The Untouchables: Shooting Up the Box Office

Ripe violence and gangster flash make The Untouchables the new sleeper hit

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Dawn Steel, president of production at Paramount, recalls that Mamet's first draft was an "outline, very sparse." How sparse? Capone was hardly in it. To flesh out Mamet's bare-bones script, Steel and her boss Ned Tanen wanted De Palma. "In the past," she says, "Brian hasn't chosen the material that was worthy of him and that he was worthy of. He was making homages to Alfred Hitchcock. This one is a homage to Brian De Palma -- he felt it instead of directing it. With this picture he became a mensch." It surely marked a ! change from the snazzy, derivative thrillers (Carrie, Body Double) and dope operas (Scarface) that made him notorious. The new picture would be neither parody nor eulogy; it would be the story of a straight arrow, told with a straight face.

There are the familiar De Palma touches: lots of photogenic blood, a gorgeous tracking shot that leads our heroes from euphoria to horror, an endlessly elaborate set piece reminiscent of the Odessa Steps sequence in Potemkin. But the director's chief contribution is to the film's handsome physical design. "I wanted corruption to look very sleek," he says. "Some people in positions of power with ill-gotten money insulate themselves with over-the-top magnificence. They buy paintings and expensive clothes. And deep inside they know they're cheats and killers."

Visual Consultant Patrizia Von Brandenstein (Amadeus) accompanied De Palma to Chicago to devise the film's production design. "I thought about these four unlikely little guys going up against the mythic monolith of Capone," she says. "So I used architecture that showed mass and power: the Chicago Theater for the opera house, Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Building for Capone's hotel, a spiffed-up Union Station for the Odessa Steps sequence. Fortunately, Paramount let me really run wild." Steel also suggested the essential extravagance of signing Giorgio Armani, the Milanese couturier, to dress most of the characters. Working from photos of '30s gangster films, Armani reworked period shapes into a style that was less stiff, more drapable. Instead of dressing Ness blandly, Armani put him in darkly glamorous three-piece suits; rather than make Nitti gritty, he clothed him like a sepulchral angel, in gleaming white synthetics.

Now all the filmmakers needed was actors to fill the clothes. Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson were considered for Ness; both were unavailable. On the recommendation of Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan, and with Linson's avid support, De Palma selected Costner. Says De Palma: "Like Connery, he's very straightforward. He gives you everything he's got, but he wants you to play by the rules." It worked out fine; in a week the actor has gone from Who's he? to heartthrob. That is a status Connery has easily worn for a quarter-century, and he was happy to fall into Malone's sack-of-potatoes haberdashery and the film's complex ethnic weave. "There's the Mediterranean style of Capone," Connery notes, "very much in favor of the pleasures of life. Then the Wasp syndrome of Ness, very puritan. And finally the European-Irish cop -- me -- in the middle, finding his way through that minefield."

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