and while I would go on to find out (partly by reading Ness's book, also called The Untouchables, and also not entirely true) that the answer was "Almost entirely inaccurate", I wasn't bothered by that, because I must have sensed, without having the words to articulate it, that the history didn't matter so much in this film. What mattered was the myth, and whether or not that myth was well told.

Then, as often happens, the years went by, and I cooled on The Untouchables a little bit. I read a piece by David Mamet -- who would go on from The Untouchables to become one of my favorite writers, and congratulations to him for that! -- in which he said that he was told by Art Linson and De Palma that certain changes would have to be made to his script, and that if he refused to make them, they would be made without him, and the job would be done poorly. This implies that Mamet did make the changes, but he doesn't say what those changes were. If I had to guess, I'd say that one of them was the laughable scene near the end, where the corrupt judge presiding over Capone's case tells the bailiff to switch juries with another case down the hall. That's taking the myth a little bit too far, I think, and really hurts the film. It's one of the big, crowd-pleasing scenes, and to any half-intelligent adult it plays as utterly phony. It also plays, now, to someone who has read a bit on the making of the film, as a quick fix. I feel like at some point the courtroom scene had some other climactic moment, something that De Palma didn't believe lived up to the high drama of the rest of the film, and he needed something big, and he needed it fast. De Palma wanted to play the myth to the absolute hilt, and for great stretches he pulls it off, but not here.
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The main reason I've cooled a bit on The Untouchables, however, is that I've simply seen a whole lot more films now. I have a better handle on what I think is great, and what I think is good, and what I think is trash. And I've even seen De Palma beaten at his own game with Inglourious Basterds. I just have too much experience with the vast world of movies (though still not nearly enough) to think that The Untouchables is the masterpiece I thought it was 22 years ago. There was also a period where, outside of this film, I'd decided that I really disliked De Palma. But the experience and knowledge I've gained has shown me that De Palma is actually a weird kind of genius -- his films are inconsistent, frustrating, sometimes out-right terrible, but he's still a genius of a particular sort. The drive to gain that experience was spurred in me by The Untouchables. I've seen a lot of movies since then, and struggled with De Palma the whole way. It's sort of strange to think that he, to a degree I wouldn't have considered even a year ago, is largely responsible for the movie fan I am now.
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This has been part of the Brian De Palma Blog-a-thon, hosted by Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder.

24 comments:

Kevin J. Olson said...

Great piece, Bill. I'm in the same boat as you...I used to watch this film religiously on VHS (the first VHS I bought in Widescreen, mind you), and like you I was always in awe of the myth of Ness and The Untouchables.

Hey, I cried too when Oscar dies, and you're right...that musical score at that moment is beautiful.

Connery was amazing in the film, and even though this is one of Costner's worst performances, he portrays the idealism of Ness perfectly with his young, fragile voice and baby face.

This was one of the first films where I started noticing who was wokring on the film. I started to look at who wrote the movie, who shot the movie, and who some of the other actors were. I also remember being simultaneously shocked and exhilirated by the violence. De Palma's film ushered me into a whole new type of film.

Your nostaligc musings on this film are wonderful, Bill; they remind me of how I used to feel when I would pop that VHS in. Great stuff.

bill r. said...

Thanks very much, Kevin. I also remember going to Errol's on the day this film was set to be released. When my brother and I got there, they were all out, and I sadly poked around the rest of the store, looking for something else to take my mind off my troubles. As I did so, a copy was returned or delivered or something, and we pounced on it.

Oh, and I forgot to mention: after seeing it for the first time in the theater, when I got home I almost choked on a Dannon Yogurt Pop.

Connery is fantastic. I really think it is one of his best performances, and probably his last really great one. He really seems to be having a field day with Mamet's dialogue.

But do you really think Costner is that bad? I never have. I like his performance. One note and wooden, maybe, but that's what's called for.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Let me re-phrase that, Bill. I really like Costner as an actor. I think he is unfailry ridiculed a lot of the time; however, I don't really think that his portrayl of Ness is one of his best. I don't think it's a terrible performance...just not what I consider one of his best efforts (and we're strictly talking about his performances in good movies...hehe).

You're right about Connery chewing the scenery with pure elation. The interview scene between him and Andy Garcia is wonderful.

And I've always loved the Argento homage where Connery dies...wonderfully choreographed.

bill r. said...

I like Costner too...sometimes. And this is one of those times. I'll freely admit he's been better, but I just don't know that he's to blame here. I just think he gave the performance that was called for, and I thought he did a good job.

Marilyn said...

Honestly, I don't remember this film very well. When I saw it, I was excited to recognize all the real Chicago locations, but it was supplanted by The Fugitive in that regard because part of that was filmed on a bridge I used to walk over all the time.

One interesting thing - I dated a relative of Frank Nitti's for a couple of years. He was in the movie biz and worked on The Road to Perdition here in Chicago.

Adam Zanzie said...

I consider The Untouchables to be standard De Palma, but many sequences in the film truly speckle with his glory. I've watched that train shootout dozens of times; De Palma has always undertood Hitchcock better than anyone else, but with that scene he even mastered Eisenstein's technique.

De Palma did go on to make even greater films, however- Carlito's Way, Femme Fatale, and- if you were to take my word for it- the overlooked Redacted.

bill r. said...

One interesting thing - I dated a relative of Frank Nitti's for a couple of years...

No shit. That's crazy. Was he, like, proud of that? And hey, if you ever run into him again, tell him that Bill R. was very disappointed to learn that his uncle/grandfather/whatever was not actually thrown off a roof, but instead committed suicide.

bill r. said...

Adam - The Untouchables probably IS standard De Palma, but it was an eye-opener for me at the time. And the train shootout is amazing, as is the similar, but, if memory serves, more elaborate shootout in Carlito's Way...which I nevertheless don't like as much as The Untouchables.

Marilyn said...

Bill - No, he wasn't proud of it. He was actually very surprised to learn about it fairly late in life. I don't remember the connection exactly - his second cousin's father or something like that. In Chicago, for a man not to be proud of a mob connection is an unusual thing.

bill r. said...

He was actually very surprised to learn about it fairly late in life...

I would think so. And good for him for not being proud of it. Not that he should feel bad about it either -- hell, he didn't do anything -- but it's not something anyone in their right mind would brag about.

Which reminds me, in an indirect sort of way, of a girl I used to work with. She was from New York, and for whatever reason she started getting into how much she loved John Gotti, going so far as to say, and I quote, "Giuliani should have been shot for what he did to John Gotti."

I think I told her she was a complete and utter waste of humanity and then left, before I said something I'd regret.

Marilyn said...

Ha ha, good one, Bill. I have an Italian friend (in Italy) who once jokingly (I think) offered to take care of someone I was having problems with. I told him, "don't even jest about that." Honestly, I can't handle all these movies that glorify these thugs. I never watched "The Sopranos" because, frankly, I'm not interested in their problems.

Brian Doan said...

Fantastic piece, Bill. I really love all the biographical, anecdotal detail. This was the first De Palma I saw, too, and I was immediately sucked in by its mix of glossy technical brilliance and brutal violence. I've cooled a bit on it, too, but I have to admit that I always stop on the channel if I see it come on TV, and I still get a thrill from the way Morricone's score soars as they cross the street to make their first raid.

Interesting points about Costner, too. I think he's fine in the film, for the reasons you cite, but I also think he's become more interesting as he's kind of aged into being a character actor, and I'd be curious to see him tackle a similar role today.

Your story about waiting for the first VHS tape to arrive at the store reminds me that when I saw this movie with my Dad at the old Beacon Theater in Kalamazoo (which no longer exists), we walked out of the theater after the credits and saw them loading the cannisters of film in order to send the movie back to the distributor. Apparently, we'd caught the very last screening of the film (weird, because I don't think it had been playing in town that long), and it was the first time I'd seen "behind-the-scenes" glimpses of film distribution before. For some reason, my memory of the movie is always tangled up with that.

bill r. said...

Marilyn - I don't mind these guys being shown as human beings, as long as they're shown as awful human beings. I think The Sopranos did that, although I'm going by what I've heard, since I didn't watch it, either. But I definitely understand not caring about them, and avoiding the show on those grounds.

Brian - Thanks. I had no idea that The Untouchables was a gateway film for so many. You, Kevin, Tony, me...are we all roughly the same age, I wonder?

That's a cool story about seeing the canisters being wheeled out. I don't think I've ever even seen a film canister, for an actual feature film, outside of movies and TV. You should have tried to steal them.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I'm 27, Bill. I was probably 12 or so when I first saw the movie, and I was 14 when I purchased that widescreen VHS. So, I was too young to see this in theater and even be aware of its initial video release. I caught up to it later, though, and it remained one of my favorite action movies as a kid (rivaled only by John Woo's The Killer).

bill r. said...

So maybe we're slightly off in age (I'm 33), but maybe we caught when we were each around 12 or so? I don't know, I just think this is sort of interesting, because I thought I was alone on this one.

Tony Dayoub said...

Sorry, it took me so long to chime in, Bill. I was doing some last minute work on my own contribution to the Blog-A-Thon.

Great piece, and yes it was a gateway for me (I'm a bit older... 37). I was already into movies, but this was the movie that made me an auteurist. From then on, if I liked a director, I'd try to see all of his flicks (not always successfully... still haven't seen De Palma's stuff pre-Sisters).

Like you I have a love/hate relationship with the film. Initially, I thought it was fantastic. As I got into more films, I then grew to think it was derivative and childish. I've finally come full circle to where I feel it's simply De Palma being operatic.

I would say it IS one of Morricone's best scores. And Costner is great... earnest, like the role calls for, but nonetheless great. And he's a good foil for Connery and De Niro. Please Mr. Costner, give us a comeback (Mr. Brooks wasn't the one I hoped it would be).

Greg said...

Well it wasn't a gateway for me so there! But I did like it very much when I saw it, and watched it once more on video after it came out for rental. And I haven't seen it since. Maybe I should, I've forgotten much of what you describe here. My principal memory when it came out was that none of my friends in college (we were all theatre majors) could believe Mamet had anything to do with it. His name was the draw for us oddly enough. College is where I heard my first Mamet joke too. The one about the homeless guy asking for change. So yeah, don't know why I added that. Great piece Bill.

RC said...

Great post --- it's funny how things change, how they stay the same --
this film is pretty exciting in it's own tradition - It will be interesting to see if Capone Rising comes out.

It sounds like you've watched it a few more times than I have. It's always interesting what films make us cry that surprise us.

Thanks for sharing your post.

bill r. said...

Tony - Isn't Morricone's score fantastic?? It's honestly my favorite score by him. I guess there's some nostalgia at work in that opinion, but I think it's so rich and unique. The opening credits of the film, and that main thing, gives me the chills.

Coming around on the operatic side of the film, as you've done, and I think I probably will when I finally see it again, will probably help me like this movie more. Not quite like I used to, but more than, say, a few years ago.

Greg - I'd be really curious to know what you think of the movie now. I'm really interested in seeing it again after my experience with Inglourious Basterds, and I think keeping that film in mind could open up The Untouchables a little bit.

And it makes sense to me now that Mamet would be the draw for you theater folk. I guess I can see why you wouldn't believe his involvement -- at the time it probably was very strange. It sort of makes more sense now though. He's more apt to be involved with a movie like The Untouchables now than something smaller and more intimate.

And that's a good joke! That's why you brought it up! I always liked it, anyway.

RC - The movies I most vividly remember crying at when I was a kid are Star Trek II (of course), The Untouchables and Cronenberg's The Fly. I'm not ashamed.

Michael said...

Bill,
Thanks for reminding me of one of my favorite films. If memory serves I probably saw it with your brother Pat, and until I read this, had completely forgot that Mamet had written the script, which is likely why so much of the dialogue is so memorable. I think when Malone was killed there was the "Jesus Christ, they just killed Bond" factor, kinda like Wayne at the end of the shootist. Doesn't make it any more a punch in the gut, but if it had been, say Lyle Wagner (to enter into the absurd), would it have been as effective? Anyway, great piece, get off your ass and write more!

bill r. said...

Doesn't make it any more a punch in the gut, but if it had been, say Lyle Wagner (to enter into the absurd), would it have been as effective?...

Oh, I think it would have been MUCH worse! That guy was on The Carol Burnett Show!

Anyway, great piece, get off your ass and write more!...

Hey, I write plenty! We can't all be published novelists, you know!

Greg said...

Good news everyone, I've just become a published novelist. My editor tells me everybody can be one.

Anyway, here's the joke for those who don't know it.

Homeless guy asks a guy passing by for change.

The guy says, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be - Shakespeare."

Homeless guy looks at him and says, "Fuck you - Mamet."

bill r. said...

Good news everyone, I've just become a published novelist. My editor tells me everybody can be one...

Well now I just look like an idiot. I guess I was wrong...again!

Also, the "michael" who posted above is an old family friend who is, in fact, now a published novelist.

Slack Bladder said...

Nice post, Bill. I pretty much feel the same way about this film. I used to love it. I watched it recently, however, and while still good, I thought the terrible ending stuck out like a sore thumb.

Did you know that De Palma had Bob Hoskins earmarked for the role of Capone if De Niro had turned it down? I once saw an interview with Hoskins where he explained this. He also said that when De Niro accepted the role, he (Hoskins) was sent a check for $200,000. He said it was the easiest money he ever made and that he wished more directors would not give him roles.

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