Let’s face it, ever since David Mamet started directing his own movies, his screenwriting has gone downhill (Glengarry Glen Ross was a play first, remember). His last master piece for the screen was The Untouchables (1987), which he wrote for Brian De Palma. I saw the film at the Venice Film Festival where that year Mamet’s own House Of Games was also showing.
by Karel Segers
Ironically, the success of House of Games and his ensuing directing career might have been the nail in the coffin of Mamet’s screenwriting genius. Never did he reach the level of e.g. The Verdict again. Something Wag The Dog may have fun, but ridiculously overrated to my taste – and certainly not a huge success, given its star power.
I believe Brian De Palma has never reached the standard of The Untouchables again, either. So let’s reminisce about the good times.
The Untouchables is a classic in every sense. Masterful storytelling, lush art direction, outstanding cinematography and solid performances, most of all by De Niro in his landmark role as Al Capone. Some people argue that Morricone’s outdated music score ruins a contemporary viewing of the film, but I don’t mind the added touch of melodrama. (De gustibus et coloribus… I also love Bowfinger) The Untouchables is textbook example of storytelling in the tradition of Aristotle, with a strong Hero’s Journey framework. It shows again how powerful movies pay off on these essential story elements.
THEMATIC QUESTION: WHAT ARE YOU PREPARED TO DO
Our movie moment follows right after the hero’s lowest point, when Eliot Ness’ mentor Malone is found murdered by Capone’s right hand guy Frank Nitti. The scene is a screenwriting master class in designing “The Ordeal”. Malone hands Ness two gifts before passing away: in the outer journey he gives Ness the time tables of the train Capone’s bookkeeper will be on and for the inner journey he reminds Ness “What are you prepared to do?” The question refers to an earlier scene where Malone explained that Ness can only succeed ‘the Chicago way’, which is basically an upgraded version of ‘an eye for an eye’. The Ordeal scene is preceded and followed by a brief shot showing Capone enjoying a night at the opera (the Shadow’s high point).
(I can’t seem to get the audio in sync with the picture – apologies for this)
THE MOMENT: CHICAGO TRAIN STATION STEPS
You may have noticed that most mainstream movies have a scene of travel or movement at the opening of Act Three. In this healthy tradition, David Mamet wrote a train chase in the script but De Palma had splurged most of the budget by the time they had to film it, so he had to improvise.
For years De Palma had toyed with the idea of paying homage to Sergei Eistenstein’s ‘odessa steps’ scene from Battleship Potemkin. Now the circumstances were handing it to him on a golden plate. When Ness (Costner) and Stone (Garcia) enter the train station and descend the steps, two marines cross them, going up. At this moment, every true movie buff subliminally makes the connection. Of what follows, most people will remember the spectacular Mexican standoff, but what makes this scene really work is the suspense leading up to it.
De Palma had been doing Hitchcock style exercises for over twenty years and here we see him at full maturity. The scene runs for six minutes before the first bullet is fired and another two before the standoff is fully established. A great example of a beautifully built, meaty scene with a totally satisfying climax. The purest of cinema.
- Karel Segers
Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 7-year old son Baxter and anyone else who listens.
He is also the boss of this blog.