De Palma is out in theaters now (you can buy your tickets here). In honor of the documentary's legendary subject, we're kicking off a week-long look at the director's classic - and not so classic - films.
Brian De Palma, categorized as one of New Hollywood’s essential filmmakers, may seem like an odd choice for directing The Untouchables. With a filmography full of films like Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface, Blow Out, etc. The Untouchables was a different genre from that which he was usually associated. It was also his first collaboration with composer Ennio Morricone whose score is one of the most delightful aspects of the film. Morricone’s combination of 1930s Duke Ellington with sounds of suspense turn what may have been a traditional period piece into the crime film De Palma wanted it to be (one can hear hints of The Hateful Eight during the opening sequence). But the commercial nature of the film didn’t stop De Palma from turning The Untouchables into something new and unique. His notorious homages, dramatic slow motions, and suspenseful stories bled into The Untouchables and transform a traditional story of good vs. evil into an engaging adaptation of Chicago in the time of prohibition.
The Untouchables follows agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) as he attempts to control the distribution of illegal alcohol in Chicago. When Ness is deemed a fool for seizing a bunch of umbrellas instead of alcohol, he stumbles into Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) during the night. After Malone drops his initial hesitancy, the two team up in search of fellow law enforcers within the department that will help them drain Chicago of its alcohol problem. Their biggest obstacle? Al Capone (Robert De Niro) who has a small anger issue which occasionally causes him to bash people’s heads in with a bat.
Chicago plays a major role in the film. It’s not used solely as a background or setting. It feels like an integral part of the story, which is great because Capone, Chicago, and prohibition are inherently linked. We’re constantly placed outside where we see architecture unique to the city as viewers follow Ness and the Untouchables’ search for Capone’s hideouts. Chicago moves us through the film’s events from one location to the next, raiding one site and having a shootout at the other. When Ness pushes Nitti off of the courtroom rooftop, the wide shot showing Ness looking down at the falling gangster highlights the intricate buildings that house all of the chaos. De Palma uses what could have been ignored to his advantage and thus adds something different to the highly used gangster film genre.
In terms of tributes, we’ve seen De Palma pay homage to past filmmakers (Coppola, Antonioni, Hitchcock, etc.), replicating ideas and styles and morphing them into his own obscure ideas. Though The Untouchables was more commercial than his other films, he didn’t allow that to stop him from continuing this process. The film, right off the bat, begins with a tribute to Hitchcock. For those who have seen Sabotage (1936), the exploding girl innocently trying to return the unknown man’s suitcase looks oddly familiar. Hitchcock, a strong believer that suspense emerges from audience awareness, changed film by showing the viewers what would happen in the preceding moments, eliminating surprise and instilling fear. As the little boy carries a simple, wrapped packed in need of delivery, Hitchcock reveals the true and destructive nature of the package. De Palma replicates this scene exactly, this time having the audience witness the mysterious man start the timer and walk away. In the seconds between the man walking away and the little girl running after him, we hope that the bomb will malfunction and defuse. It shocks us and pulls us in. As well it should; this is the motivation for the whole film - clean Chicago of the gangsters who have no problem blowing children up.
But this Hitchcock-ian scene isn’t the only homage in The Untouchables. The Odessa Steps sequence duplicates Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (though these sequences are used in two totally different contexts). The minute that woman starts awkwardly moving the baby carriage up the steps, eerie silence filling the frame, we know something is up. Cue De Palma’s dramatic use of slow motion and we have one mesmerizing replication of Eisenstein’s work. What De Palma does so well with these acknowledgments is make intentional and in service of a purpose, not just a fun Easter egg to find within the film. The Untouchables isn’t a remake of Sabotage or The Battleship Potemkin, it’s a separate work that adds to film instead of getting lost within it.
The Untouchables feels like the mark of a major shift for De Palma. It proved that his ideas could go beyond thrillers and showed that period pieces didn’t have to necessarily replicate the time in its exact form. Films are complex, one story can take the shape of many different forms. Gangster and crime films had been done before, period pieces had been done before, and stories of good vs. evil had been done before. The Untouchables benefitted from De Palma’s style because it took tradition and flipped it on its head, providing the audience with an engaging, new, and exciting tale.