Monday, May 20, 2024

Crime Watch: The Untouchables (1987)

Watched:  05/19/2024
Format:  4K
Viewing:  Unknown
Director:  Brian DePalma

When I was 12, it was, for reasons lost to time, very important for me to see The Untouchables (1987).  Something about the trailers must have set me off.  But I had also, in 1986, sat through the entirety of the Geraldo Rivera debacle, The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault.  And while we all sat there in real time watching Geraldo Rivera show his whole ass to the world by famously finding nothing,* they filled that time with biographical and historical info on Capone and the 1920's mob scene in Chicago.  So it's possible Geraldo had no small part in why I wanted to see this movie.  

My excitement was such that I bought one of those movies magazines (that you can still get at Walgreen's) with "behind the scenes" material and lots of glossy promo pictures and whatnot.  But, this one was not just filler - they actually got into the actual history of Capone and his cohorts, many of whom have unnamed parts in the movie.  I also learned, hey, there had been a popular TV series of the same name back in 1959-1963.

When the movie arrived, I was 12 and had no idea who Brian DePalma was.  Or Ennio Morricone.  And certainly not David F'ing Mamet.  Thanks to a dad who was a Bond guy, I was versed in Sean Connery.  And I knew Costner from Silverado, certainly.  But unless it was Harrison Ford, I don't think I was yet watching movies to see anyone in particular.

What I remember from seeing the movie the first time includes
  • Buying the biggest bucket of popcorn they had, turning around from the counter, tripping and dumping it on the floor.
  • The title sequence and the rockin' Morricone score
  • seeing a kid blown up in the first minute of the movie
  • the architecture of Chicago (still impresses, y'all!)
  • the violence was not Commando-style action violence - more on this later
Anyway, I loved the movie.  It was men being men.  It had ties to actual history even if it's an abysmal representation of what actually happened between Ness and Capone.  It was beautifully shot.  The soundtrack was killer.  It felt like it had weight and gravitas that much of what I watched did not.

In college, I read producer Art Linson's book A Pound of Flesh, and it had lots of nifty behind-the-scenes stuff about the movie.  

But it's not a movie I've carried with me into adulthood - at least until I saw it was $11 for 4K on Amazon.  I have no idea why it's that cheap, but it was as of this writing.  So I picked it up for the special features, and to never have to rent it again.  

But, yeah, I don't think the movie came with me, because it's a wildly uneven film.  

Look, the movie is gorgeous.  Every shot is breathtaking - in no small part thanks to DP Steve Burum (who I think also killed it on Something Wicked This Way Comes and other movies).  And it has numerous highly technical sequences and just weird DePalma stuff in it. 
  • a POV shot of an unnamed assassin, the camera comes into Malone's building from the exterior and just keep going in the interior and moving around.  
  • In the cabin on the border, they've removed one of the walls as we follow Malone entering, waling through the cabin and onto the back porch - all followed left to right by the camera, with the wall not a factor as we pass through.  
  • Dig the red and blue lighting in the sequence where Malone fights with his old colleague to get the info about where the accountant is
  • The opening shot with Capone getting his shave and DePalma mustering his "Star Wars crawl" abilities
We can also talk about the stairway scene in the train-station where DePalma decides to just homage a scene none of us had ever seen in 1987, the Odessa Steps sequence in The Battleship Potemkin, an influential Soviet film.  (I cannot imagine how annoyed by Film History prof was that every time he showed this sequence, the students were whispering "...Untouchables..!" to each other.)  

But even in still shots and those without neat-o tricks going on, it's a gorgeous film.  The sets are mostly real locations - the movie shot only ~55 years after the events portrayed.  But everything is lit, designed and captured to make this epic, an American myth of rule of law triumphing over the criminals who would rot away the framework of a nation based on law.  

And producer Art Linson spared no expense.  The costumes are by Armani, for god's sake.**  There's tons of extras, all in costume.  Cars that would now be CG.  Location shooting.  A second shoot in Montana.  Every penny is up there on screen.  

It's a High Noon-ish story of one man wanting to pursue justice in a town that gave up on that idea a long time ago.  And I think it feels like a movie where there's threads that could easily have been followed a lot further.  Some of the context would be lost, I think, to folks coming to the movie for the first time in 2024 that struck me then on a subconscious level and resonates in particular now.  And some of the John Law type stuff reads pretty badly in an era where we're re-evaluating what law enforcement is in the US.

For all the grandeur, this is also a movie that has a peculiar take on violence.  It indulges in violence, and when it occurs, this isn't what we saw on television or in movies of the era.  

When people are injured or shot, there's blood, and plenty of it.  When our heroes engage with violence, it lessens them.  It's the subtext of what Malone is saying in his "Chicago Way" speech.  How far are you willing to go?  And that's not a question of just seeing through what you started, but how do you meet violence with the violence the other side uses casually in the course of business?  What does that make you and how does it change you?  And are you still in the moral right?  Do the ends justify the means?  

This is a movie that has our law man, Ness, who asks his cops not to drink, to be upstanding citizens, and in the film's last scenes, throws an unarmed man off a roof.  Whether he "deserves" it or not, it's complicated.  But it's also a movie wherein Malone surely knows the minute he signs on with Ness, he's probably not going to make it out, which is not something Charles Martin Smith's Oscar Wallace knows when he picks up a gun - and then finds a thrill in using it.  Before he's murdered just two scenes later.

Capone is violence in a designer suit.  The movie assumes we know about Capone, how he came up, and that he holds his position through ruthless enforcement.   Oddly the film never mentions The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which it could have.  Instead, it relies on a possibly apocryphal story to bring you a moment of Capone's charisma, and the ease with which he can personally deploy violence (via the baseball speech).   

The movie ends with Ness looking at the photo of his team, half of which died badly, and mutters to himself about "so much violence".  

As a kid, I was taken by the character moments, that this was a movie dealing in actual impact of the "action" sequences.  But I think it's trying to say something about violence, and the horror of it that Chicago was responding to when they finally got serious about their gangland problem.

But this is also where the movie starts tripping over itself.  And you see this a lot in late 1980's pop movies with complex ideas baked inside.  It also needs to have a satisfying kill by our lead.  Ness chooses to toss Nitti off the courthouse, and there's literally no impact to the story whatsoever.  He's indulged in quippy 80's revenge violence, and, indeed, that act (performed in front of 1000's of windows) is never mentioned again.  Granted - yes, he had every movie reason to kill the guy who had threatened his wife and children, and who admitted to murdering Malone. 

The movie has essentially one of two paths to take once Ness tosses Nitti off the roof - they can (a) do what they did and give the 1980's audience used to Dirty Harry their closure, or they can (b) have Ness wrestle with having become that which he fought against.  And DePalma and Co. choose (a) with a dash of (b).  As I said, there's no actual impact.  Ness murders a guy on top of the theoretical home of justice, and it's only in some vague handwavng in a rushed speech at the film's narrative climax that he says "I've broken every law I swore to uphold."  But no one blinks, and nothing happens as a consequence.  No one is curious why Al Capone's friend has fallen from a roof.*** 

It doesn't work, narratively.  But you might not notice that, because the courtroom ending of the movie is so ridiculously full of shit, it boggles the mind.  

The movie could be read as saying "see, the system works.  Hooray for lawmen."  But it isn't saying that at all.  It's saying you start killing people to get to your goals, including on the side of the law.  After all, these same cops picked up their witness in a hail of gunfire that offs innumerable innocent people, which would have been a national scandal (but which is never mentioned again).  

I can't believe that after mounting a movie with this talent, this budget, this much *thought*, the movie decides that the story trick will be to try and swap out juries before we go into final arguments.  And that this, somehow, convinces Capone's attorney to speak for him and put in a Guilty plea that Capone is obviously not on board with, in public.  It.  Makes.  No.  Sense.

Sure, it worked for me when I was 12, and was like "hey, movie say that what happen, so that what happen."  But even in high school, the ending struck me as... stupid?  

We all know Capone went down because of income tax evasion (lazy, that, Al), so that can't get changed.  But we all also know - all this would do is either put Capone on the street or start the trial all over again, in a best case scenario.  And neither of those scenarios put Capone in a bad spot.  Also, no judge on earth would do this.

Why the movie winds up this way, I cannot begin to guess.  It's ridiculous and undermines the entire rest of the film.  If the movie has fallen into the memory hole of the pop consciousness and isn't a basic cable frequent flyer, I would suspect it's because the movie can't survive repeated viewings without the absurdity of the ending dashing it against the rocks of basic critical viewing.

I think at this point, The Untouchables is best seen as a gorgeous set of scenes.  Mamet's writing is good, it's quotable, and he seems to be trying to tell a particular story that was at odds with how cops were seen as morally incorruptible as they went about shooting up major urban metroplexes in 1987.  It brought us Morricone's terrific score, it revived the career of Sean Connery - who won an Oscar.  It made Costner a leading man.  It brought us Andy Garcia.  It brought us the opera scene, which has it's own little history.  It made us wonder how DeNiro put on weight so fast and took it off just as fast.  

Here in 2024, I just can't overlook how the whole thing falls apart at the end, or how naive and tin-eared some of the "it's okay to do this because we're cops" stuff sounds.  Especially as so much of the movie is about the problem of police corruption.  And, of course, spending five minutes looking at Wikipedia now tells us that Ness was more or less uninvolved with the tax evasion charges that eventually did take down Capone.  Because of course not (not that this movie doesn't have fun with how uninterested he is in pursuing this course).

Anyway, I look forward to digging into the extras.  Twelve-year-old me is still pretty jazzed to rewatch the movie and enjoy it for what it is. 

*I watched the special by myself.  Family members would pass through the room, say "he find anything yet?" and I think they felt bad for me when it became apparent this was a dud, but I was experiencing deep sunk-cost fallacy and couldn't walk away.

**when I went to go buy a suit in college, I was describing what I was looking for to the sales guy, and he just said "oh.  Untouchables.  Okay."  We were still using the movie as a cultural and fashion  touchstone 10 years later.

***of the many massive historical distortions of the film, Frank Nitti lived until 1943, taking over the Chicago mob, and basically becoming the mob that came into Hollywood via union organization.  He killed himself before going to trial.

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