Brian De Palma and the power of THE UNTOUCHABLES

Back in in 1987, when Brian De Palma came out with THE UNTOUCHABLES — which airs tonight at 10P — nobody quite knew what to expect. True, it was a much-anticipated crime epic about the small group of Chicago law enforcement officials led by Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) who brought down Al Capone (Robert De Niro) at the height of Prohibition, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker David Mamet, but nobody quite knew which Brian De Palma was going to show up.

De Palma’s career is one of the more fascinating in modern American cinema. (His latest film, the corporate sexual thriller PASSION, is playing the New York Film Festival this week.) Like many directors at certain points in their careers (John Ford, Clint Eastwood, et. al.), he has followed the “one for them, one for me” trajectory of mixing big-budget studio work (SCARFACE, THE FURY, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, the ill-fated BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES) with more personal, offbeat films (DRESSED TO KILL, OBSESSION, BODY DOUBLE). The latter often contain offbeat, twisted humor, melodramatic storylines involving sex and/or voyeurism, heavy stylization and obsessed, tormented characters. De Palma is renowned for his Alfred Hitchcock homages, but his best films often feel like Hitchcock homages mixed with Douglas Sirk homages mixed with a psychosexual strangeness that’s pure De Palma.

So, where does that leave THE UNTOUCHABLES? Many would say that the film is definitely a work-for-hire, big-budget studio gig (there are no cross-dressing serial killers or twisted voyeurs anywhere in sight). And it’s probably notable as much for its Mamet-penned script as it is for De Palma’s directing. But there are unmistakably familiar elements from some of De Palma’s most distinctive films. Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness might be a bit of a goody two-shoes compared to more messed-up protagonists such as John Travolta in BLOW OUT, but he’s also a classic De Palma obsessive, the kind of a character who leaves the rest of his life a mess while he pursues his prey — in this case, the elaborate criminal organization headed by Capone. And the film is also full of perverse humor, as when Sean Connery’s veteran cop Jimmy Malone, in an attempt to get a captured witness to spill the beans after an extended shootout, grabs a nearby corpse, pretends it’s alive and blows its brains out. (Admittedly, Mamet also has a weird, dark comic sensibility, so this smacks of his handiwork as well.)

THE UNTOUCHABLES is shot through with homages, as with the infamous gunfight in a train station involving a baby carriage that references the legendary “Odessa Steps” sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent classic BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN.

And while there aren’t any psychosexual overtones to anything (or voyeuristic characters) in THE UNTOUCHABLES, De Palma’s use of point of view and extended tracking shots recalls the style of films like DRESSED TO KILL. Maybe the best way to think of this rousing, powerful movie is as a paycheck gig that the director transformed into something far more distinctive and personal. In a sense, De Palma does in THE UNTOUCHABLES what he would later do in CARLITO’S WAY and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, where he took a big studio property but made it his own through savvy use of stylistic flourishes, creating something that was both one for them and one for himself.

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