Comfortable and Furious

The Untouchables

I was at the Ellis Mercantile movie prop house in Hollywood renting a couple dozen replica Colt Peacemakers and a few assorted Winchesters, Sharps and Spencer rifles for a western pilot I was propping to be shot in Santa Fe when I heard Brian DePalma was making a movie of The Untouchables. 

The guys at Ellis were concerned because they were renting the production Thompson Sub machine-guns, that, like all automatic and semiautomatic weapons chambered in .45 ACP rounds, had a reputation for jamming when firing blanks.

The director of such masterpieces as Dressed to Kill, Blow Out (can you say Blowup, as in Michelangelo Antonioni?) and Phantom of the Paradise (where actress Jessica Harper caught my eye.  Fate! A couple of years later I dated her for a while, that is until she crudely dumped me and fled to NYC to take up with some unknown director named Woody Allen.  Talk about trading-up.  Now she is married to the head of Sony Pictures and hobnobs with the likes of Stephen Spielberg and other Hollywood riffraff), hmm, where was I?

Oh yeah, DePalma was the Hollywood flavor of the month, so he got the gig.  He was known as a world class screamer, holding the title until he passed the belt to James Cameron (which begs the question: does the world need yet another Avatar movie?)  A jammed Tommy-gun would defiantly start the scream machine.

“Who stars as Ness?” I asked.

“Kevin Costner.”

“No, seriously.”

“I can state with all Fear and Loathing it engenders, that it is Costner.” came the reply. Kevin Costner sucks the color out of Technicolor.  He is found only on the grey scale after an intensive search by a PhD in optics.  Even Dick Vetter over at Technicolor couldn’t help.

He reminds me of the character Mel in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, an actor who becomes suddenly out of focus, despite the best efforts of the PD and camera operator to rectify it. 

Those of my generation will recall the excellent television series of the same name produced by Desi Arnaz and Quinn Martin (The Invaders, The Fugitive).  Robert Stack as Ness. He was perhaps not the greatest actor, but possessed a quality Costner lacks, screen presence. War hero turned actor Neville Brand was Scarface Al. (that would be World War II, for all you Tarantino fans)

Narrated by Walter Winchell (“Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.”)

(You Tube has the entire four seasons)

Let’s get something out of the way now.  Despite David Mamet’s dialogue, during prohibition drinking alcohol was not illegal.  Manufacturing it and selling it was illegal.  That is the first of many errors in the screenplay.  Mamet’s factual mistakes rival those of filmmaker manqué Quinton Tarantino.

I stand second to no one who was an admirer of Mamet’s writing, but the misfire of the screen adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal was a disaster.  The novel was an attempt to make Hannibal a good person.  Such a transformation cannot be made.  Wisely, Mamet and cowriter Steven Zaillian toned down the human brains feast, although their solution to the novel’s unfilmable ending was absurdly stupid.  In The Untouchables, the mistakes just keep rollin’ on.

Coster plays Ness as a law enforcement novice so naive you would not send him to the 7/11 for a quart of milk and expect him to return home without getting lost. Or change for the $20 you foolishly gave him.  He was the school kid who members of the chess club shook down for his lunch money.

Their solution is to employ a character technique practiced by master science fiction author Robert Heinlein in his juvenile space operas.  An older experienced mentor who moves the narrative and is tragically killed near the end, leaving the hero of the story older and much wiser.  The delightful novels Starman Jones and Time for the Stars are the best examples.  In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress the mentor role is assumed by an AI computer that leads a revolution.  (It also has fictional examples of a space based kinetic energy weapon.)

Sean Connery is the mentor here, an incorruptible  Scot’s accented  Irish beat cop on the graveyard shift.  The brogue was the single downside to his Oscar winning performance.

He is fated to die at the hands of a parody of Frank Nitti, (Scarface Al’s first cousin and chief lieutenant), a far cry from the character of the real man.  A businessman of the sort as played by Stanley Tucci in the Road to Perdition.  Nitti hired hit men and never did the murders himself.

This Nitti’s Billy Drago, who even looks like a psycho-killer, uses a Tommy-gun to put 20 or so .45 rounds into Malone’s body, yet he manages to defy gravity and hydrostatic shock to crawl several yards back into his spacious apartment.  Are we to believe he was flying on angel dust?

The there is the fictional raid on Capone’s whiskey caravan at the Canadian border. Ness addressed an RCMP Inspector as captain.  Captain is not a rank in the RCMP.

The Untouchables did not nail Capone for tax evasion as in the movie.  The IRS did. Ness did not order the jury hearing the tax case switched with the jury in another courtroom as in this nonsense.  That was simply childish and not remotely legal, or rational.

Ness did not throw Nitti off the roof, called murder in any case.  Nitti shot himself years later.  He had cancer. The greatest offense was DePalma’s ‘homage” to the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece Battleship Potemkin.  The sequence is exciting and involving. 

DePalma’s version is set at a Chicago train station and is dull almost beyond words. It demonstrates the difference between a great director and one seldom even good.

My sister saw this travesty before I did.

“How was it?” I asked.

“The opening title sequences was good, but pretty much downhill from then on.”



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2 responses to “The Untouchables”

  1. Bart Cobb Avatar
    Bart Cobb

    Okay, okay. You’re right, the holes in the picture absolutely ruin it for knowledgeable…but who’s knowledgeable?

    Kostner is an adequate everyman, I think his presence is in his functional non-presence. You can’t say you don’t believe him in any of his roles, and so as a functionary of someone’s cinematic vision he is a good choice.

    Mamet’s sins are in the Untouchbles themselves, there was no bookish account, no George stone, There was an older Irishman but he never went anywhere, he was more of a stool pigeon and he quit that early when the heat came on.


    Mamet’s hero line: Isn’t that just like a WOP, brings a knife to a gun fight.

  2. John Welsh Avatar

    “Okay, okay. You’re right, the holes in the picture absolutely ruin it for knowledgeable…but who’s knowledgeable?”

    Ah yes, Argumentum In nil sapiendo vita iucundissima est. Doesn’t cut it with moi. (one of my pronouns).

    It seems many Americans under the age of 50 are culturally illiterate. It seems history, along with civics and English grammar is no longer taught in the schools. Which begs the question, just what is taught?

    ”O brave new world, That has such people in’t. /As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

    How many post baby-boomers could answer these questions:
    What is the significance of the Treaty of Westphalia? Who was John Hay? Stephen Dedalus? Sun Yat-sen Homer Lea? What was the Boxer Rebellion? The Taiping Rebellion ? How did Chinese Gordon get his name? Who was Sir Richard Francis Burton? How did Florence Nightingale become famous. Who was Joesph Lister? Who was the “It” girl? Who were the Dodge Brothers? Who was Elizabeth Blackwell? Who said, “Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead.”? How is it that Philip II of Spain was for a time king of England? Who was Lady Jane Grey? What was The Bloomsbury Group? Who was Jacques-Louis David? Kenneth Clarke? What was the Glorious Revolution of 1688? Who discovered x-rays? Who is Finn McCool? Owen Glendower?

    Who were The Seven Against Thebes? The Iliad is also called The Anger of Achilles? What was he angry about? What is Melvin Purvis famous for?
    Who were the Myrmidons? Who was Diogenes looking for. What is the subject of Plato’s Republic?

    When I graduated high school in 1968 most grads who paid attention could answer those questions. I could and I was a C student. I would have been a D student were it not for my grades in English and History. C in Latin.

    An English teacher once told me I expect everyone to know what I know, and I get mad when they don’t. She was right.

    The curious can learn, but I have no patience with willful ignorance.

    Veni, vidi, vici.

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