Movie Blind Spots: The Untouchables

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Up until last Saturday afternoon I had never seen ‘The Untouchables’. It was a significant absence from the gangster movies of the eighties and nineties that I’d seen, the Godfather trilogy, ‘Donnie Brasco’, ‘Scarface’,  ‘Carlito’s Way’, ‘Casino’ and ‘Goodfellas’. For a working class lad watching these films were rites of passage. Everybody had the black and white ‘Scarface’ poster on their bedroom walls, we all did Joe Pesci impressions and when out on the town we strutted around looking for Michelle Pfeiffer and that white gold.

One of the first things that grabbed my attention was how the violence in ‘The Untouchables’ seemed cartoonish and unreal compared to say what we’ve seen in recent years in HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’. There was just something unreal about the way the bodies fell, particularly in the unintentionally cringey finale as Eliot Ness tries to stop a pram falling down a flight of stairs in the middle of a shootout.

I don’t know something else seemed amiss as the minutes ticked by, the performances seem out of sync, from what I’d heard about the movie De Niro is superb, but looking at his career as a whole just off his peak. What I saw was De Niro as fat and satisfied and not in the method sense of packing on pounds for dramatic effect. He presents Al Capone like Danny De Vito as The Penguin. He’s a villain in a superhero movie, grandiose, incompetent and over the top. Costner is a bit empty, De Palma seems in love with his face and Costner just doesn’t seem all that moved emotionally, even when his family are at risk from mob reprisals. Contrast this to the charismatic performances from Sean Connery as Jimmy Malone, the comedy of Charles Martin Smith and the electricity of Andy Garcia. The headliners bluff and blunder whilst the supporting cast are mind-blowing.

‘The Untouchables’ is comic book take on the myth of Eliot Ness. This is a film with hardly any grey areas during a time that was one giant grey area. Despite the law and justice system being corrupt and everything being morally ambiguous ‘The Untouchables’ basically boils down to goodies vs. baddies, Ness vs. Capone.

I don’t want to beat a classic movie down, because it’s a fun, engrossing watch, and the film looks great. The costumes, the locations (particularly the border scene) but the film’s biggest flaw is that it seems to add authentic grit. Costner’s Ness is a damp squib of a man, a square. He almost resembles Josh Brolin’s character in ‘Gangster Squad’, a pale descendent of ‘The Untouchables’. Is that the legacy of the movie, that it spawned such poor imitations? ‘The Untouchables’ perhaps hasn’t aged well, or maybe I’ve fallen out of love with the Gangster movie genre.

– RJW

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