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Peter Sagal – In The Untouchables, Mamet and Costner Battle Over What It Means to Be a Man


Last month, I wrote about how a team of writers can be hitched together to make a good, even great Hollywood movie; today, a case study of the opposite approach, in which a big budget flick is entrusted to the talent of a single writer. In fact, screenwriter David Mamet‘s sensibility so dominates The Untouchables, that when the director needed an extra scene late in production, and Mamet was unavailable, they staged it during an opera performance so that the audience couldn’t hear any dialogue. Better silence than a single non-Mametian word.

David Mamet’s art and influence on other writers is a subject for a book, not a blog post, but suffice to say that behind the famous staccato “realist” dialogue larded with obscenities* is an obsession with men and masculinity — a particular kind of masculinity that is defined not by morals or ethics but by effective action. My favorite Mamet character, the salesman Ricky Roma from the play Glengarry Glen Ross (played by Al Pacino in the movie version) lashes out at another character: “Who ever told you you could work with men?” That girly-man’s failing? Not that he was a cheat, but that he wasn’t a sufficiently competent cheat. In Mamet’s world, the real men are the ones who can do what must be done.

So: When we meet Eliot Ness, played by the sweetly handsome Kevin Costner, he is well-meaning and thus useless. “Let’s do some good,” he says to the other cops before a raid on a liquor warehouse, and they literally laugh at him. More importantly, he fails. His niceness, his ethics, make him impotent.

Enter the beat cop Malone, played by Sean Connery, who won an Oscar for the role and delivers the movie’s most quoted lines:

Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull 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!

This has obvious shortcomings as practical advice, unless you want to end up (Spoiler alert!) sending a lot of people to the morgue. But it’s not about tactics, it’s about attitudes. It’s about putting aside niceties like the law and conscience and becoming as brutal as your opponent, or more. And in reaction Costner stutters and says mealy-mouthed things about staying “within the law,” but Malone knows that’s not going to last, because nobody gets to the end of a Mamet script by staying within anything.

Contrast Ness’s reaction with the famous dinner party Al Capone (played by Robert DeNiro) throws for his lieutenants. His “baseball” speech is pure Mamet: the asked and answered rhetorical questions, the statements of Principle, but mainly, the fact that the speech is not at all about what it purports to be about:

Capone: A man becomes preeminent, he’s expected to have enthusiasms… What are mine?… Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement… But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork… If his team don’t field… what is he? You follow me? No one. Sunny day, the stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? I’m goin’ out there for myself. But… I get nowhere unless the team wins.

And then he beats one of his men to death with a baseball bat. Why? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Capone whacks him, morals, law and a nice table setting be damned. And that is the difference between Capone and Ness… for now.

The rest of the movie is about the transformation of Ness, if not into Capone’s equal, then into his counterpart — somebody just as willing to do whatever it takes, up to and beyond the killing of a defenseless man to achieve his ends. At the movie’s climax, Mamet writes for Ness an explicit statement about his own transformation:

Ness: I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!

Well, sort of. Despite Mamet’s best efforts, Kevin Costner remains Kevin Costner, for whom stone-cold ruthlessness is not a club carried in his bag. The line in Costner’s mouth feels  writerly and unearned, and we’re left to wonder how much better this good movie could have been with a different actor in the lead.

Even the movie’s final line underscores the message: If Prohibition ends, Ness (who has spent the entire movie learning to brutally kill bootleggers) will “have a drink.” The ends are arbitrary and can change in a moment, but the means are essential. A man is somebody who answers Malone’s dying question, “What you prepared to do?” with the honest answer, “Whatever it takes.”

*not on basic cable, though. It still amazes me that we have a censorship regime, overseen by the FCC, that will fine a broadcaster for airing the F-word but allows them to show as many men shot in the face as seems artistically necessary.

Peter Sagal is the host of NPR’s news quiz, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! heard by three million listeners each week via 520 public radio stations and podcast, and the author of The Book of Vice: Naughty Things and How to Do Them. He is also a playwright and screenwriter, and once wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights without meaning to.

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