Paramount // 1987 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // October 18th, 2004
"You fellows are untouchable, is that the thing? No one can get to you?" -- Alderman John O'Shea (Del Close)
Replacing the bare bones edition released in 2001, Paramount has gone back to the well and reissued this latter day classic in a spiffy new Collector's Edition. A day without a double-dipped DVD is like a day without sunshine, but is this version worthy of purchase?
Chicago, 1930. Al Capone is the de facto ruler of the city. His reach and influence extend from the lowest speakeasy to the highest offices of government. Enter Eliot Ness, a wet behind the ears Treasury agent. Ness and his band of Untouchables will do whatever is necessary to topple Capone's empire.
The Untouchables is one of those films I come back to every so often. I did not see it during its theatrical run, but I saw it shortly after its release on tape. The video was released shortly before I graduated from high school, and a friend of mine suckered one of our teachers into letting the class watch a bootleg copy (I hope the Statute of Limitations is up); he lied about the film's rating, and we were allowed to watch it during the final two weeks of the year, a time when the teachers all knew we were only concerned with getting out and saw no reason to waste their time trying to teach us anything else. My college roommate had the poster on our wall, and a copy of Ennio Morricone's excellent score on cassette. (Who'd have thought you could get create so much tension with the sounds of a child's music box?) The college's media center allowed students and faculty to check out VHS tapes (how quaint), and it was one of the titles (along with Raiders of the Lost Ark) we'd fall back on if we couldn't find anything else. (It didn't help that between us we'd pretty much seen everything available.) It's not one of those films I'm unable to view objectively; it has its flaws and I have no problem recognizing them. That being said, after nearly two decades and countless viewings, this is still a great film. What worked way back then still works.
I don't think there's any need to rehash the plot, so let's just go over the good stuff. The Untouchables plays like a '30s Warner Bros. gangster saga done to a turn. The film isn't historically accurate and, as we learn in the supplementary materials on this release, it was never meant to be. Director Brian De Palma set out to tell the myth, not the history; this isn't history as it really happened, but the way we think it should have happened, and on film it's more real than reality ever could be. Eliot Ness and Al Capone are the only major characters drawn from reality, but in the film they're dressed up in Hollywood trappings. The other Untouchables are really archetypes who act as catalysts for change in Ness; given the way this story unfolds, Chicago native David Mamet's script could have been ghostwritten by Joseph Campbell. De Palma has usually fared better with the films he himself concocts (evidenced, most notably, by Dressed to Kill), as his work-for-hire can, at best, be spotty (evidenced, most notoriously, by The Bonfire of the Vanities), but in this case he was absolutely the correct choice. His energy and style turn this film into a pulp opera; it's like a Sergio Leone film on amphetamines. The camerawork displayed here is staggering. The only director to best De Palma in the use of the Steadicam is Stanley Kubrick, but no one can best him in the use of a crane, not even Dario Argento.
The performances are uniformly fine. Kevin Costner, in the role that made him a star, portrays Ness in the early goings as an overly earnest boy scout, but circumstances darken and shade the character as the film progresses. Sean Connery's Malone is the wise old mentor, a poor beat cop given a chance to get back into the thick of things; it's still fun to see his character, after years of walking the streets pursuing jaywalkers and litterbugs, light up when he takes the crew on their first successful raid. (There are parallels between Malone's initial hard luck and the state of Connery's career at the time he signed on for the film. Relegated to playing second fiddle in such dreck as Highlander, this film won him a much-deserved Oscar and resuscitated his career.) Andy Garcia was offered the part of Capone enforcer Frank Nitti but convinced De Palma to allow him to read for the role of Stone, the crew's resident marksmen, who conceals his Italian heritage from the Irishmen who dominate the city's police force. Garcia put himself on the map by easily slipping into the part of a man who brings a laser-like determination to his job; his character apparently had more dialogue in Mamet's script, but Garcia persuaded his director that the character was better served being played as a man of action, not words. Charles Martin Smith, in his best role since Terry the Toad in American Graffiti, brings humor to the group as Oscar Wallace, the accountant who begins devising the plan by which Capone's empire is eventually toppled. De Niro brings a gravity and (no pun intended) weight to Al Capone. He is onscreen for relatively little of the film's running time, but his presence leaves an indelible mark. Can you imagine anyone else delivering the baseball speech, or bringing the fear of death into the eyes a shaky-handed barber with just one glare? Bob Hoskins was originally cast in the role, although De Palma always had his heart set on De Niro, who was initially unavailable. When De Niro's schedule changed, De Palma told Paramount executives he wouldn't do the film without the actor, so Hoskins was quite handsomely paid off, and rightly so. Sometimes an actor's baggage can undermine a role, but in this case it actual works. De Palma also deserves credit for giving Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent) her first film role. Her part as Ness's wife is a minor one, but I've never forgotten the impression she makes. This is also the only film, with the possible exception of Pale Rider, to make worthwhile use of Billy Drago's particular talents. (I've always suspected Drago's Frank Nitti borrows his wardrobe from author Tom Wolfe, but I can't confirm this.)
Given that this is Paramount's second DVD release of this film, you might be debating whether to chuck your old one and purchase this edition. Yes, you should. If you didn't purchase the original disc, this is definitely the one to pick up. If you've never seen the film at all, well, what are you waiting for?
First, the good news. This release beats the old version both visually and sonically. The transfer on the 2001 edition was pretty good, but this time it looks like Paramount sent the elements through the wash before they sent them through the telecine. Color saturation is near perfect, and edge enhancement has been kept to an absolute minimum. There are, however, a few other minor instances of print damage, represented by some nicks and speckling, which were also present in the previous release. There is a still some grain in the picture, but it never becomes bothersome, and in a way actually brings a certain gritty feel to the proceedings. The color palette employed by De Palma, cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, and visual consultant Patrizia Von Brandenstein ranges from earthy browns and sepia tones to pastels and even more vibrant hues, and all are well represented. Just look at the scene of De Niro on the opera house steps. The black of his tuxedo stands out perfectly against the reporter's more colorful coats, the red and white of the staircase, and the gold of the rotunda above him. The matchbook on which Nitti has written Malone's address appears as a blood red square on the polished wood of the courthouse table when he is being frisked by Costner and the bailiff. A few minutes later, Nitti's white (and I mean white) suit contrasts with the green ivy as he swings from the rooftop in his attempt to escape Ness, making him appear even more out of place in the natural world. The soundtrack has undergone another remix, and is presented here in a new 5.1 EX mix, which hands down beats the mix on the original release. Morricone's score probably benefits most from the remix, although there are some nice directional effects in the new track, most notably in some drive-bys (and drive-overs) and the gunshots in the precinct's service elevator.
Now, the not-so-good news. Paramount has provided some extras on this release, and what's here is good, but I was hoping for more (and I still wish De Palma would break down and start recording commentaries). What would have made an interesting hour-long documentary has been broken down into four featurettes. The history of the film, from producer Art Linson's initial concept through its box office and critical success, is covered. De Palma, Linson, Burum, and Smith all appear in new interview footage; the remaining cast members are only seen in interviews conducted during the film's production. Writer David Mamet, however, is nowhere to be found. Everyone gushes about his work, so his presence is sorely missed. (I remember seeing him on 60 Minutes several years ago, and he's a pretty engaging guy.) What's here is better than nothing, though, and nothing was what you got on the old release. There's a good bit of interesting information on the featurettes, especially in the new interviews. Both Linson and De Palma admit they had no interest in the '50s television series, and apparently Mamet didn't either. De Palma freely admits to seeking out a big, commercial studio film, looking for clout (and money) after the commercial failure of Body Double and Wise Guys. Also discussed are Mel Gibson's interest in playing Ness before he jumped ship for Lethal Weapon, and the origins of the train station sequence. Mamet's script called for a shootout on a train, followed by a crash involving two locomotives. De Palma, facing a logistical nightmare and a budget crunch, scrapped the idea and devised the shootout on the steps on the spot, drawing inspiration, of course, from the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin. (De Palma often takes heat for borrowing from other filmmakers, but at least he's influenced by the best. Besides, without this film there's a chance I would never have had any interest in seeing Potemkin, which would have been my loss.) Smith talks about his reluctance to bring to the screen the humor De Palma wanted in his character, fearing it would be too over-the-top, then admits the director was right all along. For me, though, the most interesting revelation involves the famous speech in which Connery explains to Costner what he'll have to do in order to bring down Capone. As written, the scene took place on a Chicago street; it was Connery's idea to film it in a church. Smart move, that.
At times the character of Eliot Ness is just too good to be true. Is anyone really this noble? The courtroom climax is beyond belief. Whoever heard of switching juries in the middle of a trial, or an attorney suddenly taking it upon himself to change his client's plea? Do divorce hearings even have juries? The bluescreen effects used for Nitti's rooftop spill look incredibly cheesy. A simple shot of the stuntman's fall would have better suited the film. Connery's character could be the only Irish cop with a Scottish accent. Finally, the story would have played better had it been based more on historical fact, not Hollywood memories.
Please ignore the rebuttal witnesses; they're out of their minds. After a little more than 17 years, The Untouchables is still just as powerful and entertaining as ever. If you're looking for facts and historical accuracy, you can always watch an Oliver Stone film. Heh-heh.
Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty! The audio and video improvements and new features actually justify a second purchase of this title. All charged are free to go. Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mitchell Hattaway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* The Script, The Cast
* Production Stories
* Reinventing the Genre
* The Classic
* Original Featurette: The Men
* Theatrical Trailer