“Nah! What was it before you changed it?”

The Untouchables (1987)
*** Burke Favorite ***
Dir: Brian DePalma
Stars: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Robert DeNiro

The Untouchables used to be a TV series starring Robert Stack, which was based on the exploits of legendary Treasury Agent Elliott Ness and his band of crime fighters as they took on the gangsters of Chicago.  Brian DePalma’s 1987 film follows the story as well, complete with how they actually got Capone in the end, but takes plenty of artistic license.  The subject of artistic license and the 1987 film itself are topic enough for two other ronhamprod blog entries: for today, I want to focus on just one scene that occurs early in the film, a scene in which one of the four characters is recruited.

So far in the film, several important elements have been established.  First and foremost, the city of Chicago in 1930 has a real problem on its hand, and that problem is Al Capone.  This guy is truly the king of the city and runs it like a Roman senator would run his cut of the countryside.  Capone has greased the wheels of justice with enough money to keep every justice official out of his affairs, which simply amount to the illegal distribution of alcohol (remember, these were the days of the Volstead Act and Prohibition).  If the graft isn’t enough for those in the way of Capone’s outfit, they resort to violence as established in one of the first scenes: a local bar owner refuses to buy Capone’s spirits, so he and the little girl who stopped by the bar to get water are blown to bits in a bomb left by Capone’s henchman, Frank Nitti (played by creepy, type-cast villain, Billy Drago).

It’s also important to note that the hero, Eliot Ness, has been established, too.  You ever notice how important it is to a story to see the eventual hero fail at one point or another in the story?  We’ll chat about that more in another post, but at this point in The Untouchables, Ness has fallen and fallen hard.  He has promised the citizens of Chicago – including the mother of that little girl who died in the bar, mind you – that he’ll be above the graft and the injustice of Capone.  But, in his first very public raid of a warehouse, he finds nothing but umbrellas.  He’s so angry that he tosses the newspaper article covering this failure off the bridge – and now he’s in trouble.  It seems a long time beat cop named Jim Malone – played masterfully by Sean Connery – is passing by just when Ness litters.  “Now just what the hell do you think you’re doing,” he says.  In this scene, Malone endears himself to Ness as one of the good guys: in fact, Ness would love to work with Malone!  But Malone insists he’s too old – “I’m just a poor beat cop!  If I was as good as you say, why am I still on the street at my age?!”

Once some time in the story passes, Malone reluctantly approaches Ness (after all, as Malone says himself, “The Lord hates a coward…”).  He informs Ness that if he really, truly wants to get Capone, he’s going to have to do it outside the law: just consider his dialogue in this church scene here, which is rather fun to watch.  In an alternate universe, this tiny scene would be enough of a preview for me….

“What’re you prepared to do?”

In one of the very next scenes, Malone helps Ness find some people he can trust.  I was serious when I said before that Ness really can’t trust anyone in the city if they’re all being greased by Capone!  Anyhow, Malone speaks in parables and riddles to help the fumbling Ness, saying, “If you don’t want a rotten apple, don’t go to the barrel…. pick it off the tree!”

So, down to the Police Academy they go.  The recruits are all lined up and practicing some shooting when Malone and Ness ask the instructor to get the two best shots in the class to come over.  While the first one is a stuttering idiot, who Malone predicts will be the next chief of police, the second is a gent named “George Stone,” played by Andy Garcia. This guy’s got his police issue revolver snug in his sweatsuit, right by the crack of his ass and he yanks it out and puts three rounds in the belly of the target, then another three – one for the nose and two for the eyes.  Right away we like this guy!

Then, he comes over to chat with Malone, and the dialogue goes something like this:

Malone: Why you wanna join the force?
Stone (thinking a minute): To protect the property and citizenry of –
Malone: Oh, please, don’t waste my time with that bullshit!

Stone looks at Malone with a peculiar look, as if to ask, “are you for real?”  Malone stops, takes a closer look at Stone.

Malone: Where are you from, Stone?
Stone: From the south side.
Malone: Stone?  George Stone?!  That’s your name?  (Pause.)  What’s your real name?
Stone: That is my real name.
Malone: Nah!  What was it before you changed it?
Stone (long pause, agitated): Guisspe Pettri.
Malone(to Ness): Aw, jeez, I knew it! That’s all ya need is one thievin’ wop in the chain!
Stone (pats Malone on the back): What’s that you say?
Malone(pushing Stone in the chest with his clip board): I said, that you’re a lyin’ member… of a no good race!

Stone SLAMS Malone’s clip board out of his hands.  Malone grabs at his waist for his blackjack as Stone reaches for his target pistol.  Stone gets to his weapon first and shoves the barrel of it right in Malone’s throat.

Stone: It’s much better than you, you stinkin’ Irish shit-pig.
Malone(looking at Ness, his blackjack still raised above his head): Oh, I like him.
Ness: Yeah, I like him too.
Malone(shaking Stone’s hand): You just joined the Treasury Dept., son.
Stone: Yeah, OK.

Malone gives him a playful slap on the cheek.  Can you see why I love this scene so much?  I mean, it’s not only that it’s my kind of character, one of my favorite genres and it involves some of my favorite actors: it’s also the expert mix of entertainment with efficiency for the story.  Obviously, Ness is going to need some help.  Clearly, we want to root for these guys – but we can’t spend as much time on the Stone character or the Treasury accountant, Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) as we did with establishing Jim Malone.  So, this scene uses an exciting location – the gun range – a little comedy in the dialogue and a little bit of tension in the scene’s build to establish George Stone.  Here is a man with boundaries, a street-smart kid who isn’t afraid to go for his weapon, even if he IS in the middle of a bunch of cops!  And at the end of the scene, they show that Stone isn’t the sort to take things personally, either: he even kind of laughs when Malone smacks his cheek.  In short, this is exactly the kind of man Malone is seeking to round out their little merry band of crime fighters.

Needless to say, the film contains plenty of other memorable scenes – baseball bat, Mounties, train station, anyone? – but I thought I’d focus on this one as a textbook example of how to quickly introduce a character without making the scene cliche and distracting from the whole.

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