And it All Began….
(The Brian De Palma blogathon kicks off with one of my all time favorites, The Untouchables, which was also my first Brian De Palma movie. I had posted this earlier here too at Cinema View Finder )
1988 – I was watching the Academy Awards ceremony on TV. The nominees for the Best Supporting Actor were being announced, and one of them was an actor who, to date, still happens to be my favorite Bond, Sean Connery. He was slightly older, with a salt and pepper beard, but still looking dashing enough. And then they showed the clip where he utters that dialogue,
You wanna get Capone? Here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone!
The way Connery recited the dialogue, his expressions, his movements, were just totally seeti maar (a crowd-pleaser). I was not surprised when Connery won the award. Normally, I would give Oscar nominated flicks a big miss. Until then most of my Hollywood movie viewing was restricted to the big budget blockbusters and the slam-bang stuff. But this single clip just whetted my appetite. I had to see this movie. And when some of the movie magazines praised this as one of the best English language movies of the time, I was much more eager to see it. In the days before DVD, online movies, YouTube, and before HBO, the only way one could see a new English language flick, was to get hold of a videocassette. So we scoured the video shops, me and my cousin, drawing a blank that only increased our
1989 – Sangeet theater, Secunderabad, the watering hole for all the English language movie lovers of the twin cities. Our long wait had come to an end. I stepped into the theater along with my cousin, another movie fanatic like me. The screen went dark, and first came the Paramount logo, then the titles “A Brian De Palma Film”, and then the cast names. As each name appeared on the screen, the background was mostly dark. We just saw shadows that would lengthen, letters coming into focus, and then on the screen, The Untouchables in huge letters, a dark and yellow background, and the shadows sprawling across. Simple, minimal and yet so effective. One of the best opening credits ever, and add to it Ennio Morricone’s memorable opening theme. Then the movie unfolded. Robert De Niro’s introduction with the camera zooming in from the top, as he lies on the bed, having a shave, speaking to the media; Sean Connery and Kevin Costner meeting on the bridge; the encounter between Sean Connery and Andy Garcia; and of course the, by now, legendary “Odessa Steps”-inspired shootout scene in Chicago’s Union Station; and then the ending; we were totally hooked. I was now totally into the movie, and I saw it again and again, borrowing money, sometimes sitting even in the lowest class, which then cost a princely sum of Rs 5. I was not just hooked, I was mesmerized.
Even for a die hard English language movie fan like me, The Untouchables (1987) was a totally different experience altogether. It was not just the “Odessa Steps” setpiece, but so many other scenes; the dialogue; the tense confrontations; the way Prohibition Era Chicago was recreated; Ennio Morricone’s memorable score; the performances… everything. This started my fascination with Brian De Palma, and in Scarface (1983), it continued. I was not too impressed by Scarface when I saw it the first time. The staccato bursts of dialogue; the jerky camera movements; the not too likeable characters just put me off, and add to it a cartoonish climax, better suited to a Mithun Da or Rajnikanth (over the top) movie, where the hero goes single-handedly against a group of baddies. However, subsequent viewings have just made me fall in love with it, and to date, it remains one of my favorite films. Then followed a host of other flicks: Carlito’s Way (1993); Mission Impossible (1996); Body Double (1984); Carrie (1976); Dressed to Kill (1980); Blow Out (1981); and Snake Eyes (1998), that just deepened my fascination for him. What I discovered was a world of violent, gory, crazy, twisted characters; people who are not what they seem to be; camera angles that made me dizzy at times. It was not a feel good world, nor were any of his characters particularly likeable, but there was something fascinating about that. For me, De Palma’s movies are generally the inverse of Tim Burton’s dark, gothic tales. Burton creates a crazy, gothic atmosphere, populates it with strange characters, and then drives home the point that beyond that creepy looking weirdo is actually a nice, ordinary person. De Palma takes seemingly normal characters, in totally mundane places, and then takes us inside the person to show that inside him/her lies a dangerous secret. Burton takes the beast and tries to explore the human being in him. De Palma explores the beast within a human being.
It is quite ironic that my first De Palma film was quite different from most of his other movies I had seen. Sure, The Untouchables had a lot of gore, but nothing remotely close to the chainsaw murder in Scarface or the power-drill murder scene in Body Double. But what really strikes me about The Untouchables is the characterization. In sharp contrast to most of his other films, where characters are either cranked out, or inhabit a grey world between the black and white, The Untouchables has a clear cut division between black and white. In fact, The Untouchables is more of a throwback to Hollywood’s classic era movies, from its black-and-white characters, to the epic style of movie making, to Morricone’s thunderous music, to the panoramic shots. Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is the whitest of the lot, nothing seems to be wrong about him. He is an arrow-straight, honest cop; a loving husband; a doting Dad; a total family man; in total… the noble, idealistic hero. On the other extreme is Al Capone (Robert De Niro): the bad guy; the gangster who literally owns Chicago city; who has no qualms about breaking people’s heads with a baseball bat; totally ruthless and powerful. And in between there is Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), an Irish cop, who believes that going by the book is not going to help in the fight against Capone; someone who becomes Ness’s friend, philosopher, guide, and mentor; who teaches him how to fight crime ”Chicago style”. Add rookie sharpshooter George Stone (Andy Garcia); nerdy bookkeeper Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith); and a whole host of other stereotypes… the corrupt cops; the inquisitive journalist; the vicious hit man, Frank Nitti (Billy Drago). Trust De Palma to make a classic out of a movie that is totally black-and-white in terms of characterization, and which is predictable more often than not. Even now, I don’t care if Connery’s accent is really Scottish or Irish. I just love watching him deliver that ”crime-fighting Chicago style” quote, or that kickass movement when he pretends to interrogate a dead gangster and gets the other gangster to speak up. The brilliance of De Palma’s shot setups for me begins right with the opening shot of Al Capone itself. The camera zooming in to Capone, lying on his couch taking a shave as the media persons surround him shooting questions at him.
And as Capone is speaking to the press persons, the barber accidentally nicks him. The man is terrified, afraid of facing the wrath of Chicago’s most powerful person, and begins to cower. For a minute the tension level rises up, and Capone just smirks, the barber is relieved. That one bit speaks a whole lot for the way Capone was able to wield power over so many people. Another brilliant moment is the first encounter between Malone and George Stone. The fact that Stone was really an Italian, Guiseppe Petri, and had to change his name to avoid discrimination highlights the anti-Italian bias as well as the traditional Italian-Irish animosity. Here again, I loved the way Andy Garcia was introduced, people at the shooting range, Garcia’s back to the camera. Suddenly he whirls around, bang, bang, bang, totally classic film style. Then the face off:
Malone: Why do you want to join the force? Stone: To protect the property and citizenry of… Malone: Ah, don’t waste my time with that bullshit. Where you from, Stone? Stone: I’m from the South Side. Malone: Stone. George Stone. That’s your name? What’s your real name? Stone: That is my real name. Malone: Nah. What was it before you changed it? Stone: Giuseppe Petri. Malone: Ah, I knew it. That’s all you need, one thieving wop on the team. Stone: Hey, what’s that you say? Malone: I said that you’re a lying member of a no good race. Stone: Much better than you, you stinking Irish pig. Malone: Oh, I like him.
I also loved the way De Palma sets up Malone’s death scene. The camera tracking the intruder, Malone’s back to us, when he suddenly wheels around, mocking the intruder for taking a knife to attack him, and as he comes a waiting Nitti lets out a stream of bullets. Finally, there’s the iconic shoot out scene. Again, here the setup is brilliant: Ness and Stone wait in the station looking for the gangsters. The air is thick with tension and the station is largely deserted, except for a few people. The camera zooms in onto the stairs, and then a lady wheels down the steps with her baby in a pram. Ness offers to help, and as he guides the pram down the stairs, the tension goes up further. The gangsters come in and the firing begins, shots intercutting between the pram rolling down the stairs, close-ups of the mom screaming out, and the gangsters and cops firing at each other, all in slow motion. And then the final coup de grâce, Stone, sliding to stop the pram, and throwing the revolver to Ness. Gosh, even now, a good 20 years after the movie has been released, this scene just hooks me. I mean no amount of CGI-induced stuff can hold a candle to this scene for me, one of the most brilliantly shot ever. Interestingly, for a director whose movies are often women-centric or have strong female characters, The Untouchables has no prominent female characters at all.
Also the movie is totally devoid of sex, again a surprising departure for De Palma, considering that most of his early movies were noted for their voyeurism and erotic scenes (most notably the steamy dream sequence in Dressed to Kill). It is as if De Palma was trying to prove that he could make studio friendly blockbusters too, after Scarface was roundly trashed by critics and criticized by many family audiences for its high level of violence. De Palma’s career itself is interesting. One of the 70s directorial brat pack, along with Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, and Lucas, he followed his own path. He was not a studio favorite as, barring Carrie, most of his other movies were not exactly huge money spinners. But what really hurt him more was the fact that unlike Scorsese or Coppola, he was never a critics’ darling either. He was quite often dismissed as a style-over-substance specialist, or a second-rate Hitchcock, and the critical bashing reached a peak with Scarface. The fact is, most of the time, critics would benchmark his movies with others in the genre, and quite often than not it would never satisfy their expectations. Many expected Scarface to be a Cuban Godfather, but it ended up something different, totally contrary to the gangster genre. It did not really go by the conventions of what critics expected from a gangster flick. But honestly does Brian De Palma really care for critical applause? I really don’t think so. This is a man who is so passionately in love with his craft, his movies, that quite often he really does not care. Nor has he ever gone down the “Dude, where is my Oscar?” path, unlike some other directors who started off with quirky indie stuff, and then quickly turned to more studio friendly, Academy-friendly stuff. Quite often he has mocked studios and critics, showing the middle finger to them, making movies the way he loves to. But then with The Untouchables, he has shown that he could make a stylish, studio friendly, gangster epic, that still is miles ahead of the standard summer blockbuster. And it’s quite fitting that he should be an admitted influence to another rebel, Quentin Tarantino. I don’t want to get into cliche territory here, calling De Palma a genius or a maverick, this series of posts is rather my take on his work, and his movies. There is still a whole lot of Brian De Palma for me to explore: his early movies with De Niro (Greetings, Hi Mom); his pre-Carrie work (Sisters, Obsession, The Fury); and Phantom of the Paradise (1974), one of his more acclaimed movies. And I sure hope I get to watch them, sometime or other.