This first film of the marathon sets us amidst the gang warfare of prohibition-era Chicago in what is perhaps one of the most widely seen movies on our list: Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables. If you are in your thirties or older you more than likely saw The Untouchables when it came out in 1987, it was to the 80’s what Pulp Fiction was to the 90’s, a phenomenon that a wide segment of the film-going public flocked to see. An update of the classic television serial starring Robert Stack, DePalma’s sentimental depiction of hard-boiled crime fighters pits Inspector Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his Prohibition Bureau team against the iconic gangster, Al Capone (Robert DeNiro). With the help of a wizened mentor played by Sean Connery, Ness and his team of underdogs seek to take down Capone ‘the Chicago way’, invoking an all out war between factions. My first impressions of the film in 1987 were admittedly superficial and unburdened by an awareness of craft. To me it was not a DePalma film operating in emulation of previous conventions, but an exciting action caper playing out childhood hero fantasies between cops and robbers.
Revisiting the film many decades later, my impressions of the film have unavoidably changed and as much as I can appreciate the potboiler theatrics of it, I see it now through a different lens. This second viewing, I watched the movie on blu-ray and the heavy use of artificial lighting and rich historical detail gleam in that peculiar way that blu-ray allows and that aesthetic works perfectly with The Untouchables as it is a very flashy and at times unnatural amplification of the reality it depicts. This movie is as much about texture and colour as it is about anything else, it would seem there isn’t a decorative cornice or rain-soaked alleyway unexplored in Chicago, its all up there like a sumptuous display of excess. This rendering of the thirties is a strange hybrid that both exists in a real location, filmed onsite in Chicago, but is lit as if fabricated on a Hollywood back lot, with sharp profile lighting and splashes of colour that drain many of the cityscapes of their reality. David Mamet’s screenplay too keeps the beats and dialogue locked into a hard-boiled cadence that echoes the familiar Hollywood Gangster classics that it in part clearly emulates. The film is bloody and at times lingers on the consequences of violence in a way distinct from the play-violence of its predecessors, but it is still very much a pantomime at heart (i.e., the classic long death sequence of Connery’s Malone as he crawls along the floor).
What I see now is a very earnest old-fashioned kind of storytelling that embraces the melodrama of its subject without wincing, and as such seems very much a film of its times, not yet burdened with the cynicism of the nineties. The Enrico Morricone score is ornamental in a way that has regrettably gone out of fashion, it wants you to hear it, and frankly deserves to be heard. The straight-laced valor of the heroes in this film, Elliot Ness and his crew of Untouchables, gleefully relishes its own naïveté, and not even the familial scenes with Elliot’s wife (played luminously by Patricia Clarkson) feel strained, somehow DePalma is able to keep the buoyant optimism of the film untarnished.
The Untouchables is a strange mix of television pulp and cinematic grandeur; the beats play out the way they would in a serial but the visual scope is broadened to take in the breadth of the world the characters inhabit. It is a film that looks back to a simpler time, and yet, from our perspective in the 21st century, the eighties too seems a simpler time. The expected edge to the storytelling is replaced with a quirky eighties sentimentality that in itself is endearing to watch. Some of the pure cinema set-piece ‘experiments’ that DePalma employs in the film, such as the ode to Battleship Potemkin in the iconic train station scene and the POV shots of the gangster attack on Malone, are to me unnecessary indulgences that I find more successful as an academic conceit rather than a narrative imperative. Aside from these overindulgences, I thoroughly enjoyed The Untouchables as both the action caper I remembered in my youth and a successful melodrama re-imagining of cinema past.