Movies » Movie Review

The Unscrupulous




* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Brian De Palma

Written by David Mamet

With Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert DeNiro, Sean Connery, Patricia Clarkson, and Billy Drago.

Like his free-form 1983 "remake" of Howard Hawks's Scarface (1932), Brian De Palma's The Untouchables is an exceptionally violent gangster thriller. The gangster genre, born near the end of Prohibition with films like Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927), Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1930), William A. Wellman's Public Enemy (1931), and Hawks's aforementioned masterpiece, has continued to flourish for almost six decades. Recent significant revisionist contributions to the genre have been Francis Coppola's Godfather films (1972, 1974), Coppola's Cotton Club (1984), and Sergi Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

De Palma's entry is loosely based on The Untouchables, a successful, modestly produced television series of the early 60s that featured Robert Stack as a stoic Eliot Ness, special agent of the Treasury Department who commands an undercover squad formed in corrupt old Chicago to nail underworld kingpin Al Capone (Neville Brand). Filmed unpretentiously in high-contrast black and white, The Untouchables was a B-movie on TV, a tough, unsentimental look at a city and the citizens, politicians, and law enforcement agencies that fed the pervasive corruption with apathy and complicity.

It's a bang-up story, and its socio-historical-ideological detonations are explosive and vivid. During the 20s, Capone ruled the Chicago mob scene, controlling the Italian south side willed to him by Johnny Torrio when he retired in 1925. Prohibition-era Chicago was a wide-open city of bootleggers who also trafficked in gambling and prostitution, and Capone's gang had the city by the throat in a vise of threats and payoffs. It was a free-for-all battlefield for Capone and his nemesis, the Irish-dominated north-side mob. These ethnic groups fought for Chicago as if it were the last frontier on which such a primal battle could still be waged.

The Untouchables opens in 1930, one year after the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre and a few months before Ness and his squad finally jailed Capone on income-tax evasion. David Mamet's uninspired screenplay, based on the writings of Ness, Oscar Fraley, and Paul Lubsky, focuses on Ness's arrival in Chicago, his formation of a four-man team (on television there were six or seven, I believe), their initial efforts to get Capone for bootlegging, and their eventually successful strategy, masterminded by Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), an eccentric Washington accountant, of getting him on income-tax evasion for the millions of undeclared dollars he was raking in each year.

The head Untouchable is played by Kevin Costner, whose Eliot Ness is far less neurotic and complex than Stack's portrayal in the television series. Costner looks a bit like the young Gary Cooper from certain angles, but he doesn't really have much charisma as an actor. Smith follows in the tradition of such De Palma whiz kids as Keith Gordon in Dressed to Kill (1980) and John Travolta in Blow Out (1981), turning Oscar Wallace into a bespectacled, pipe-smoking innocent whose wide-eyed glee at playing cops 'n' robbers is played by the director for all the easy laughs he can summon.

The remaining two members of this quartet of justice are Sean Connery as Jimmy Malone, a crusty, beefy old Irish cop who's stayed on the beat in order to stay uninvolved and survive, and Andy Garcia as George Stone, the Italian rookie sharpshooter (he's changed his name to distance himself from the Italian mobsters) whom Malone and Ness recruit directly from the police academy. Connery can be a marvelous actor (cf Marnie, The Wind and the Lion, and The Man Who Would Be King), but if he keeps on doing roles like this, I'm afraid he will soon assume the mantle of great actors overacting minor roles so recently, thankfully, vacated by the retirement of Sir Laurence Olivier. Garcia has the most inadequately written role of the four, but his demonic presence, capitalized on so brilliantly in Hal Ashby's littleseen thriller 8 Million Ways to Die (1986), gives the character extraordinary dimension and power. Garcia's eyes and movements resemble those of a coiled snake ready to strike, and he gives easily the most galvanizing performance in this movie.

Yes, folks, more galvanizing than Robert DeNiro's eagerly awaited portrayal of the opera-loving, cigar-chomping, sanctimonious Al Capone. DeNiro is arguably the greatest actor in movies today. His performances under Martin Scorsese, Elia Kazan (The Last Tycoon), Bernardo Bertolucci (1900), and Leone (Once Upon a Time in America) have all been acting/starring highlights of the 70s and 80s. DeNiro completely submerges himself into each of his parts, altering his chameleonlike personality and body language to the point where, even more than his Stanislavsky-bred antecedents Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean, he literally disappears within a character.

Since The King of Comedy (1983), however, his most recent collaboration with Scorsese, DeNiro has been doing cameos in movies like Brazil, The Mission, and Angel Heart. He has remarkably scant footage in The Untouchables, but his unseen presence hovers over every image in the film. Perfectionist that he is, DeNiro gained 30 pounds for the role, resuming the diet that had blown him up so effectively for the final portions of Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980). He also reportedly studied old newsreels for hints of Capone's voice, movements, and mannerisms. Most radically, the actor had his hairline plucked to resemble Capone's balding dome.

As usual, DeNiro has done everything in his power to achieve the external appearance of Capone, but he has not plunged within himself and given the mobster those moments of naked revelation that make Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, and Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy among the most indelible characterizations in the cinema. Outwardly, DeNiro seems to be trying to duplicate Brando's superb Don Corleone in The Godfather, a character that DeNiro would embody so chillingly as a young immigrant in Godfather II. Brando was the complete mafioso in Coppola's movie; DeNiro comes across here as a shell, a draft for a character whose contours are never filled.

Much of the blame can be laid at De Palma's feet. To be fair, one might say that De Palma merely cast DeNiro for the iconic reverberations. However, the tensions that De Palma and writer Mamet seem to want to build by strategically intercutting between the desperate actions of the Untouchables and the besieged but unfazed, confident gangster's life-style are weak and ineffective. DeNiro's sequences are vaudeville turns, shticks by a great actor clowning around.

DeNiro and De Palma's association goes back to their earliest work--Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), and Hi, Mom! (1970). Both actor and director have come a long way since those films. DeNiro has become the modernist Method actor par excellence, while De Palma has been content to remain the whiz kid of the cinema, endlessly, cynically manipulating its tools for maximum exploitation of his characters, material, and most insidiously, his audiences.

The conception of Costner's Eliot Ness is a good example of De Palma's methods. As written by Mamet and directed by De Palma, Ness is a handsome zero, a clean-cut guy who has a lovely, semiunderstanding wife (Patricia Clarkson, the only woman of any importance in this misogynistic work), and two small children. One feels, however, that Ness's family has been included to give De Palma and Mamet the chance to construct some cloyingly sentimental scenes of the federal agent's home life merely, to illustrate the opposition between him and Capone. These en famille sequences are poorly played, dramatically inept, and totally unfelt. Like Carrie (1976), The Fury (1978), and Blow Out, The Untouchables evinces contempt for its characters: De Palma hints at their depth, acknowledging it with a nod, but the nod is accompanied by a wink, as the characters become mere hooks upon which to hang his real subjects: corruption, betrayal, and violence. Though worthy enough themes for a gangster film, they are rendered meaningless by the director's total lack of interest in character and formal development.

The delirious rapture with which the violence in The Untouchables is staged exposes De Palma once more as a sham who prefers the easy way out. Baroque camera movements, extreme overhead and low angles, signature 360-degree swirls, and continual experiments with focal ranges, lenses, and the size of the screen (at one point, the agents fight the hoods from under a parked car, the bulk of the auto forming a black space across the top of the wide screen, the images of action beneath constituting a Griffith-like horizontal slice of screen space) attest to De Palma's fundamental mastery of form. But his bravura stylistics exist in an aesthetic vacuum, because they neither deepen nor amplify theme or character.

Now one could argue that since De Palma is a modernist filmmaker, he is exempt from the narrative and formal balances that define classical filmmaking. In order to challenge traditional generic modes and conventions, however, one must first take them seriously. One must believe in them in order to obliterate them (cf Jean-Luc Godard, R.W. Fassbinder, Robert Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, Leone, etc). De Palma likes primarily to trick the audience. He will switch point of view in his movies annoyingly, especially here in the scene where the camera becomes the eyes of the hired killer stalking Malone first outside the windows of his apartment and finally through the rooms themselves. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, however, the director whose work De Palma most consistently plunders, these point-of-view alterations do not draw us into the characters' heads nor do they elucidate thematic elements. They're all show, all part of the empty grandstanding that pretty much sums up the director's style.

The only obsessive aspect of De Palma's movies is their slavish recapitulation of Hitchcock signatures. Hitchcock is a manipulative director also, of course, but the ends justify the means in his films. Hitchcock works from a moral center that is questioned, subverted, twisted, and often ravaged, but this center is always present in some form in his films. The most outrageous pillaging of the cinema's past in The Untouchables, however, is De Palma's elaborate set piece of Ness and Stone's retaliation against some of Capone's thugs at Union Station, which visual consultant Patrizia von Brandenstein, ace cinematographer Stephen Burum (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish), and art director William A. Elliott have somehow managed to lend the aura of an Italian opera house. While waiting for their enemies to appear, Ness and Stone's faces are intercut with shots of a weary old mom dragging her baby carriage up a mighty flight of steps. During the siege, filmed in exhausting slow motion, De Palma cuts among the sputtering tommy guns, falling bodies, and the mother losing her grip on the carriage so that it can clank, clank, clank down the stairs in a travesty of the Odessa steps sequence from Sergey Eisenstein's Potemkin (1925). The act of homage is not at fault, but I do question the appropriateness, the execution, and the sentimental courtship here of the audience's automatic sympathy. Like everything else in The Untouchables, this virtuoso slow-motion ballet of violence as ecstasy encourages the audience to cheer vigilante retaliation for both real and imagined wrongs. When Andy Garcia obliterates the one remaining hood from a low vantage point on the stairs, the audience with which I saw the film, an upwardly mobile Reagan-era mob, cheered as if the Cubs had just won the pennant. In its facile endorsement of violent means for morally dubious ends, The Untouchables becomes, like Stallone's slob jobs and so many other action pictures today, an exemplary Reaganite equation of aggression and destruction with acceptable methods of political "negotiation." There is only the tiniest hint that Ness's and Capone's approaches to exterminating one another are disturbingly similar, and no attempt to elaborate the doubling possibilities implicit in their enmity. To paraphrase William Butler Yeats, the moral, psychological, and emotional center of The Untouchables, like that of all of De Palma's movies and like that of Reagan's administration, simply cannot hold.

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