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.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.
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.
(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.
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.
This has been part of the Brian De Palma Blog-a-thon, hosted by Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder.