Cinema: In The American Grain THE UNTOUCHABLES

Directed by Brian De Palma; Screenplay by David Mamet

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That is where his untouchable (read incorruptible) "posse" comes in. Moral fiber might be enough to carry the day against frontier bandits. But in urbanized America, where crime is mechanized, industrialized and partially subsidized by government, it needs a modest organization to back its play: the nerveless trigger finger of George Stone (Andy Garcia), like Capone, Italian; the accounting genius of wimpy-looking, stouthearted Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith); and above all, the mentoring heart and long memory of the Irish cop, Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery). He is a weary, steady man, very clearly seen by an actor whose every gesture is wryly informed by the humorous, and uncynical knowledge of a lifetime.

What is true of Connery's work applies to the whole movie. Mamet's elegantly efficient script does not waste a word, and De Palma does not waste a shot. The result is a densely layered work moving with confident, compulsive energy. One sequence is set in Chicago's Union Station, where Ness and Stone must take a key witness from the Mob's protective custody. Into their stakeout blunders a mother maneuvering a baby carriage up a staircase. What delirious conflict between Ness the lawman and Ness the family man, as he tries to protect the infant and simultaneously conduct a shoot-out. What wild comedy in this conflict between duty and humanity. And De Palma ices the cake by shooting the scene as a parody of Eisenstein's Odessa Steps sequence from Potemkin.

Such riches abound in this film, but it is as parable, not parody, that it grips us. The Untouchables all begin as archetypes of American goodness. And they do triumph over evil; they send Capone to prison. But the cost is death or loss of innocence, for it is only by adapting crime's methods that they can defeat it.

This is, perhaps, the implicit lesson of almost all action films. But most of them have permitted their heroes to reclaim their honor at the end. The good guys are allowed to think their fall from purity and motive was a temporary aberration. There is no such escape for Eliot Ness. Despite its driving pace, style and wit, this film's pervasive mood is a strange and haunting sadness. The Untouchables is, of all things, touching.

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