Thirty years ago The Untouchables, Brian De Palma’s most commercial movie to that point, was released and helped launch Kevin Costner as an All-American star. This review by Pauline Kael originally appeared in The New Yorker and appears here with permission from the author’s estate.
Chicago circa 1930—Al Capone’s capital of crime—looks so much better than New York City looks right now that local audiences for The Untouchables may feel somewhat chagrined. Chicago still has solid traces of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and these and the other architectural remnants of the era that have been refurbished for the movie are a swaggering showcase for the legend that the screenwriter, David Mamet, and the director, Brian De Palma, present. It’s the legend of the Prohibition era, and of a gangster who lived like a swell and almost got away with it. Assigned by the federal government to break Capone’s hold on the city, Special Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is a fresh-faced young innocent who doesn’t even understand that bootlegging couldn’t flourish without the collaboration of the police, and that the mobsters have bribed the officials, the judges, the mayor. At first, we wonder how anyone could think that this stiff is up to the job (or that Costner is up to playing the role). That’s part of the film’s plan: Mamet and De Palma want us to recognize that Ness, in his neat gray suit, is too clean to be able to clean up Chicago (and they’ve worked out how they mean to use Costner’s blandness, too).
Ness is inexperienced, but he’s dogged. Encountering a smart, ornery veteran cop, Jim Malone (the name rhymes with Capone), he asks the fellow to join up with him. Malone, played by Sean Connery, has had two aims: to stay honest and to stay alive. So he’s still walking a beat. But he’s sick of watching policemen get their palms tickled, and he starts teaching Ness how the city operates. At this point, the movie picks up. Ness and Malone find two other men who don’t owe allegiance to Capone: a rookie-cop sharpshooter (Andy Garcia), who is an Italian-American and regards Capone as a stain on his people, and a small, middle-aged government accountant (Charles Martin Smith), who’s an amiable crank with a fixation—he thinks that the gangland chief can be nailed for failure to pay income tax, if only the evidence of his business profits can be found. The movie is about the interaction of these four, and their fight to restore the honor of a corrupted society. They’re designed to be true heroes, because they resist corruption in a situation where that takes supreme courage. And they’re designed to be entertaining heroes, because they’re such an unlikely group.
The Disney moviemakers knew that Snow White alone would be stupefying; she needed the Seven Dwarfs. And Mamet and De Palma know that the way to set off the Waspy-white Eliot Ness, the family man, is to surround him with misfits who are unlike him in everything except loyalty, courage, and a belief in justice. These qualities seem strongest in Connery’s Irishman, Malone. At 56, this grizzled Scots actor has an impudent authority that’s very like Olivier’s, except that Connery is so much brawnier. His performance here is probably his most sheerly likable turn since The Man Who Would Be King; it’s a far less imaginative role, but he gives it a similar straightforward bravura. Mamet has provided him with lines that have a Biblical simplicity, and Connery delivers them with a resonant underlayer—Malone is always thinking and feeling much more than he’s saying. In one scene, this aging man has a fistfight with a heavy, powerfully built white-haired cop on the take; we watch in horror as these two pound each other, and punches land on flesh that has lost its resilience. Somehow, Connery’s Malone, while fighting with all his strength, never loses his sense of irony about his opponent being an old man; his awareness makes the fight a comic horror. In a later scene, Malone, registering in a glance that he has been outfoxed by a killer, makes you feel the full, pulsing force of life in him. It’s the force that holds this movie together. It transcends the pitches to the audience that are built into his role—tired gimmickry, like having him carry a St. Jude’s medal that is passed along in the group.
The magnificent wide-screen vistas require a villain on a grand scale, and Robert De Niro’s Alphonse Capone is a plump peacock with receding hair and a fat cigar in his mouth who wants everyone to jump at his bidding. He’s also a ham who wants to be admired. In the first scene, photographed from overhead, he sits on his barber’s-chair throne and is shaved and manicured and shoeshined while reporters ask questions and his underlings laugh appreciatively at his jovial answers. The scene suggests a windbag king’s levee, and later, when Capone, surrounded by his retainers, comes down the main staircase of the hotel in which he has his baronial apartments, he exudes opulence. De Niro isn’t in many scenes, but his impact is so strong that we wouldn’t want more of him. Right after Ness’s first successful raid of a Capone warehouse (it’s in a post office), Capone, in full evening dress, stands pontificating about teamwork to his seated lieutenants, also in formal attire. They’re at a huge, round banquet table set in a ritzy hall—the table suggests that this is his Camelot. (Here, and elsewhere, too, the palatial rooms are reminiscent of the vast spaces in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.) All swanked up, and smiling at his own wit, Capone suddenly does something so grotesquely violent that we are as stunned as the men at the table. (His victim’s crime is that he was in charge of the warehouse that got busted.)
A movie doesn’t need many scenes as shattering as this one; The Untouchables has all it can contain. Capone’s stink is palpable. In his box at the opera—it’s Pagliacci—he’s brimming-eyed from the beauty of it all as the tenor, laughing through his tears, sings “Vesti la giubba.” Capone’s enforcer, Frank Nitti (Billy Drago), comes into the box to whisper that he has carried out his instructions to kill an enemy, and a grin breaks through Capone’s beatific expression. When his lips part, a beam of light bounces off his teeth, and his face is a cartoon of obscene satisfaction. Later, in a courtroom scene, Capone displays a low-comedy belligerence: goaded by Ness, he lunges at him like a maddened beast, and has to be pulled back. He’s ludicrous yet terrifying; he’d pull Ness apart if he could get his hands on him.
The Untouchables is a dream of gangsters in Chicago. It isn’t De Palma’s dream, though. This isn’t a “personal” movie. He isn’t the voluptuary satirist here that he is in Carrie or Dressed to Kill or the hallucinatory The Fury; he isn’t the artist that he is in Blow Out. And The Untouchables doesn’t have anything comparable to the romantic lushness or the obsessive, sensuous rhythms that Leone brought to Once Upon a Time in America. The picture is more like an attempt to visualize the public’s collective dream of Chicago gangsters; our movie-fed imagination of the past is enlarged and given a new vividness. De Palma is a showman here. Everything is neatly done in broad strokes—the gangsters’ bulging bodies in their immaculately tailored suits, the spats and fedoras, the tommy guns and gleaming cars, the gilt on the furniture, the deep, plushy reds of the blood. And the slight unbelievability of it all makes it more enjoyable.
De Palma has been developing a great camera technique, and in this movie—it’s his 18th—he uses it more impersonally than in the past. He’s making a self-consciously square movie. He works within the structure of Mamet’s moral fable, and Mamet is a master of obviousness. This writer is all deliberation—his points are unavoidable. Yet his characters have a fullness: you get what you need to know about each one. His dialogue is pointed; it has tension. And the scenes have a satisfying economy. He’s a good engineer, and his construction provides De Palma with the basis for reaching a broad audience. De Palma employs this engineering without being false to his own sensibility. He puts almost no weight on Mamet’s moralism. (The film isn’t at all like the Mamet-Lumet The Verdict.) De Palma doesn’t press down on the scriptural language—he uses it as much for its rhetorical color as for its import—and when Ness makes a speech about how the war with Capone has changed him, De Palma glides over the words.
De Palma’s resistance to Mamet’s heart-tugging devices results in a neutral tone in some of the scenes. (The mother of a little girl who has been killed by a gangland bombing comes to see Ness to encourage him in his efforts; there are interludes of Ness at home with his wife and small daughter to show us the domestic tranquility he’s trying to protect; and his wife puts little notes in his lunch bags telling him how proud she is of him.) But if De Palma’s cool neutrality is infinitely preferable to the cloying emotions that other directors might have piled on to scenes such as the one where the little girl is killed by the bomb (she might have been a bonny little lass), it nevertheless creates dead spots. At times, you feel that he’s going through the motions pro forma, in order to preserve Mamet’s structure. Yet De Palma takes such pride in camera angles and the organization of the shots that even the dead spots are likely to have some visual life. (The cinematographer, Stephen H. Burum, uses Panavision to spectacular effect. The imagery, though, isn’t always backed up by the music; every now and then you wonder what Ennio Morricone’s throbbing disco-synthesizer beat is doing in this period.)
De Palma demonstrates his technical command in a stakeout on the marble staircase of Union Station, where Ness and his sharpshooter have gone, hoping to grab Capone’s bookkeeper. They’ve been tipped off that he’s going to try to slip out of town, and they know that he’ll be escorted by gunmen. A young mother is struggling up the steps with two suitcases and a child in a cumbersome old-fashioned baby buggy. Ness, positioned at the top of the stairs, keeps looking down at her progress, knowing that she’s going to be right in the line of fire, and De Palma has the beautiful effrontery to make us experience Ness’s anxiety in suspended time, as in the instant of a car’s skidding into a tree. He holds sound in suspension, too: the shooting is punctuated by the noise of the buggy as it rolls down, clattering slowly, step by step. The sequence deliberately evokes the Odessa Steps montage in Potemkin. It doesn’t involve crowds and armies, though—only a small number of people—and it isn’t meant to be taken as real life. It’s a set piece, and when it’s over, you want to applaud De Palma for having the nerve to bring it off.
The Untouchables uses only a few historical facts, and embroiders those; it’s a rehashing of the 1959–1963 TV series (which starred the imposing, fine-voiced Robert Stack) and of countless movies. But it has a pulp grandeur, like the big, magisterial Westerns made by John Ford. De Palma includes an homage to those epics in a sequence set on the Canadian border, where a truck convoy carrying liquor is expected, and Ness and his three friends are on horseback, working in cahoots with the Mounties, who are lined up on the horizon. But the follow-through of that lineup image is disappointing, and the sequence wouldn’t be very effective if Charles Martin Smith’s little, half-bald accountant weren’t there to be the hero of the occasion. Smith has never before had the glory moments onscreen that he has here; when he charges the enemy, you feel the joy rise in him, as it does in the gunfighters of The Wild Bunch. It’s a crazily exhilarating performance, helped by the fact that the accountant is no longer young; he never expected to be a hero—it sneaked up on him.
There’s no getting around it: though The Untouchables is De Palma’s only measured film, it’s a blood thriller. It works for an audience because of the excitement you feel when the four heroes overcome their misgivings and their tremors, and go in for the kill. The Old Testament language is, finally, preparation and justification for attacking the mobsters with the only means at hand. And when, near the end, Ness arrests the mob’s white-suited enforcer, Frank Nitti, and Nitti taunts him, saying that he’ll be let out by the courts, and then tells a spiteful lie about Malone, we can see Ness’s need to release his anger.
The scene is directed so that the audience wants it to happen, needs it to happen. Ness says at the beginning that he will do anything “within the law” to destroy Capone’s grip on the city; the point of his character is that as he gets to know himself better he learns he’ll do more. This is too programmatic. The way Mamet designs his celebration of law enforcement, Ness’s giving in to his vengeful impulse completes the plan. It’s what is supposed to show that he’s human—that he’s grown. For some of us, this takes the air right out of his actions, and he’s left a little wooden. Mamet doesn’t allow the characters enough free will. But, in an impressive, four-square way, he fills out the audience’s expectations. He gives you revenge—an eye for an eye—and makes it seem just and righteous. It’s a relief when the film doesn’t take itself so seriously—when it tosses in such burlesque stunts as a judge’s ordering a jury that Capone has suborned to switch places with the jury in the courtroom next door, and then has Capone’s counsel changing his client’s plea from not guilty to guilty without consulting him. It’s as if the stern Mamet had left the room and the kids were playing.
The Untouchables is not a great movie; it’s too banal, too morally comfortable. The great gangster pictures don’t make good and evil mutually exclusive, the way they are here. (Even Ness’s deliberate violence, when he turns judge and executioner, is meant to be good: he’s carrying out Biblical law.) But it’s a great audience movie—a wonderful potboiler, like Pagliacci. It’s a rouser. And if people laugh and cheer when the gangsters get their heads blown off they’re probably not cheering real death. These gangsters aren’t the lawless aspect of ourselves—the sly, manipulative part, the killer part. They’re just sleazeball monsters.