Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – The Untouchables

The Untouchables (1987, dir. Brian de Palma)
Starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert DeNiro, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith, Patricia Clarkson, Billy Drago

If someone told me Sisters and Carrie were made by the same director, it would sound plausible. If someone told me Carrie and The Untouchables were made by the same director I would definitely question the validity of that statement. At this point in his career, this was de Palma’s most “Hollywood” film. Its based on actual events, though highly dramatized for the screen and has the sort of “sweeping” nature you expect from movies vying for an Oscar nod. The story is an interesting one and de Palma is allowed to use some of his cinematographic trademarks along the way.

It’s the height of Prohibition in Chicago and one man runs the bootlegging industry, Al Capone (DeNiro). His men use violence and murder to enforce their control, with many innocents caught in the middle. Special Agent Elliot Ness (Costner) is sent in to work against the flow of police corruption and find that piece of evidence needed to bring Capone down. Along the way he recruits an accountant, a police academy rookie, and veteran beat cop Malone (Connery). These men are untouchable, free from the briberies and intimidation tactics of the mob. As they get closer and closer to finding the witness and evidence they need the violence rises and many of them won’t make it to see the end.

All the names associated with this film make you think it would be a dynamic and interesting look at the fall of Capone. You have de Palma directing, David Mamet on the script, and a cast of talented actors. However, the film is utterly dull. In particular, the acting of Kevin Costner is like cardboard here. He makes Ness into one of the flattest, uncharismatic crime fighters I’ve seen in a movie. Not once did I feel energized or inspired by anything he had to say to his men. I half expected a shot of the officers gathered to work under him half asleep as he droned on. On the other hand, I feel like there’s very little direction being given to the actors and there is obviously not much good in the screenplay.

Where the film is interesting is when de Palma is allowed to play with how the camera tells the story. There is his typical first person shot, used during a very crucial scene involving Malone. There’s also the use of deep focus during an opera scene and some moderately interesting tracking shots. For the most part though, the movie seems devoid of life, which is a shock when it employs such a dynamic director like de Palma. The majority of the work seems to have been put into production design. 1930s Chicago is reproduced with pristine accuracy and costume design was overseen by Armani. The film’s score is also handled by the always amazing Ennio Morricone. It just would have been nice to see a film where everyone was allowed to bring their A game.

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