The Untouchable 80’s

Brian DePalma’s “historical” crime film, The Untouchables, was released in 1987, well into a decade well known for excess. The story of the film takes place during 1930’s Nation-wide Prohibition, in which American citizens were restricted by law from buying, selling and consuming alcoholic beverages. This was much to the chagrin of bar tenders, but gave the crime lords of the central United States a large market to work with: crime syndicates, lead by men like Al Capone, secured a profitable black market in liquor sales. The story of the film starts with real-life historical figure, Eliot Ness, bringing his “tin star” to a town full of corrupt officials and gun wielding Mafioso. Chicago, Illinois was the headquarters of the real life Al Capone, and Elliot Ness did in fact start his war and end Capone’s reign in that very city. However, aside from the general setting, the two leading opponents, and the final court case resulting in the arrest of Capone, the heavy weight bought on this stage is mostly a dramatic fabrication of the events that could have (or never did) take place.

Instances such as the film’s Ness’s face-to-face with Capone did not occur prior to the actual court case, but in the film it helps to bolster the sense of conflict as Capone challenges Ness’s masculinity by tempting him to violence. He calls out to Ness to be a man, asking him “what can you do?” Ness does his best to hold back from bursting out and killing Capone on the spot. Ness’s reluctance to initiate violence (at first) reflects the turn of social awareness in the 1980’s, when a call to “family values” was at hand, while the violence of the film contrasts against that ideal with each gunshot and splatter of blood— a trademark of the film’s director also seen in his contemporary gangster film, Scareface. The display of gang violence through the murder of a young girl with a misplaced bomb, and the stark contrast to Fictional-Ness’s family-values based life, also rings out a call to reviving the optimism of American society of the time.

Ness’s and Malone’s many meetings with corrupt city officials and gangsters help to solidify the relation the films story could have had to the politics of the 1980’s era, when the Regan Administration was ousted for conspiracy with the Iran-Contra Affair in 1986. The general feeling of a government based around a futile war on recreational drugs is also paralleled in the story, with Prohibition of the 1930’s and the War on Drugs of the 1980’s having similar themes of hardcore government busts and nearly tyrannical increases in restrictions and legislation. In the film, even Ness has no problem with the banned item of the time, aside from the fact that it is, in fact, banned by the government. That basically sums up the two poles of the story- an incorruptible hero of the government versus his own government which has become corrupted. This is well displayed not only in the lead’s role, but in Sean Connery’s Oscar winning portrayal of the Family Cop, Malone.

The film also has its own personal nod towards the Cold War, specifically the Arms Race aspect, from the only pure policeman left in the city, Malone. He tutors Kostner’s Ness when he explains how to get Capone: “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.” This was the kind of thinking that elevated the American and Soviet societies into the ridiculous race towards Mutually Assured Destruction that was far from over during the mid 1980’s when the film was conceived through David Mamet’s screen adaptation. While the two countries in the real life 1980’s were able to work most of their issues out diplomatically, however, Malone’s words are carried out quite viscerally throughout the majority of the film. He falls victim to this violence himself, however, while stating in a laughingly vitriolic manner, “Isn’t that just like a wop? Brings a knife to a gun fight,” only to be machine-gunned down by a well-armed assassin.

Originally at odds with a law enforced under the fear of its own people’s excesses and moral ambiguity, The Untouchables changes into a simple action film with one-liners galore and an excess in violence. While that helps to paint a simple and entertaining picture of cops-and-robbers Gangland violence, it doesn’t help to accurately display the mood or the state of affairs of the time period. There is no inclusion of Depression-era sympathies towards the alcohol runners, and there is a lack of strength in any single character outside of the four Untouchables. The film never really deviates from it’s opening statement, with the thesis being succinctly stated on a title card during the opening credits: “1930. Prohibition has transformed Chicago into a City at War. Rival gangs compete for control of the city’s billion dollar empire of illegal alcohol, enforcing their will with the hand grenade and tommy gun. It is the time of the Ganglords. It is the time of Al Capone.” The use of the film medium is thus slighted altogether in just the first few opening frames of the film, depicting not a work of historical recreation, but more of historical interpretation through fiction in a lack of faithfulness to the source material.

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The Untouchable 80’s by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.