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“Marriage Is An Adventure, Like Going To War” – The Untouchables

Brian De Palma’s most successful film is one charting the lives of two very different men to the backdrop of the alcohol prohibition of 1930’s America. A film about justice, faith and conscience, The Untouchables is a work tied together by some very unlikely themes, wrapping a typical Hollywood blockbuster around a core that is actually fairly successful as a psychological exploration of a pair of men that stand on opposite sides of the law.

The film begins with an ambitious opening shot statically capturing from above the sight of Al Capone (Robert De Niro), the crime lord who, thanks to the impact of alcohol prohibition, has risen to the level of unofficial “mayor” of Chicago, such is the reach of his menacing reputation. Capone is being pampered while entertaining a group of journalists, a barber closely shaving his face. The shot recalls a murder scene, with the layout of the characters mimicking that of a team of journalists gathering around a dead body, noting their observations for future publication. This same placement and camera angle is replicated throughout the film, including, appropriately enough, during sequences in which actual crimes are charted.

On the other hand we have Elliot Ness, the lawmen portrayed by Kevin Costner. Ness’s introduction is much more serene and downplayed than that of his counterpart. We don’t actually see the man’s face, with instead the focus being initially upon his newspaper, before shifting to that of his wife. The follow-up sequence sees the characters facial introduction once again disturbed, this time by the flashbulbs of the very same journalists who had earlier pandered to the every word of Al Capone. It isn’t until Ness’s third scene, in which he is completely removed from family and the media, that we see his full, uninterrupted facial profile, notably only when he is in a wholly professional environment. It’s a subtle, yet incredibly effective setting up of nemesis.

With the introduction of Ness we are also introduced to the films most prevalent running theme; that of marriage. Marriage brings with it stability, and much focus hinders on the wedding band of the films core protagonist. Later Ness enforces a  “No Married Men” rule as condition of entry to his gang of G-men, somewhat contradicting his own marital status, yet also somewhat authenticating the mans attitude towards his own family; he’s seen what position his actions have placed his own family in, and doesn’t want to exact that own fate upon anyone else. Conscience, another recurring theme, alongside its natural bedfellow, injustice, all ties in to this system of themes that flesh out Ness’s psychological state.

De Palma lays out the tone of the film with a shocking scene in a manner not hugely dissimilar to the manner in which George A. Romero sets the tone in Dawn Of The Dead. As the depths to which the criminal gangs behind prohibition are willing to stoop are laid out, we see a small boy caught up in a barroom explosion, the result of non-cooperation. No punches are held in De Palma’s portrayal of a lawless world, even the most unlikely, un-Hollywood people are capable of falling victim to the unflinching brutality of Al Capone.

In the scene that follows that of the explosion, Ennio Morricone’s measured score makes for a notable contrast to the heavy noise that cut to the sequence. By cutting directly to Ness from Capone’s act of horror, De Palma sets the film up as a battle between this pair, setting the tone straight with the viewer. In spite of the sprawling nature of the work The Untouchables is essentially very much a small character drama, built around the different approaches to existence offered by the antagonist and protagonist. Case in point, lets compare the reactions of the two men after they first kill (within the context of the film); An undeniably charismatic Capone smiles as he brutality beats a man to death with a baseball bat, exacting out his punishment in a public arena. Contrast this with the reaction of Ness, after he is forced to kill in order to save his own life, an act followed by the exclamation of “What is this, a game?” as he comes to terms with his actions. Ness is distraught, and never comes to terms with the act of killing, poetically reaching essential justice within the law courts of the corrupt and broken courts of the State in which he is charged with protecting.

The streets of 1930’s prohibition-era Chicago are a marvel of pre-CGI set design. Sites (and indeed sights) as diverse as the Chicago municipal post office and the Canadian Rockies are replicated convincingly, avoiding much of the trappings of the average 1980’s Hollywood production. Costume wise, while not especially contemporarily correct, are similarly successful. Great, if not overtly stylised suits designed by Giorgio Armani, coupled with the general costume design of Marilyn Vance. “Stylised” would be an appropriate description for the tone of the film actually, from the over-the-top cartoon-esque “punch-bang-wallop” sound effects that accompany every punch-out, to the vehicles that Ness and Co. use to track down Al Capone’s men.

Speaking of “Ness and Co.”, De Niro and Costner are accompanied by a solid cast of supporting players. Top of the pile would be Sean Connery; whose bizarre Jimmy Malone bagged the actor a Best Supporting Actor is great fun. Andy Garcia brings a sense of youthful cool to proceedings, and American Graffiti’s Charles Martin Smith is represented in one of the rare outings following his appearance in the George Lucas film that actually proved memorable. Patricia Clarkson here makes her debut, as Ness’s faithful wife.

De Palma is known to be a great fan of the cinema, a true Cineaste, if you will, and The Untouchables contains the directors most well known homage to the cinema, in the shape of the sequence that riffs on the Odessa steps sequence from Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. There are also clear nods to Bertolucci too, and the film is full of Hitchcockian angles. The most effective example of De Palma fully exploring film form comes during the scene that takes place in a church shortly after Ness has met Malone for the first time.  There is a genuinely breathtaking use of depth of field in the scene, bringing the faces of both men fully in to view, and placing them level, in spite of the distance between the two figures. Again, the hands of Ness are on full view, emphasising the wedding band that symbolizes the core theme of the movie.

Observation and voyeurism also form a major part of the thematic backbone of the film. There are a number of lengthy stakeouts in the film, and a later scene, in which Malone is being watched from outside his house, magnificently combines first-person camerawork with unrealistic tracking shot. Again, this is cinematic; dramatic and unreal, fitting in perfectly alongside the generally staged nature of the film. The tension in these scenes recalls De Palma’s greatest influence, Alfred Hitchcock, as does the final rooftop shootout of the film, which brings to mind Vertigo, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Observation also brings to mind De Palma’s own work, most notably 1981′s Blow Out.

At the heart of it The Untouchables is a solid, rollicking men on a mission adventure film, via Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. History, as well as familiarity with this kind of Hollywood narrative, dictates that the outcome of the film is clear from the off (Capone will fall and justice will prevail), but even the most cynical film viewer will struggle not to be caught in De Palma’s, to paraphrase a newspaper headline from the film itself, Crusading Cop flick.

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3 thoughts on ““Marriage Is An Adventure, Like Going To War” – The Untouchables

  1. Kurt Walker says:

    Great piece Adam! You do a great job here nn not falling to the trappings of usual De Palma critical approaches, and I love your observation about that opening shot! I am curious though, where do you see Bertolucci-esque touches? I’m a big De Palma nut but very rarely do I detect influence outside of his regular pool: Hitch, Godard, and Blow-up, so I can’t help but be curious!

    • I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Conformist for some reason. This was my first viewing of The Untouchables, and the description that Bertolluci’s cinematic style, with The Conformist at least, “synthesizes expressionism, invisible Hollywood editing, and “fascist” film aesthetics of the kind articulated in classic German films of the thirties” struck me as something of an accurate a description of The Untouchables too!

      http://italian.vassar.edu/resources/bertolucci/conformist.html

  2. I agree, a very good piece, but you do it a disservice by not mentioning the brilliant script by David Mamet. Punchy, poetic and lyrical, it truly elevates this piece to a new level. “I have foresworn myself, I have broken every law I swore to uphold, I have become what I have beheld, and I am content that I have done right.” -Elliott Ness, during the Capone’s trial., on the lengths he has gone to to secure justice.

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