Introduction to THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) delivered at Widescreen Weekend, Picturehouse at Science & Media Museum, Bradford UK – October 14th 2017 (70mm presentation).
Gangster movies are as essential to American mythology as the Western. G-Men and Public Enemies were the natural successors to the sheriffs and gunslingers of the frontier. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover ordered a two-pronged attack against the criminal empire of Al Capone, the world’s most famous mobster. The Prohibition team, designed to attract headlines and interrupt cashflow, was led by Eliot Ness, an honest man recommended for the job by his Treasury Agent brother in law. The IRS investigation was led by Frank J Wilson, represented in the film we’re going to see by the character of Oscar Wallace.
Ness’ evidence was never used but Wilson’s investigation led him to become the head of the Secret Service. After Prohibition Ness had a successful career in Cleveland before falling from grace by fleeing from a drunk driving accident. He died aged just 54, broke and leaving a third wife and adopted son. Just months beforehand Ness had sold a 21-page memoir for $200 to a disreputable journalist he met in a bar. That journalist, Oscar Fraley, turned Ness into Chicago’s Wyatt Earp,
With the enforcement of the Hays code in effect screen violence moved to television. Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s production company Desilu bought the rights to Fraley’s book and The Untouchables ran from 1959 to 1963. Unprecedented complaints were received about the noir sensibility mixed with stock footage and newsreel style narration by Walter Winchell. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s 3-year Sub Committee on Juvenile Delinquency focussed heavily on the show while Italian American unions boycotted sponsors’ cargo. The FCC reprimanded the network over a fictional episode where Capone breaks out of prison and J. Edgar Hoover was outraged by episodes that credit Ness with busts carried out by rival fed Melvin Purvis. Even Desi Arnaz got death threats.
David Mamet stated in 2010 that he got the job by default and the Writers Guild of America wanted to give fellow playwright Wendy Wasserstein a credit. How much Wasserstein wrote is unclear, but Art Linson recalls Mamet agreeing to do it for the money and submitting his first draft in four weeks. Mamet was reluctantly contracted to two sets of rewrites and difficult about it. When plot problems remained after the last set of revisions Mamet was asked would he do a rewrite if Linson went to Seattle where he was shooting House of Games? “Come to Seattle, I’d love to see you” said Mamet. When Linson arrived Mamet said, “All I said was that I’d love to see you” and sent him home.
Charles Martin Smith has claimed “The Untouchables wasn’t a happy set”. Brian De Palma never saw The Untouchables as a gangster movie but as The Magnificent Seven and changes to written action sequences added horses and gunfire but also days and millions of dollars. 30 states were scouted before the Hardy Bridge in Montana was selected for the border scene. Stephen H Burum used the North South shooting axis to emulate classic westerns.
Burum wanted to shoot the film in black and white. “Don’t break your heart, Steve, they won’t allow that”, De Palma told him. “In Chicago,” Burum ended up saying “it’s almost impossible to shoot a period picture”. Shooting at night to retain period flavour, the crew made arrangements for modern buildings in the background to have their lights turned off so as to blend with the dark. Burum shot at ASA 100 using Eastman 5247 stock for exteriors, and ASA 400 using Eastman 5294 for interiors.
6 weeks before shooting started the budget had risen from $18 to $20 million. Paramount’s Head of Motion Pictures, Ned Tanen, threatened to shut the production down right up to the last minute. Dawn Steel, then the highest female executive in Hollywood, made an outraged call to De Palma over a $40,000 bill for curtains. De Palma hung up on her, not speaking to her again for two years.
“If you want Sean Connery, he’s going to have to do it for what we have in the budget” stipulated Tanen. Connery liked the part and Mamet’s dialogue. It fit his strategy of taking father figure roles now he was older and Malone could, and did, lead to an Oscar. Connery agreed to take a percentage of the gross. Linson acknowledged in hindsight it would have been cheaper to pay Connery’s $2m fee. The $200,000 Bob Hoskins received to NOT play Al Capone is a story widely known.
Nobody was willing to disclose the costume budget. De Niro had always wanted to play Capone, feeling previous interpretations didn’t properly reflect the gangster’s charm and public appeal. To get the part “right” De Niro went to Sulk and Sons on Park Avenue for authentic Capone underwear, rejecting his $20,000 Armani wardrobe and having it redesigned. He went to Italy to get the Naples accent and put on 30lb. He invested in nose plugs and “cranium relandscaping”. Bills for the “right” cigars and shoes infuriated Paramount but The Untouchables became De Niro’s most successful film to that point and, in a film full of homages, some have observed that it starts where Once Upon A Time In America leaves off with De Niro’s beaming face staring up at the camera.
The camaraderie on set was real enough. Andy Garcia regaled the American Film Institute at Sean Connery’s Lifetime Achievement ceremony with tales of his hero busting his chops with putdowns like “C’mon kid, this isn’t Hamlet”. Connery impressed the younger actors getting away with mid shots and close ups done while partially dressed for the golf course, his trousers and shoes hidden off camera. He refused to wear the Armani altogether, bringing his own outfit. Not realising that James Bond never got shot, Brian De Palma was surprised when Connery had never worked with exploding blood packs before. Connery hated them. After being taken to hospital with grit in his eye from one of the squibs he had to be persuaded to do a second take.
De Palma had sought references from Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan who both encouraged him to cast Kevin Costner. Largely unknown at the time, Costner was nevertheless vocal with his contributions saying in interviews “It’s one thing to have a lack of experience, but if you do something incredibly stupid you’re not going to win people’s sympathy. I wanted to try and straighten that out but in certain instances I had to go along with the director”.
A scripted shoot out at a race track with an exploding petrol tanker followed by a chase sequence involving period trains was more than the budget could handle and Paramount finally said “no”. De Palma demanded a railway station be found and made up his famous homage to Battleship Potemkin over two weeks of night shoots at Union Station.
Spielberg was elated that his friend had injected so many of his trademarks into his first really mainstream picture. The Untouchables has a “creeper sequence”, a “hold out sequence”, an arc shot, Steadicam, and homages to Foreign Correspondent and Vertigo. With the final budget coming in at $22.5 million the director famously completed the last shot, in the cold outside Roosevelt University which doubles for the entrance to the Lexington Hotel, got on a plane and went home without speaking to anyone. When Paramount got nervous over the violence he simply told Linson: “Final Cut”.
Confidence in the finished film was high. The trailer for The Untouchables was attached to all 2,326 prints of Beverly Hills Cop II. With no competition except Harry and the Hendersons, The Untouchables opened on Wednesday 3rd June to a $10 million weekend. The film was rush released in the UK, opening in 70mm at the Empire Leicester Square on September 18th. The 70mm presentation transferred to the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue in 1988.
Stephen Burum told American Cinematographer that “Shooting anamorphic you can hold the compositional integrity better, integrity maintained in 70mm OAR blow up”. It’s been rumoured that Paramount used to test all 70mm prints on the lot before they were shipped. The Untouchables was released under the Theatre Alignment Programme created by LucasFilm in 1983. 70mm prints went out with a letter in De Palma’s name advising projectionists that 70mm prints were hard matted to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, meaning bars would be visible at the top and bottom of the screen and offering guidance on the best presentation. You can find these to read on in70mm.com. The print we’re showing today is a print marked for preservation on very generous loan from the BFI Archive.
Linson went on to Executive Produce two seasons of a new TV Untouchables from 1993 to 1994 starring Tom Amandes as Ness, William Forsythe as Al Capone and John Rhys-Davis as Sean Connery. I suggest we skip that and revel in Ennio Morricone’s pulsating Oscar nominated theme The Strength of the Righteous. Widescreeners, please enjoy the definitive big screen The Untouchables.