De Palma’s Prohibition era cops & gangsters classic hits hard & looks great
My experience of, and appreciation for, Brian De Palma’s 1987 hit The Untouchables all revolve around one central truth of the film, which is that it is absolutely iconic.
This is one I grew up with; visiting the film many times through many different stages of my own life. I’ll never be able to impersonally assess it as a work disconnected from my own feelings toward it. And those feelings are strong. I absolutely adore The Untouchables. But it’s a rare film indeed that achieves anything even close to iconic status. So I’d argue that De Palma’s Untouchables more than cements its status as a crime/action classic based almost solely on its iconic style alone. It’s ultimately more than that, though. It’s a mainstream action blockbuster crafted by a visionary auteur but aimed squarely at the mainstream crowd, succeeding wildly as a piece of entertainment that has endured throughout the decades, and here with its glorious new 4K restoration stands poised to entertain yet another generation of crime/action junkies.
De Palma’s Untouchables is absolutely my reference point and baseline for all depictions of Eliot Ness vs. Al Capone in prohibition era Chicago. I know there was a tv show that inspired the film, and that these real life historical characters will continue to inspire retellings long into the future. But this one is mine, the version against which I’ll always compare other adaptations. And I suspect it will always remain my favorite.
There are simply too many elements of the film that stand out for me to not love this thing. Truly so few movies really stick in my mind and conjure up images the way that The Untouchables does. For instance, the climactic gun battle along the subway station’s giant marble staircase (itself a reference to Battleship Potemkin) is so visually remarkable, I can’t escape visual flashes of this sequence popping into my mind if the film ever crosses it. This action set piece employs De Palma’s excellent use of slow motion to create a gunfight even John Woo would be proud of.
Then there’s Robert De Niro’s depiction of Al Capone. Capone takes up shockingly little screen time in the film, but he’s depicted with such reverence and terror that De Niro’s over the top performance fits like a glove. The baseball ball at the board room table sequence is another visual image that instantly jumps to mind as unforgettable when discussing The Untouchables.
After those incredible sequences, I’d argue that cinematic legend Ennio Morricone’s absolutely stellar score does an enormous amount of heavy lifting to elevate The Untouchables to its iconic status. From sweeping, adventurous themes evoking the freedom of the wild west to aggressive trills that place you immediately in the world of cops and robbers, to tension laden nursery melodies evoking a child in danger, Morricone’s score is enough to make me cry and pump my fists as though Morricone himself is pulling my strings.
Then you’ve got the legendary David Mamet on script duty. Not quite a subtle screenplay, this one again swings and bullseye’s iconic status. With enough Connery quips and one liners to rival any Bond outing, one might occasionally roll one’s eyes when watching The Untouchables, but the experience sure is snappy and reminds you that you’re having a great time at the movies instead of experiencing some kind of real world, painstakingly recreated grit. It’s a real movie script, efficient and fun, infusing just the right amount of humanity to the larger-than-life tale.
These scattershot elements were covered in a scattershot way because that’s how my love for the film feels. It’s set pieces and components, it’s bits of score and mood and dialog. As the internet would say, it’s a vibe.
But The Untouchables is also simply a fantastic action-adventure movie with a wonderful, award-winning cast at its heart. Perhaps the concept of “cops above reproach” today feels more than a little dated. But stripping away any of that real world kind of thinking, what you’ve got here is just cops n’ robbers, white hats vs. black hats… the good triumphing over the evil. And while today’s world is too shifting and corrupted for this to feel current, it still feels good to harken back to the simplicity of Kevin Costner as Ness, Sean Connery as mentor beat cop Malone (an Oscar-winning turn), Andy Garcia as young tough guy Stone, and Charles Martin Smith as accountant-turned-crusader Wallace taking down the bad guys; their integrity winning the battle over Capone’s duplicitousness. It feels quaint, indeed… but no less satisfying for how aspirational it might be today.
Connery’s Malone feels like classic Connery, but one can see why this netted him his lone Oscar win. Top Gun’s Maverick, as depicted in the sequel, may easily have been modeled on Malone… here’s an elderly beat cop who’s been looked over for every promotion because he refuses to be on the take. He could be a decorated public figure by this late in the game, but he’s chosen righteous purity at the expense of his career. And along comes a young, hungry Eliot Ness to glean wisdom from a cop whose methods had never been given the time of day. Forming an elite force disconnected from Chicago’s corrupt police in Capone’s pockets, these four crusaders topple a whole system, though not without some tragedy along the way at the hands of Billy Drago’s terrifying white-suited enforcer Frank Nitti. The Untouchables might err on the side of melodrama, but its heightened style and flair truly make the human stakes feel real, the deaths palpable, and the victory sweet.
“Never stop fighting until the fight is done. Here endeth the lesson”.
I’ve repeatedly said, when discussing 4K UHD releases, that the difference between these measured against standard high definition is pretty moderate… at least for me. I happen to think that The Untouchables is an absolutely gorgeous film, mostly set in Prohibition-era Chicago, but with a visually arresting foray into Canada that briefly allows the film to become a Western. This new release does look absolutely stunning and I’m thrilled to have The Untouchables in its sharpest possible form to date. But I’m not sure any but the most discerning will be able to say this format improves leaps and bounds over a 1080p presentation.
You get a bunch of vintage promotional behind the scenes featurettes here that I really enjoyed, highlighting the script, the cast, a genre exploration, etc. It’s the kind of stuff I love, but also nothing new produced exclusively for this release.
Interestingly, as I’m starting to notice more and more, this 4K UHD release does not come with a Blu-ray copy, but only a Digital Code. Just something worth noting.
A 4K UHD release for any film does not feel like a foregone conclusion as this technology (or at least a physical release of films scanned with this technology) are more and more a niche thing. So I’m thrilled to own this, and to have the opportunity to write my thoughts on a film I adore. The Untouchables absolutely belongs among the niche list of titles to get this level of treatment.
And I’m Out.
The Untouchables is now available on 4K UHD from Paramount Pictures