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De Niro being shaved in The Untouchables

I have occasionally wondered why I like The Untouchables, because in many ways it exemplifies much I detest. True,  I find Ennio Morricone’s music, David Mamet’s dialog and Patrizia van Brandenstein’s production design appealing, but they’re not enough in themselves to overcome the film’s adolescent view of experience. Every time I watch it, however, I get caught up in its little boy view of violent adventure. That appeal no doubt explains the film’s popular success. Still, it is hardly the only movie with such attractions, and I usually find similar efforts pretty risible.

I saw The Untouchables in its initial theatrical release, in a packed theater in Westwood (LA), and the memory of those circumstances may have something to do with my affection for the movie. I’ll never forget the very first moment in the film. A loud, resonant “bang” from the music leads into the hyped up opening titles, followed by an extraordinary, vertiginous overhead shot of Capone being shaved (above). You could feel yourself being squeezed in a vise. It was as if the filmmakers were saying “We’ve got you by the short hairs, we’re not letting go, and we’re never going to do anything in an ordinary way.” The film remains pitched at a level of tight, exaggerated display to the point that the action begins to seem almost an excuse for the extravagant style.

It doesn’t quite live up to that promise of consistently febrile stylization. Brian DePalma’s considerable technical skill and visual imagination seem to evaporate whenever he is tempted to imitate one of his heroes. There’s nothing in The Untouchables as jejune as his sloppy Hitchcock ripoffs, but his paraphrasing of the Odessa Steps sequence in Chicago’s Union Station is just film-student silliness. Whether homage or calculated effort to show he can go Eisenstein one better, the sequence proves only that DePalma can be shamelessly derivative.

He deserves more credit for getting larger than life characterizations from the actors, without allowing them to go too far. DeNiro’s over-sized embodiment of Capone, for example, could easily have degenerated into self-parody, along the lines of some of Jack Nicholson’s later performances. Both he and DePalma know how to go just far enough to make Capone frighteningly over-powering, but without turning him into a caricature.

Underneath is Mamet’s jig on a TV series, itself based loosely on the fictionalized early days of Eliot Ness’s career. That series has less to do with Ness, however, than with the desire to imitate the hard-edged sheen and glamor of ’30s Hollywood gangster films. It is these multiple layers that The Untouchables so ably exploits. In effect, this is a film about a TV series about films, where all involved balance their awareness of just how far removed from reality they are with the professional’s determination to deliver a heart-pounding product. The result is a sophisticated dance around the edges of camp that never slips into parody.