Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.15: Brian De Palma's The Untouchables

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 68 (B)

“It’s good to walk in somebody else’s shoes for a while. You get out of your own obsessions; you are in the service of somebody else’s vision, and that’s a great discipline for a director.”
            -Brian De Palma

So said the director of his 1987 film The Untouchables, the biggest hit of his career up to that point and a reimagining of the hit TV series of the same name. De Palma had suffered two commercial flops, Body Double and Wise Guys, and The Untouchables was his chance at scoring a real commercial success. It’s unfortunate that it’s also arguably his least personal film, but impersonal doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is a Treasury Agent in Chicago hunting down mob boss legend Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Ness is a good man and a straight-arrow lawman, but corrupt cops are all around. When Ness meets the tough, honest Irish-American cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery in an Oscar-winning performance), the two swear a blood oath to bring down Capone, hire Italian-American rookie cop George Stone (Andy Garcia) and geeky Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), and form the group that would take down Al Capone- the Untouchables.

At least, that’s what the TV show, the film, and the book by the real life Eliot Ness would have you believe. In reality, the Untouchables put the pressure on Capone, but IRS agent Frank J. Wilson (on whom Wallace is loosely based on) would have more to do with Capone’s conviction of tax evasion. Ness had very little to do with Capone’s actual conviction at all. The movie subscribes to the old John Ford “print the legend” theory, however, which makes for a more exciting movie.

The film has very little of De Palma’s more fascinating obsessions. There’s no charged sexual tension or exploration of how sex and violence intersect. In fact, the relationship between Ness and his wife (played by Patricia Clarkson in her film debut) is chaste, idyllic, and more than slightly cornball. The violence is pulpy, but there’s not much dissection of how it relates to characters. It’s a pure pulp version of real life events, and De Palma doesn’t make it a commentary on the nature of pulp filmmaking the way one might expect. This is fairly straightforward stuff, all mythmaking, no dissection. De Palma had handled films he hadn’t written before (Scarface, Carrie), but he normally put his own stamp on the film on a thematic level. Not so here.

But this doesn’t subtract from De Palma’s visual storytelling chops. The character interactions are nicely staged, particularly in the relationship between Ness and Malone. The two start out contentious- one’s a good cop who’s kept his head down to stay alive, the other is an honest man whose methods are ineffective. Malone acts as a guardian and mentor to Ness, and De Palma stages it best in an early scene in a church, using split-diopter to show a conflicted Ness listening to Malone’s urging to fight dirty against Capone. De Palma also throws in visual clues as to what’s going to happen (showing one of Capone’s men in the background prior to a bombing), makes great use of tracking shots to fluidly tell a story (there’s a great build-up to an elevator death scene), and stages a number of dynamite set-pieces (a liquor raid on a bridge, a crucial character’s death scene) so vividly that it’s hard to complain too much about the relatively impersonal story.

De Palma doesn’t leave his pet themes completely behind, however- voyeurism plays a major role in a number of exciting stakeout set-pieces. Who sees who, who’s watching who, and why determines who lives or dies in De Palma’s world. This is best exemplified in a scene near the end, where De Palma uses a POV-shot for a break-in into a character’s home, just as he did in Dressed to Kill and Blow Out (though it’s straightforward here rather than prankish rib-nudges at Halloween). Capone’s goons are ready to kill Connery, but he’s been watching them, too. It looks like he’s about to meet his maker…until he pulls a gun on his stalker, and it looks like he’s in charge. SPOILER: But while we have here a case of somebody watching the voyeur, it’s usually the case in a De Palma movie that the second voyeur is still being watched and waited for. It’s true here as well- Connery has the upper-hand, but there’s still someone else waiting for him, and that he couldn’t see it coming is his undoing.

There’s little commentary on the nature of filmmaking in this film, but De Palma still shoves some clever homages into The Untouchables. Aside from the Halloween-esque break-in, there’s several other set-pieces full of Hitchcockian tension dragged out to interminable levels. The film is based on a corny old TV-show, but from a visual standpoint De Palma’s head is more in line with old 1930s gangster films like Howard Hawks’ Scarface and William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy. De Palma’s shootouts take inspiration from a number of Sergio Leone’s films, both westerns (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Once Upon a Time in the West) and Leone’s own Depression-era crime epic Once Upon a Time in America- and it doesn’t hurt that Leone-composer Ennio Morricone (the greatest film composer who ever lived, as far as I’m concerned) wrote a terrific, varied score filled with suspense, tragedy, and exhilaration. Of course, there’s also the famous Sergei Eisenstein tribute in the film’s most famous scene, but I’ll go into more detail on that later.

The actual story, though, doesn’t have much of a De Palma touch to it. The film was written by legendary playwright/screenwriter/director David Mamet, who specializes in films about cons (House of Games) and hyper-masculinity (Glengarry Glenn Ross). Mamet’s script is full of hyper-masculine mythmaking and colorful dialogue, but it isn’t one of his more complex works. There are hints at Ness’ family being affected by the violence around them, but it’s never truly explored. There are hints at Ness’ conflicted attitude towards his new, violent methods, but they’re not given much thought. Ness and most of the Untouchables aren’t really characters, they’re types spouting dialogue.

Mamet has a theory that actors should bring no interpretation to their character (that’s the writer’s work), little to no inflection to their lines, and rather simply find their mark, say their lines, and speak up (as illustrated in his book True and False). I more or less think it’s a bullshit, reductive look at acting that shows Mamet’s egotism as a writer (“say the words EXACTLY as I fucking wrote and imagined them, goddamnit”). Mamet’s a great writer, no doubt, but his condescension towards artists not named David Mamet is irritating.

Why do I mention this? Because despite this, that’s more or less what the cast of The Untouchables does, and to their credit, they’re mostly pretty good. Ness and Stone aren’t complicated characters, but the highly-variable Costner and the sexually-charismatic Garcia are effective in their roles. To Mamet’s discredit, however, it’s no doubt largely because he’s given them, in effect, nothing to work with to develop a character (he’d argue he did his job by doing this, but bleh), and all they can do is bring their presence and say their lines. Only Connery as Malone has anything approaching dimension.

Mamet’s dismissal of Method acting is reductive, but it’s hard not to think he might have a point after watching The Untouchables: the one truly disappointing performance is De Niro as Capone. There’s a lot of baggage to this role- he’s the most famous gangster who ever lived- but this marks a point where De Niro’s Method acting is all method, no character. He’s credible enough as a bad guy, and De Niro did gain the weight needed to portray the character (and even wore the same style of silk underwear Capone wore), but it’s a fairly standard De Niro performance that doesn’t have the mythic pull needed to make Capone work (and a disappointment for anyone waiting for the return of the De Niro/De Palma team). It’s telling that Billy Drago, perhaps the creepiest character actor to ever live, is more memorable as Capone enforcer Frank Nitti.

De Palma considered Bob Hoskins for a time, but while Hoskins would have been more inspired than De Niro, the Capone scenes don’t work no matter what. Mamet’s script doesn’t have much depth in any area, but the Capone scenes feel tacked on and lack depth. Mamet’s script is recreating pulp, but it doesn’t imbue it with any mythic pull or depth. A better recreation of Depression-era pulp with more complexity is Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America (also mentioned by Roger Ebert in his 2 ½ star review of this film), while Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark serves as an update of classic pulp in a more dynamic way.

It’s unfortunate that De Palma didn’t try to re-work Mamet’s script, even given his quote about working with another’s vision, considering that the best and most iconic scene in the film is not in Mamet’s script. Originally envisioned as a train-chase, the scene was scrapped for being too expensive. Instead, De Palma recreates the famous stairs shootout from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin: Ness and Stone go to Chicago Union Station to confront Capone’s men and find the witness for their prosecution, but a mother with a stroller arrives shortly before the shootout begins. When the stroller gets caught in the crossfire, it’s an exhilarating recreation of Eisenstein’s most iconic scene. According to De Palma, Mamet walked out during that scene and only returned when it was over- he didn’t want to sit through something he didn’t write. But when the most exciting scene in the film has nothing to do with the screenplay, it’s a strong case for auteur theory.

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1 comment:

  1. Fast fact: the principal of my first high-school was a featured extra in this film and, although I've never looked for her, has a scene with Costner.

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