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Cinemalphabet: U is for The Untouchables

October 23, 2010

When I conceived Cinemalphabet a frequently asked question was, “So how many entries will be about Brian De Palma?” Turns out, only one. De Palma’s glorious true-ish crime thriller, 1987’s The Untouchables. I remember reading Ebert’s review around the time of the film’s release and strongly disagreeing with it. Another reading has not altered my childhood opinion, with one exception: I have come to see that Kevin Costner was okay, but not great. That said, The Untouchables is still the best thing he’s ever done, besides play the unseen corpse in The Big Chill and the butt of a Madonna joke in Truth or Dare.

I’ve been writing about De Palma as long as I’ve been writing about film. There was a stretch back in my early cinema crit days were De Palma was film and film was De Palma and other than demonstrating how other folks were NOT DE PALMA I didn’t have a whole lot of to say about non De Palma film related topics. I analyzed his work from every conceivable lens and can probably talk a blue streak about the man, the myth, the legend. I know more about De Palma than seems legally allowed and yet, I love finding out there are still things to learn about the filmmaker, who for the record is not my favorite director (that’s Pollack) though he’s definitely in the top three.

De Palma in a nutshell: a visually innovative director who traffics in sexualized violence and unparalleled misogyny.

De Palma, the longer version: De Palma’s earlier work is often peppered with misogynistic imagery, glorifying violence and specializing in zeroing on a moment and just taking it too freaking far. On that point you’ll get no debate from me. Having written extensively on the subject of De Palma’s complicated and often problematic content, I am in no way dismissive of this concern. That said, I find some of his stylistic choices quite interesting. And, hell, he tells a pretty decent story from time to time.

Okay, that’s a bit reductive, but since we all have busy lives, I felt it best to get that out the way. I used to believe De Palma was only moderately successful in drawing out strong performances from his actors, but again, this opinion was also reductive. The brilliance of De Palma’s direction is his ability to give light handed guidance to stalwarts like Connery and careful direction to sublimely talented upstarts like Andy Garcia, who is just as cute as he wants to be. As for larger-than-life or polarizing figures – I’m thinking Tom Cruise in Mission: Implausible, and I suppose Costner would be the example for this film; I don’t know, is he polarizing – De Palma is adept at mitigating whatever annoyances those actors bring to the screen. This is usually accomplished by locking them into very tightly controlled leading roles, which don’t allow them much room to infuse their own persona into the part. And I thank him for that.

Interestingly, for a man whose gangster oeuvre runs the gamut of brutal and ruthless to comedic and cheeky, Robert Deniro makes for a rather bland Capone. He’s not terrible – Deniro rarely is – but his performance is overshadowed by the extra padding of his person and the frou frou set decoration, which seems curiously out of place in a De Palma film. Capone was a chubber, to be sure, but something about Deniro’s performance feels more like mockery than a means of inhabiting this particular character. I’m not sure who to blame for this.

The theme by famed composer Ennio Morricone is the soundtrack to all my bad decisions. I swear I hear those furious and sketchy strings every time I consider wearing white during the week I expect my period to begin.

But no entry on the man is complete without mention of La Mommie’s “De Palma Lecture”:

The lecture – if we’re getting the unabridged version – then goes on to compare and contrast his films in order to effectively illustrate her point. There is usually mention of Caine, Connery crawling across the floor dragging his vital organs behind him and possibly – if the dogs haven’t started any herky jerky – a mention of the “race against the sun” scene in Bram Stroker’s Dracula, which while not being a De Palma film, is one of HER favorite scenes, thus applicable to any discussion (even when it’s not).

“And the way Sean Connery just played that scene,” she might say, “he really earned that Oscar. He did win it for that, right? Still, I don’t think we needed all of that!” All of that, meaning the blood, the crawling on the floor, the vital organs trailing behind like streamers and the seventeen thousand shotgun blasts it took to win the Oscar.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Neema permalink
    October 24, 2010 7:56 am

    Snarky, I’ve been an admirer of you and especially your film critiques for months and months now and I’m finally opening my mouth to say that this entry in the Cinemalphabet made my Sunday morning. I LOVE The Untouchables, from the bombastic score to the Potemkin scene which De Palma directs with such seriousness it’s a nail-biter and easy to forget where it, uh, came from.

    Then again, I should probably mention that De Palma attended my college, where I initially was also a film student, and despite knowing exactly how problematic Body Double is I still have a soft spot the size of a blimp for that one. So I may be a bit biased. Still, this is my favorite entry so far in this series and I’m sorry that it’s almost over. 🙂

  2. October 24, 2010 5:24 pm

    I LOVE The Untouchables, from the bombastic score to the Potemkin scene which De Palma directs with such seriousness it’s a nail-biter and easy to forget where it, uh, came from.

    His riff on Potemkin is just one of the most amazing scnes he’s ever filmed. Since you studied where he got his MFA, no doubt you’ve seen “Home Movies” 😉

    Also, thank you so much for your comment. It made me ten shades of blushy and totally made my week.

  3. October 24, 2010 5:30 pm

    I’ve always liked De Palma and yet for some reason (probably Costner, who I only sorta tolerated in Bull Durham, which I mainly watched for Sarandon and Robbins) I put off seeing this film for many years. It’s now one of my favorites (alongside Body Double, Dressed to Kill and Carrie).

    @Neema, I love your Potemkin comment. That scene is like a visual Wilhelm.

  4. October 25, 2010 9:48 am

    This post sort of makes me want to hide in a corner in shame since I’ve actually only seen one De Palma film (Mission to Mars, which I hated). But I do have plans to watch Carrie shortly! And a textbook I’m proofreading had a whole thing about the real Untouchables that reminded me I should really see that film soon too. So um… eventually I’ll know more of what you’re talking about when it comes to De Palma.

    I still enjoyed reading your thoughts on him!

  5. November 14, 2010 8:09 am

    @Alex, tell me more about Mission to Mars. Did you write a review? I haven’t seen it, though I keep threatening to do so. We like and dislike things for similar reasons, so I suspect your reasons for not liking it probably mirror my reasons for avoiding it!

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