The Untouchables - a touch of class

Fathers and sons have complex layered relationships, but a father would have failed in his most basic duties if he did not pass on the legacy of certain genres of movies and certain classics in those genres. In Hindi movies, it is Amitabh Bachchan and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. In Hollywood, it is Mafia, World War II and James Bond. I remember watching many of them with my dad, like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). To my son's credit, even in his teen years now, he has indulged the old man, and watched, and daresay even enjoyed them. From Sholay (1975) to Chupke Chupke (1975) to Gol Maal (1979) to Satte pe Satta (1982) and Padosan (1968). From Stalag 17 (1953) to The Great Escape (1963) to Casino Royale (2006).


Last weekend we watched one from my DVD collection (remember those?) - The Untouchables (1987), Brian de Palma's highly stylized 1930s Chicago, Prohibition era gangland epic starring Kevin Costner, Robert de Niro and Sean Connery. The stylized tone is set from its very first shot taken from high overhead of Al Capone (de Niro) getting a shave. He is mistakenly nicked by the barber and the glowering menace with which Capone glances at him gives you an immediate glimpse into his soul. The full extent of his evil and rage comes out later in the movie in a fury-filled rant, "I want you to get this fuck where he breathes! I want you to find this nancy-boy Elliot Ness, I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and I wanna piss on his ashes!"


Prohibition Bureau Agent Elliot Ness (Costner) is sent to shut him down, and after experiencing initial failure due to corruption in the local police department, sets up his own team. Prominent among them, and the wise old mentor to the rest, is beat cop Malone (Connery), in his only Academy Award winning performance. He is given some of the best lines in the movie - '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! And that's how you get Capone." or "You just fulfilled the first rule of law enforcement: make sure when your shift is over you go home alive. Here endeth the lesson." The remaining two members are George Stone (Andy Garcia) and Oscar Wallace (Christopher Martin Smith). The other memorable character in the movie is Capone henchman Frank Nitti played by a smarmy Billy Drago, who gets a spectacular comeuppance.


Of course no discussion of The Untouchables would be complete without the set piece at Union Station. That 11 minute long sequence has everything you live for in the movies - a suspenseful quiet build up, slow motion employed to great effect, background music of the highest order, all of it culminating in an adrenaline pumping violent climax. The scene is an homage to Sergei Eisenstein's Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (1925), complete with a baby in a pram. Ennio Morricone, the Italian maestro who gave us the score for all of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti western trilogy - A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) - has created the music score here with its start and stop rhythms and wails, and it is almost a character in it.


There are many great Mafia movies like The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part 2 (1974), the only pair of original and sequel by the way ever, to both win an Oscar for Best Picture, and Goodfellas (1990). Most professional critics, and maybe most viewers as well, would not include The Untouchables in that pantheon, but for me personally, maybe because I have now lived in Chicago for over two decades, there is something ineffable, dare I say untouchable, about this movie, that keeps drawing me to it, like an alcoholic to his booze.


May 30, 2020

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