24 THE UNTOUCHABLES – USA 1997, Director Brian De Palma
The truth is such a downer for human beings. Human beings have been telling themselves stories and falsehoods for thousands of years. And when that did not work they invented alcohol and recreational drugs to hide what they would rather not see. In that sense The Untouchables continues a noble tradition. It has little to do with either the character of Eliot Ness or his contribution to law enforcement in Chicago. The inspiration for what is a great movie was not reality but a hokum TV series based on a book that valued sensational myth making over loyalty to history. None of that makes The Untouchables an odd movie. Ignoring reality facilitates escapism. What is strange about The Untouchables is that collaborators David Mamet and Brian De Palma produced such a puritan work. Perhaps the producers were pulling more strings than normal or perhaps it was a reaction by Mamet and De Palma to working on a fairy tale. The harsh moral code in the script is not a weakness. Puritanism in gangster movies is the exception. If the murderous gangster was obliged to die in the early Warner Brothers sagas, he took his last breath like a hero. The 1995 script by Mamet refreshes a movie genre that can stand a few drippy moments. The director De Palma is a man always willing to relish its set pieces.
David Mamet was born in Chicago. His parents were middle class communists. This might be important. References to Christian faith, strength and struggle exist throughout the script of The Untouchables. These references might, though, be informed also by the admiration Mamet had for left wing political independence and defiance. His 1974 play American Buffalo and 1985 play Glengarry Glen Ross are brutal about what market competition does to the human spirit. In his later affluent years the attitude of Mamet to both America and capitalism has softened. The Untouchables could or could not have been the turning point for writer Mamet. The director, Brian De Palma, merely has a bleak and cynical view of human nature and authority. His best and darkest movie Blow Out leans on the Chappaquiddick scandal and argues that American democracy is a sham.
The conflict that exists in the movie is between traditional good and bad guys. In the film the honest are either handsome or personable. The crooked snarl and have faces disfigured by hatred and contempt. The lawyer that tries to bribe Eliot Ness wears thick glasses. This symbolism to suggest inadequate moral understanding is a device borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock. No one admires Hitchcock more than De Palma. The corrupt in The Untouchables are often overweight. Capone, more than the rest, represents appetite and excess. He either eats at banquets or, still in bed, indulges himself with an overstocked breakfast tray. Eliot Ness and the members of his team visit a modest Italian restaurant to celebrate initial success but we do not see them eating food. Prior to a police raid, Ness eats a modest sandwich. He offers to share his food with the policeman at his side. His loyal wife has prepared his sandwich and left inside the wrapping a good luck message. Rather than elaborate meals, the ingredients for self-sufficiency and strength are modest food and kinship. Self-centred gluttony merely weakens.
Borders and bridges are important to the moralising script. The border represents the line between good and evil. Ness meets cop Malone on a bridge in Chicago after a disastrous shift in work. The encounter suggests a similar scene in the classic movie Mildred Pierce when Mildred has to recover from despair. She also meets a policeman. The meeting between Malone and Ness also echoes what happens in the folk tale Robin Hood. Two men that are initially hostile to each other eventually form a bond that will enable them to establish a band of rebels. In the folktale, the men fight on a bridge and land in the stream. Their spirits are cleansed and given strength for the battle against evil that will follow. No one gets wet in The Untouchables but the idea remains intact.
The confrontation between the untouchables and the gangsters at the Canadian border allows De Palma to create a mini-Western. Ness and his team begin the fight on horseback and ride down from picturesque mountains. The criminals arrive from the other side of the border while the men of moral purpose wait in Canada. The bloodiest elements in the battle take place on the bridge. The struggle is on the line between good and evil. The Canadian police that are meant to be helping the American crime fighters also attack the bootleggers. The flawed Canadian force led by an incompetent egotistical officer alerts the criminals and obliges Ness to attack prematurely. The fight against evil is weakened by those that do not have the strength for the struggle. As Ness says on his first meeting with Chicago policemen, ‘We must be pure.’
Another border is represented by a Chicago alley. Malone needs information from the corrupt police chief Mike Dorsett. The scene is supposed to take place outdoors but the lighting suggests a set with a matte shot or back projection showing the urban street beyond the alley. The lighting is not intended to be realistic. One wall appears to be red and the other blue. The argument between the two men becomes a fight. As they land blows, Dorsett and Malone move between the two walls that border the alley, between the red of hell and the blue of, if not heaven, then at least something better. The fight ends with Dorsett collapsing next to the blue wall, too exhausted for redemption but no longer an evil force. Prior to this violent confrontation, Malone had told Dorsett that he would ‘see him in hell before he took a bribe.’
The gun battle inside Union Station is remembered for its reference to the Odessa Steps sequence in the Eisenstein movie, Battleship Potemkin. Ness not only defeats the violent gangsters but ensures that the innocent child in the pram will survive. His fight against evil cannot preclude compassion for the less strong. Ness moves back and forth up the stairs. Surrounded by gangsters, the angels from hell, he is like a spirit fighting its way out of purgatory. The weighted reference, though, to a film that celebrated the Russian revolution echoes again the faith and independence of left wing idealists.
Malone has his Christian faith but he is not innocent. He has had to be a bystander to police corruption throughout his life. He knows where the bootleg alcohol is stored and he leads Ness to the first successful raid by the untouchables. The men have to walk through a red door and down steps into a deep basement. They have to descend into hell. As Malone tells Ness, ‘The Lord hates a coward’. Neither the crucifix nor the rosary is used as a symbol in the film. Malone, though, carries a pendant that honours St Jude the patron saint for lost causes. Because of the flaws in human nature, the battle against evil is never won but the struggle must continue. If this feels like an obvious Christian message, it could also be a nod towards the idealism of the parents of Mamet. The rich and powerful will ensure that capitalism prevails but protest on behalf of the powerless and oppressed must endure.
If faith is important in the struggle against evil then virtue is important for faith to have purpose in an individual. Ness and Guiseppe Petri have pure motives. Ness upholds the law, and Petri wants law and order for all the citizens of Chicago including his American-Italian neighbours. Malone is prejudiced. He does not like the American-Italians, and his prejudice leads to his downfall and failing in the struggle. The agent bookkeeper, Oscar Wallace, has self-effacing charm but the struggle for him becomes what he calls ‘diverting’. His success in the violent battle at the Canadian border and his attraction to female glamour and flattery mean that he will not persevere in the fight. Strength, as demonstrated by Petri, and not charm is what is important.
Strength without faith, though, is insufficient. Capone has strength but he does not have faith. He is willing to fight and he demonstrates this willingness when he meets Ness. Once guns appear the bodyguards offer support for Capone but before that the bodyguards have to restrain a Capone that is prepared to face Ness in a head-to-head fight. The courage and ambition of Capone gives him self-respect. He makes this point elsewhere in the film. Capone does not have faith. His ego and appetite condemn him to being sordid. The first meeting between Capone and Ness takes place on another border, the stairs that lead to the bedrooms in his hotel. In case we have doubts about what is at the end of these stairs we see a glamorous whore retreat towards the bedrooms. The final battle on a border takes place on the roof of the courthouse where Capone is on trial. Ness and Frank Nitti fight to the death. Nitti dangles on a rope that hangs against the edge of the roof, the final border. Ness pulls Nitti to safety and away from hell. On the roof, though, Nitti makes a remark that reveals where his soul belongs and why he is beyond redemption. Ness remembers Malone and pushes Nitti off the building and through the roof of a waiting police car. Nitti has landed in a place that must be hell to him. At the end of the film, Ness tells a journalist that he will respond to the repeal of prohibition by having a drink. Prohibition, though, had given him the opportunity to cleanse his soul. Ness may have been an unimaginative innocent but he has made a discovery. Faith is important for those that believe in either God or left wing idealism. It gives them strength. The faith, though, that nourishes the spirit and soul is faith in the power of faith. The faith that baffles us poor pragmatists.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book BORIS JOHNSON PFEFFELS AND PIFFLES is now available here.