Thursday, August 12, 2010
When The Wheel Went Round
Life goes on. The car is taken, the car is gone, the car is recovered, the car is in pieces and, of course, it’s still gone. During times like this it’s tough to maintain enthusiasms…enthusiasms. Enthusiasms. I’m walking a lot these days. Look on the streets between Los Feliz and the Silverlake Trader Joe’s sometime, you may find me there. To close the book on the whole matter I got driven down to the tow yard in Watts to deal with the final paperwork on my completely stripped car and take one last look at it. I was told what the state of it was but actually seeing this for myself was something else altogether. So it wasn’t very much fun. Because of this I’ve spent way too many nights at home lately, probably being depressed about it all. Partly because of this mood, the night before I went to see the car I knew that I had to get out of the house and decided to somehow get over to the New Beverly on that Saturday night. Since it was still daylight hours, I took the train from Los Feliz to the Hollywood & Highland stop, walked down Orange to get a quick dinner at the In-N-Out Burger, my first time there in several weeks. Damn good burgers. I then walked over to La Brea and proceeded straight down, past Fountain, past the Target-Best Buy at Santa Monica, past the ridiculously long line at Pink’s and down the long, creepily empty stretch between Melrose and Beverly. After getting the food the hike didn’t take much longer than a half hour. And the New Beverly was at the end of that trail, greeting me with a De Palma-De Niro double bill of THE UNTOUCHABLES and HI MOM! Probably not a pairing that happens all the time and a bill that was of course preceded by a number of nasty comments about Brian De Palma on the theater’s Facebook page, no doubt left by people with nothing but hate in their hearts.
I’ve seen THE UNTOUCHABLES more times than I can probably guess, starting from its opening weekend in June 1987 right through working as an usher during that summer for weeks afterwards getting to know every line and inflection by heart, eagerly going back in at certain points to hear the audience response that I knew would be there every time. Maybe to fully maintain the love for this movie you have to be of a certain age, or just to have first seen the movie at the age I was at the time. People older may associate the title with the TV show and Robert Stack. People younger, raised on other things, maybe don’t respond to its earnestness, the plotting might seems a little sparse to them and they’re of a different mindset to respond to things like the more sentimental passages of the Ennio Morricone score. But please just understand where I’m coming from is the insistent thought that You don’t fuck with the all holy THE UNTOUCHABLES. You just don’t do it and when I’m around, you shouldn’t even try. I don’t want to hear it and I’m not going to listen. Looking at it now, a little more aware of how these things work, to me the film has a feeling that De Palma read David Mamet’s script and thought, “I know how to make this, I know how to make this good, I know how to make this a big fucking hit.” (Considering his previous film was WISE GUYS, he no doubt felt he needed to make it a big fucking hit as well) And he did exactly that, with the film playing for weeks over that summer, making the cover of Newsweek (“MOB HIT”) at a time when that was still kind of a big deal and the very concept of hit movies was maybe a little more exciting. Sometimes a director’s biggest box office successes aren’t necessarily the ones that remain the most interesting years later, as good as they may be, and THE UNTOUCHABLES may very well fall into that category. Much as I will defend it to my dying day, I know that it’s not as overwhelmingly powerful as it was way back in ‘87. And in admitting that about the film I’m not even sure how much I want to try to analyze it. That doesn’t mean I think any less of it, which would probably be impossible anyway.
Chicago, 1930. At the height of prohibition, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) essentially rules the city. Feberal officer Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) arrives in town intent on bringing down Capone. After one raid turns out embarrassingly for Ness, he encounters beat fop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) who he suddenly becomes convinced is the man to help him. They recruit police trainee George Stone (Andy Garcia) to be on their team and the foursome is rounded out by bureau accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) who has the odd notion of charging Capone for income tax evasion. Together the four are known as The Untouchables, men who no one can bribe and as they begin to cause damage to Capone’s empire the crime boss gets ready to hit back.
It is a somewhat slim plot looking at it now in its archetypal way, almost surprisingly so. Ness gets on the job, he recruits Malone to help him and so on. But it really doesn’t need to be any more complex than it is. In the aftermath of the release back in ’87 I happened to read the original 1957 memoir Eliot Ness wrote with Oscar Fraley after which, struck by how different the events recounted in there were, I happened to think, ‘Hey, this would’ve made a good movie too!’ Of course, who knows how much of what was in that book was really happened. In 1987 I had barely heard of David Mamet who with this script was pretty much cashing in after winning the Pulitzer Prize (Producer Art Linson writes in his memoir “A Pound of Flesh” that he basically said to Mamet, “Don’t you think that the best career move for somebody who just won the Pulitzer Prize would be to adapt an old television series like THE UNTOUCHABLES for a shitload of money?” to which Mamet understandably replied, “Yes, I think so.”) though with the writer’s directorial debut HOUSE OF GAMES released several months later and the thrill of seeing SPEED-THE-PLOW on Broadway with Joe Mantegna, Ron Silver and Madonna the following year I would find out who he was soon enough. I’ve become familiar enough with his style by now—everyone probably has—that it’s hard to imagine Mamet ever having much interest in the actual facts beyond using the setting and names, instead approaching it as what it’s now become at least in part due to this film: myth. The film of THE UNTOUCHABLES doesn’t print the legend, to steal a line from John Ford. It creates its own legend. When I take such satisfaction from Kevin Costner screaming “DID HE SOUND ANYTHING LIKE THAT??” at a certain someone who didn’t perish that way in real life simple facts have ceased to matter.
So much in the film works, from the heightened Morricone music to the countless extravagantly high ceilings in the locations used shot from low angles in some kind of Orson Welles way to those speeches that each of the actors willingly attack ferociously, as if reveling in the chance to say dialogue like this of the sort that they never saw put down in a script before. THE UNTOUCHABLES is correctly larger than life and De Palma keys into the mythic tone with every piece of confidence and skill he knows how to put into his anamorphic frame. The tracking of Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone through his apartment stands out and those massive close-ups of Costner & Connery discussing “the Chicago Way” in that church is appropriately larger than life but one of the most unsung (and, in context, not at all showy) pieces of film in De Palma’s career has to be that expertly choreographed steadicam shot through the police station hallway after Brad Sullivan’s informant has been apprehended. When I worked in that theater way back when I used to love timing things so I could go in and watch this shot to examine how it was laid out, listening for the shocked audience reaction at that cutaway to the elevator. The response was always the same. Even the climactic courtroom sequence strikes me now as the best chaos-erupts-in-courtroom ever shot.
And the forever celebrated train station/Odessa Steps/Eisenstein homage has been parodied and referenced so many times by now that it’s probably lost some of its impact but even if David Mamet, who had nothing to do with this sequence, hated it (during a Q & A at the Aero earlier this year he apparently referred to De Palma being the one to add “that cockamamie baby carriage”) everything about it works as an immaculately assembled work of suspense, stretching out every second as effectively as possible, fully aware of what he’s doing every step of the way. The way it spends so much time on the mother forced to drag her baby with the giant carriage up all those steps is almost agonizing and there’s such great satisfaction in hearing Andy Garcia cockily say “TWO” at the end of the whole thing. It’s an amazing sequence, one that arose out of desperation when what had been written required a period train that was beyond the production’s budget (Linson writes about this in his book but also says the scene contains no dialogue, which is of course incorrect). It makes me realize that if CGI had existed then this celebrated scene would never have happened, so what does this tell us about how directors deal with challenges these days? It feels like a gift that this film was made at the exact time it was.
The rich, juicy feel permeates every frame with the opulence soaking into my pores and the staccato rhythms of all that immensely quotable dialogue stay with me as much as Ennio Morricone’s phenomenally addictive score. I honestly feel that I still haven’t heard the main title “The Strength of the Righteous” enough times in my life and paying attention to how the film is spotted this time it stands out to me how it uses the Morricone style of playing through the scenes, not necessarily always matching every action and cut-- the raid on the post office and assault on the bridge not scoring the specific action so much as the triumph and glory of what the four men are achieving. The more lyrical passages meant to represent the close friendship of these four men are very much of a piece with other scores by the composer from around this time, maybe CINEMA PARADISO in particular. I’m very aware that this nature of scoring, to say nothing of the specifics of the actual music, is somewhat passé by now—in this digital era it’s genuinely surprising to hear a film with this type of music given such prominence, unencumbered by a massive swarm of sound effects which overwhelm a composer’s work. While watching how a particularly dramatic moment between Costner and Connery late in the film was scored in a particularly lyrical way I thought of how this type of film was now in the past, this type of music was now in the past and I found myself genuinely moved by everything about it. This sort of film that I love doesn’t really happen anymore, it’s as gone as my car and realizing this as I sat there in the New Beverly struck me as sad as anything actually happening onscreen.
Watching it now, it may be impossible to fully realize what an effect the power of Robert De Niro as Al Capone had on this film when it was released. It’s no longer quite the revelation it once was—again, due to parody, due to imitation—but he makes every single one of his moments onscreen count enormously using every inch of his body to command the screen and the way he delivers each of those speeches is absolutely thrilling. Kevin Costner didn’t get much respect for his work as the stoic, noble Eliot Ness even then but he really delivers exactly what he’s supposed to—the level-headed hero (and, I suppose, audience surrogate) who gets the audience to believe in him, willing to follow him into battle, the human being we can depend on between the larger than life personas of De Niro and Connery. I’ve said this sort of thing about Costner before but seeing his stardom begin to crystallize in a performance like this, completely and totally delivering what the material requires, makes me wonder how the hell things went so wrong a number of years later. Sean Connery in his Oscar-winning performance attacks his role with huge energy, spitting out Mamet’s dialogue as if he is an actor reborn, remembering for the first time in years why he ever started doing this to begin with. This was really the beginning of Sean Connery-as-mentor and no other version of the conceit ever came close to matching it. Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia each nail their surrogate roles making them totally heroic and endearing in their own ways while Billy Drago as Frank Nitti oozes every bit of nastiness he can from that white suit he always wears. Patricia Clarkson’s now-familiar acerbic nature shows through in her role as Ness’ wife (listed in the credits as ‘Ness’ Wife’ even though she does have a name) and prevents these scenes from being too sickly sweet. Clifton James is uncredited as the District Attorney, Del Close kills in his one scene as the Alderman who tries to bribe Ness and Chelcie Ross, seen last year on MAD MEN as Conrad Hilton, can be spotted among the reporters always interviewing Capone.
Never stop fighting ‘til the fight is done, so says Eliot Ness. I even put that under my photo in my high school yearbook picture senior year and after recent events I’m doing what I can to keep that phrase alive in my head these days. THE UNTOUCHABLES is a film that I passionately love and always will, even if it isn’t quite the filmic experience it was in 1987 but I wouldn’t want to go back and live through that time again anyway. And this film about real life figures made larger than life, about heroes who prove themselves by remaining righteous and in doing so becoming legends, retains that feel of pure cinema that Brian De Palma expertly put into it. It still resonates with me, it still sings to me. It made it worth making that long walk down La Brea to get to the New Beverly and see it once again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll have a drink.