Sunday, November 9, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: The Untouchables

The Story: It's about oaths. It's a very simple scene in David Mamet's script for "The Untouchables." Elliott Ness has gone to "Good Cop" Jimmy Malone to ask for his help in bringing Al Capone to justice. But Capone is too big, too wiley, and has too many attachments to legitimate means to be had. And Malone has doubts--about himself, about this Ness fellow, about dying. The task is too important to be screwed up, and he just doesn't have any confidence in the "green" simon-pure Ness. The scene is about oaths and promises kept, and not casually. It's about determining responsibility and the measure of a man. Where else to meet, but in a Church. In the Police precinct, "the walls have ears," but in a Church, you have God's. You'd better mean what you say, and be right sure about it. Director Brian De Palma (one of those directors who never leaves anything to chance) shoots from just two angles*--both two-shots because the scene is about the two men and their needs: Ness' for Malone's help and expertise, and Malone for Ness' commitment. The first shot looks up at them from a forward pew, looking through their hands at their up-turned faces. In Malone's hands are his fob with his master key and a medal of St. Jude ("the patron saint of Lost Causes" "...and cops," as we'll find out later.), which swings like a guillotine at times in the scene. Ness' hands are folded together, as if in prayer, as if pleading. The other shot is more difficult to get--it required a split-focal lens that would keep both Ness and Malone in sharp focus despite their different proximities to the camera. Ness is in profile (an angle that connotes dismissal, or supplication) Malone is talking directly at Ness, and to the camera, and that angle is saved for the most dramatically charged speeches. Ness' face is soft, doughy, unsure. And Malone's is craggy, lined and in constant conflict--at points angry, pitying, weak, and hard. The men are talking about life and death--for themselves and the city of Chicago. Good intentions are not good enough. You have to do what needs to be done to win. To not win is to die. It's all or nothing. There is no "middle way." Commit or die. The scene begins with Ness looking at the medal in Malone's hands. It reaches its crux when Malone looks at Ness' praying hands. Both tell each men all they need to know.

The Set-Up: Elliott Ness (Kevin Costner) has been charged to bring Chicago gangster Al "Scarface" Capone (Robert De Niro) to justice, and clean up the streets of Chicago. His first attempts have gone badly, and he begins to organize a special unit he can trust. He is first rebuffed by an elder beat-cop "Jimmy" Malone (Sean Connery), then is assigned an owlish accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). His spirits low, Ness is encouraged when Malone appears outside his office.

Malone: Okay. Let's go.
Ness: Where are we going?

Malone: These walls have ears.

Malone: You said you wanted to know how to "get" Capone. (Ness nods) Do you really wanna get him? You see what I'm saying? What are you prepared to do?

Ness: Everything within the Law.

Malone: And then what are you prepared to do?

Malone: If you open the ball on these people, Mr. Ness, you must be prepared to go...all the way.

Malone: Because they won't give up the fight...until one of you is dead.
Ness: I wanna get Capone, I don't know how to get him.

Malone: 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!

Malone: That's the Chicago way. That's how you "get" Capone.

Malone: you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I'm making you a deal. Do you want this deal?

Ness: I have sworn to put this man away, with any and all legal means at my disposal and I will do so.

Malone: Well....the Lord hates a coward.

(Hits him..holds out his hand. Ness takes it.)
Malone: D'you know what a "blood-oath" is, Mr. Ness?

Ness: Yes.

Malone: Good. 'cuz you just took one.

"The Untouchables"

Words by David Mamet

Pictures by Stephen H. Burum and Brian De Palma

"The Untouchables" is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video

* Maybe the scene is so simple because it involves Connery. The story goes that Costner, Smith, Andy Garcia, Connery and De Palma were shooting the scene of the four "Untouchables" awaiting a "sting" operation in Canada. They're in a slap-dash shack--cold, nervous, anticipating--and Connery's Malone goes to each man in turn with a bit of advice on "how to wait." At the start of the day, De Palma said to Connery: "How you gonna play this, Sean?" "I'll sit over in the corner, reading a paper." "Okay."

Then Connery left the set. As
Kim Basinger said of him: "Women love Sean. Sean loves golf."

De Palma spent the day shooting the scene with the other three, getting their close-ups and the "coverage" needed. Connery strolled in towards the end of the day, having played 18 holes. De Palma then shot his close-ups, one take, and the master shot of Connery wandering the room giving each man his advice, one take. The other three actors were amazed; they spent all day working, while Connery did two takes at the end of the day and played golf the rest of the time. They confronted Connery. "This isn't my first barbecue," was his amused reply.

Bear in mind, this is the role that won Connery his Oscar.

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