The Untouchables, and the expensive set seen for just over three minutes

The Untouchables
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The devil was in the detail when it came to 1987’s superb The Untouchables – and that included the suite where Robert De Niro’s Al Capone lived.

With a price tag of $25m in an era when that felt like a reasonable amount of money for a major Hollywood studio to spend, Paramount Pictures’ 1987 hit The Untouchables was really something of a gamble.

>Granted, it was a gamble mitigated by the presence of some star wattage. Still, Robert De Niro in the role of Al Capone was a man more known for attracting strong critical notices than packing the house out. Sean Connery meanwhile was far from at the height of his commercial pulling powers (in fact, it was The Untouchables and his Oscar win for the movie that would reopen some Hollywood eyes to him as an actor and star).

Throw in the fact that director Brian De Palma was desperately needing a hit after a run of box office disappointments and that the picture’s star – Kevin Costner – was pretty much an unknown at this stage, and it’s fair to say the movie was something of a dice roll.

Still, in the midst of that $25m budget were one or two elements that you’d hardly considerable frugal.

For one, there’s the well-known story of Bob Hoskins, who was originally cast in the role of Capone. Yet when first choice De Niro then agreed to take the role on, Hoskins was paid off with a £200,000 cheque. Hoskins was then said to have placed a call to De Palma, asking if there were any more films that he didn’t want to appear in. He tells the story here…

Yet what’s often overlooked in the sumptuous detail of The Untouchables is just how much went on a single set that was seen for fewer than four of the film’s 119 minutes. That would be the three-room suite at the Lexington Hotel in which we meet Al Capone.

It’s the opening shot of the film where it’s first seen, with Capone in a barber’s chair getting a shave. Then, we’re introduced to the extensive suite during the film that’s dripping in opulence.

So important was this single set to the movie, that $170,000 of the movie’s budget was spent on it. Thing is, a lot of the detail in it you have no chance of seeing.

It was the job of production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein to spend the money, and she was briefed by De Palma to put together something that conveyed a man at the heart of his world. As the November 1987 issue of Premiere magazine would describe it, “a sort of gangland Sun King”.

Von Brandenstein thus went for a mix of the architecture of Versailles with “20th century excess” for the study, dressing room and bedroom apartment she designed, with $2,000 alone spent on the chair we first see De Niro sitting in. This was an antique barber’s chair purchased for the production, and the basins on either side of it came with faucets that added $400 apiece to the bill.

Furthermore, the faucets were plumbed and ready to work, but they were ultimately not used in the film.

Also not used was a $13,000 rack of clothes that was bought to go in Al Capone’s dresser. Not that the audience would notice them. In all the time we spent in Capone’s suite in the film, the doors to said dresser were never opened. We thus never got to see all the clothes and the 14 different hats that were contained within it.

Add to the list too that webarely get a glimpse of six safes that are found around Capone’s apartment, and the fact that two of them worked properly as well was pretty much rendered moot. Von Brandenstein went to the trouble of filling one of the safes with jewellery, but it’s a case of blink and you miss it if you’re looking for said sparkly things on screen.

What we did see was the collection of antique perfume bottles that were bought, plus the special marble floor that was designed for the apartment. This drew heavily on the stylings of Louis XIV’s court in France, and it took five people to put this together. The production was a little more frugal when it came to Capone’s desk, which was a $12,000 reproduction of a Louis XVI piece, but this time the decision was made to rent it rather than buy. Still, a second desk was rented as well, and the camera never went near that.

More details? Around the suite, a nude painting is found on one of the walls, that took two weeks to draw. Capone’s bed meanwhile was elevated and was build to a size that traditional bed linen wouldn’t fit. The cosy looking blankets and satin sheets we see De Niro relaxing all had to be made specially.

The biggest outlay that we never clap eyes on though? That’d be a pair of $20,000 cabinets situated at the back of the apartment. They were there in case De Palma wanted to point his camera in that direction. But he didn’t.

Still, what De Palma was able to do though, courtesy of the design that Von Brandenstein put forward and worked to, was shoot the entire suite so that all three rooms could be seen in a single frame. He had the flexibility to do that, and get across the size and scale of Capone’s domain.

It all took a lot of work to get it right.

This one single set took a sizeable team four weeks alone to put together. Again, going back to that Premiere article, it required the services of 25 builders, dressers, upholsterers and painters in that time, to get across the feeling of excess and it being “the best that money can buy” that Von Brandenstein was aiming for.

There was one more feature to look out for too: watch the film again, and you’ll note that Capone’s bedroom is bright and full of colour, in stark contrast to the red-drenched surroundings leading there. The thinking being to signify that Capone was surrounded by blood, but none of it actually touched him.

The price tag for all of this may have been, to the outside looking in, on the excessive side. But being as von Brandenstein had won an Oscar for her lavish production design on Amadeus a few years previous, it didn’t ultimately come as a surprise. Nor did the fact that she’d pick up another nod for The Untouchables. Her work on the film is quite brilliant.

The finished suite is only seen for three and a half minutes in the film though, and here’s the opening sequence to demonstrate some of the detail of it. Note in here that De Palma allows himself a cut some 40 seconds in. His original plan had been to do this opening all in one shot, but even though he would prove something of a master of such moments, even he couldn’t managed to get everything he wanted here in one go…

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