"Why do you want to be a cop?"--Sean Connery
I have to admit, when I saw Brian
dePalma's The Untouchables for the first time I walked out of the theater not exactly pleased. For one thing, dePalma
had changed the historical record so now, instead of eleven federal agents, there are only four going after the Capone organization.
And on top of that, two of these four get killed in the movie when, back in the real world of Treasury agents versus Prohibition
era gangsters, none were – which is one reason they were called, "The Untouchables."
But upon seeing this movie more
recently—watching it several times, actually—I've come to a completely different conclusion, to wit: The Untouchables
is a movie of archetypical heroic values played out not in some epic setting of swords & sorcery or war on a distant frontier,
but rather in Prohibition era Chicago. It's this setting which throws people, because the movie The Untouchables
is not about the historical Untouchables but simply uses them as a backdrop on which to tell a much deeper tale.
Historically, the Untouchables were
a team of U.S. Treasury agents headed by Elliot Ness who took on the Capone organization. The federal government has passed
the Volstead Act in 1919, banning the sale and purchase (but not use!) of alcoholic beverages. This was supposed to bring
in a new era of progress but the actual result was an explosion in organized crime. Gangsters such as Al Capone became powers
unto themselves in many American cities. They had both the money from the alcohol trade, and the support of much of the public.
After all, they were giving them what they wanted, right? The fact that this led to endemic violence in the streets of Chicago,
as well as the corruption of civic government, went by the boards. The mobsters had the power to corrupt local government,
so enter the feds. Ness's strategy was to go after Capone by going after his money which
meant attacking his alcohol distribution network. This way, the Capone organization income would dry up, and judges, cops
and politicians could not be bought off. This strategy worked after a fashion, though in the end Capone was actually sent
to prison by a separate Treasury operation which got him on income tax evasion. So endeth the historical sermon.
There was a landmark television
series called The Untouchables way back in 1959-63, starring Robert Stack, presented as a quasi-documentary if somewhat
fictionalized series of Ness and his men taking on Capone's chief henchman, Frank Nitti (Capone
himself being sent to prison during the opening pilot). Old timers might recognize the voice of Walter Winchell as the series'
All this is a background for understanding
the DePalma's 1987 movie, The Untouchables.
Let's start with the setting, a
city of concrete and steel rising from the prairies, a world which seems to be a distant mirror of our own 21st
century: there are automobiles (the ubiquitous Model-A), airplanes (a Ford Tri-motor at one point wafts our heroes to a rendezvous
with Canadian Mounties), automatic weapons (Thompson submachineguns) and telephones (mercifully, not the ever present background
clutter of cell calls). This world has, for a lack of a better word, style. T-men, cops and even gangsters go into action
wearing suits and ties. But there is more to it than the Armani fashions. At the center of the action is the primary male
group, the warband. Let me explain.
To emphasize, Chicago comes across
as a vision of the future as seen from 1930, a sort of Ayn Randian world of gleaming art deco skyscrapers, opera houses with
muralled ceilings vaulting to the heavens, and manmade technological wonders, whether radios or passenger airlines (new enough
inventions for that time to be the equivalent of space travel today, or at least back when America did have a manned space
program in another era of technological advance). But in another way, it is our own world, seen through a glass lightly. For
we can recognize the same struggles that men face today.
Elliot Ness' mission is to enforce
the law, but the law itself has been corrupted. Capone (Robert DeNiro), we are informed, is the unofficial mayor of Chicago,
and we see him reigning over his court, whether being interviewed by reporters while being shaved (as if he were a Sun King),
presiding over a meeting of his top men (with a baseball bat), or patronizing the arts (in the form of a tear fest of an opera).
(Kevin Costner) initially tries to take on the Capone organization by bureaucratic methods, cooperating with the Chicago Police
Department. But his first raid turns into a bust as someone inside has ratted them out, causing them to hit a warehouse full
of parasols instead of bootleg Canadian whiskey. "Poor little buttercup," remarks an ironic newspaper headline. Clearly, the
system is not working, or if it is working, it is for the other side.
Afterwards, Ness finds himself on
a bridge spanning one of Chicago's waterways, a symbolic and literal crossing point, when out of Homeric mists comes veteran
but honest cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery, who else?). Ness offers him a deal, a position on
his team (which at this point consists only of himself!) in return for the veteran's experience. After the obligatory reluctant
hero bit, Malone joins up. They then recruit two more men, rookie but streetwise cop aka Giusseppi Petri aka George Stone
(Andy Garcia) and bookish accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).
OK, four Untouchables, not eleven,
"Why fo you want to be a cop?" they
ask each other in a line which becomes a mantra.
What we have here are four archetypical
members of the warband: neophyte Ness, mentor Malone, warrior Stone, and thinker/clever guy
Wallace. Think of them in the same way as the protagonists of Star Wars (A New
Hope), respectively: Luke Skywalker, Obi-wan Kenobi, Han Solo, and C3P0. (Yes, I know, the identifications
are not entirely one on one, and it does leave out some characters and all, but you can see where this is going.) Each of
the men has their specialty, and by working together unlock the secret. Malone totes about the key to a police callbox and
a medallion of St. Jude (patron saint, we are told, of lost causes and police officers)—talismans of power, temporal
and spiritual. The key literally opens up communications to the police world and, as we will see, keys become an important
part of the world of the Untouchables.
The problem, as Malone points out,
"is not finding the booze but taking on Capone." In a sacred place (a cathedral, no less), Malone tests Ness
by asking how far he is willing to go. Ness replies by stating he will do all within the
law and at this point Malone responds that he has taken a blood oath. Now duly sworn in to the brotherhood, Ness
is ready for action.
And action they get as the four
men march into a post office which turns out to be a front for a bootlegger's warehouse. The symbolism is pretty clear: the
state itself is but a false front for the criminals who hide behind the facade of respectability. The four lawmen traverse
a hallway and come to a red door. Here, Malone tells Ness that if they go through this portal,
there is no going back. Ness assents. Axe in hand, they chop down the portal and emerge...
....into a different world.
The scene contains a bizarre transition,
because on the other side of the red door we find a massive chamber containing gangsters and their contraband. Something in
the back of your head tells you that the architecture of the building could not contain such spaces. But we get the point:
Ness and company have entered a different world. On the other side, they confront and arrest
the malefactors. They have truly crossed the line, operating in another world. Capone will soon become aware of them, and
they have made an enemy whom they must vanquish or find themselves perishing.
It's at this point I'd like to do
a brief recapitulation of the usual Joseph Campbell spiel on the Hero with a Thousand Faces. We have seen already the neophyte
meeting the older mentor (though in a twist, it is the mentor who proves reluctant, to be convinced by the neophyte to go
on this quest). They form a warband and enter a fabulous world where all things are possible. The hero is trained,
goes on a quest, there is a death and rebirth, a revelation of inner knowledge, and the great confrontation with the villain
which is really a confrontation of the hero with his own inner demons. The final result is the reign of the new law. At the
end of the movie we are told that Prohibition may be repealed: having vanquished the corrupt state, the way is open to freedom.
But the actual journey is that of the hero: he gains the strength to break the bonds set upon him, or which he set upon himself.
As will be seen, this does not turn into vigilantism but something quite else.
Significantly, the Untouchables
are all men, operating in a male world. Ness is married, but he must send his wife and children
away before he can free himself for the quest, though this is couched in terms of protecting them from gangland retaliation
(an odd plot device, since gangsters of that era generally did not attack families). Similarly he insists that no married
men may be recruited among what the popular press will soon label "The Untouchables." While they come from different backgrounds
and experiences, they form a common cause not by bureaucratic fiat (as do the uniformed policemen) but by voluntarily working
The move contains several set pieces
once having passed through that red door and in the new world. Ness and company fly to the
Canadian border to intercept a convoy of alcohol. The scene seems clichéd as the Untouchables ride horses along with Canadian
Mounties, the cavalry literally to the rescue in a Wild West style shootout. Yet the gunplay is not the thing. Rather, it
is that Wallace has discovered something that could break the war wide open—Al Capone has paid no income taxes.
Of course, this is how the feds got Capone in the end, and it is something of a commentary on how two of the centerpieces
of the Progressive Era—Prohibition and the Federal Income Tax—are at uncivil war with each other.
The key to the investigation is
in unlocking a series of accounting books which have come into the possession of the Untouchables. And Wallace is that key
man, like R2D2 jacking into the Death Star computer to shut down the garbage mashers, or better, carrying the plans to the
Death Star which must be decoded, analyzed and then used to launch a final attack on a seemingly unstoppable foe.
This is a theme which is present,
though somewhat low-key ("key," there's that word again!), since it is presented largely in terms of dialog. Wallace unravels
the code, first by shattering another facade, this of Capone's front organizations; then of mob payoff recipients; and finally
into the diversion of funds to Capone himself. Think of it as the McGuffin, the Death Star plans in this world not so long
ago and not too far away.
At the conclusion of the Wild West
sequence there is a bizarre scene in which Malone bamboozles a captured mobster into giving the code to the books, doing so
by shooting a dead man. The scene has a bizarre sacred or maybe sacrilegious tone to it, desecrating a corpse after all, killing
a dead man to find a truth. But we are informed by Ness that this is the "Chicago Way." Malone will later pay for this usurpation, though as will be seen, not
before he is able to perform his own (temporary) resurrection.
It's at this point that things start
going bad as Wallace is killed while escorting the captured gangster. The killer is Frank Nitti (Billy Drago), depicted in
the movie as an angel of death gliding through scenes in spotless white suits. There's something oddly effeminate about Nitti
in the movie (who, historically, was Capone's chief deputy and known as the "Enforcer"), making him stand out from not only
the male archetypes of the Untouchables but even of the rough and tumble gangsters of the Capone mob.
Wallace's death is jarring. For
one thing, it destroys the premise that Ness's organization is untouchable as advertised.
This point is made graphically as we see the word "Touchable" written in blood on the walls of the elevator which has become
an execution chamber (why would Nitti waste time to do that?). For another, Wallace's death does not seem to be necessary
from the standpoint of the movie as we will see a much more significant death later on. Perhaps Wallace, because he has provided
his function of finding the secret, has now become expendable, but nonetheless, this does not feel "right."
Anyway, with the informant dead
and the key to the coded books beyond human agency, Ness announces, "I have taken this as
far as we can go." This harks back to Malone's question, "just how far are you prepared to go?" For Ness,
this is not simply a matter of delving deeper into the investigation of Capone. Rather, he must further transcend his own
limitations to win the final victory.
Following on this first killing
comes a second, this time as Nitti guns down Malone in his own apartment. Malone, who had earlier informed us that if "Capone
comes after you with a knife, you go after him with a gun," uses a sawed-off shotgun to chase away an apparent assassin, remarking
that the intruder has brought a "knife to a gunfight." Then stepping out of the darkness, Nitti in turn opens up with a submachinegun.
At this point the movie takes another
apparent departure from reality. Despite being shot full of more lead than Sonny Corleone at a turnpike toll booth, Malone
survives long enough to tell Ness where to find Capone's accountant. The scene is ridiculous in terms of the real world, but
remember, this is not the real world we are dealing with in The Untouchables. We are in the world of archetypal heroes.
"Trust your feelings," Luke Skywalker hears in another galaxy from the disembodied Obi-wan Kenobi as he flies into the Death
Star trench. In Chicago, Malone is returning from the dead,
a temporary resurrection, a spirit voice speaking through the mechanism of what rightly should be a corpse. He finally expires,
but not before imparting the final key to the quest. Ness and the surviving Untouchable are
now ready for their final battle.
This preliminaries are fought out
in the Chicago railroad station. I'll note I have been in
that station several times on railroad trips cross country, so this scene was like an old stomping ground to me. It's done
as a set piece with a baby stroller bouncing down the steps, evoking (as all film students and most revival house audiences
know) of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Actually, Woody Allen did this homage or rip-off or
whatever in his Bananas back in 1971, and I suppose any number of meanings can be read into it. Whatever. The thing
that is significant is that Ness and Garcia take on any number of bad guys and kill them without a scratch to themselves,
though apparently a couple of bystanders are hit. Well, perhaps, marksmanship in gangsterdom is poor, no doubt they have better
things to do than go to the range and perforate paper targets. Or maybe we are seeing the heroes transitioning to their next
stage, becoming hyper-warriors (we earlier saw something like this when Wallace dispatches several other gangsters back at
the Canadian frontier and later discusses the joy of the tactical aspects of law enforcement). As the gunsmoke settles at
the train station, one of the gangsters holds the accountant hostage threatening to kill him (and thus Ness'
case) unless he is to allowed to escape. Stone calmly kills him in turn, thereby freeing the accountant who, now grateful,
will testify. (I'll note I like this turn of events, because one of the stupidest clichés in movies and television is the
use of hostages to gain entry or exit in a situation in which the writer can not think their way out of.)
As with much of the rest of the
movie, the train station sequence has a touch of the surreal. The accountant is to be take a train to Miami which departs at five minutes past midnight. Why would a train from a major railroad
hub leave at that hour? Maybe I am used to the Amtrak schedule. Why would the gangsters wait until the literal last moment
to put their man on the train? Is this some sort of security thing? But after midnight is also a time of transition, the day
has ended, time has run out, it's the deep night, and the next day has arrived though the sun has yet to rise. Did I leave
out any clichés? Anyway, Ness saves the baby carriage and the accountant, and we are ready
for the big courtroom scene and the finale. Well, not quite.
spots Nitti in the courtroom pews, and Nitti has a gun. Removing the assassin to a vaulted hallway by ruse, Ness confronts him. Alas, Nitti has a permit for the gat, a signed card from the mayor. This seems facile,
after all, it's not even a typed license, but we get the point. Once more Capone's organization has become the state. The
criminals are armed and operating under the color of law and have, in fact, already executed two of the agents and who knows
how many more others. Cleary, it is not simply Capone who must be put away, but an entire system. Ness
will do so later, by manipulating the judge into ensuring there is an honest jury for the trial. But for now, there is the
matter of Nitti. Ness realizes that Nitti is Malone's killer because he finds a matchbook
with his mentor's address written in it.
Then things seem to get stupid.
Again. Despite a criticism of Malone for turning his back on an armed man when they first met on that bridge, Ness
now does precisely that, turning away from Nitti. He verbalizes his realization about the killer's i.d., and Nitti uses this
as an excuse to not only shoot a bailiff, but to attempt an escape. He ascends to the upper reaches of the court house where,
after some trickery on both sides, Ness apprehends the killer. Nitti goes along with the
gag, knowing that the law is on his side and he will walk later on. But he makes the mistake of taunting Ness about how Malone
died, and Ness responds by throwing Nitti over the edge of the roof. We then see Nitti futilely
flapping his arms, no doubt a fallen angel trying desperately to fly. Alas for him, his wings have been clipped and he ends
his descent by crashing through the roof of a car and exploding in bloody doom.
This sequence holds a key to a movie
full of keys. The first interpretation to this scene is that Ness is doing the vigilante
thing, ala a sort of super Dirty Harry, breaking the rules and offing the bad guy both figuratively and literally. Nitti had
killed two of his men (though given the evidence in the movie, Ness knows only that Nitti
has killed Malone). This might also explain why he turns his back on Nitti: Ness wanted Nitti to escape, so he would have
an excuse to carry out this extralegal execution. On the rooftop and conveniently without witnesses, he can administer some
frontier justice, perhaps learned in the earlier scene on the US-Canadian frontier--only instead of executing a dead man,
he executes an angel of death. The Chicago Way, no doubt.
But this does not wash. For one
thing, if Ness really were into assassination, why not kill Capone, and why not do it earlier
in the film? Why go through all the convolutions of cracking coded books and so forth if the investigation is to be resolved
by a Wild West shootout? This goes back to the central thesis, that The Untouchable is about the hero's journey.
The real journey is internal, it is breaking the bonds and seeing the higher world as it really is, about gaining power from
the revelation. Again to use pop analogies, Luke Skywalker using the Force in his attack run on the Death Star; or Neo seeing
the code of the Matrix and thus defeating the Agents; or Frodo and Samwise trekking across Middle Earth to bring the Ring
of Power to Mount Doom.
a man of the law, to violate the law is the breaking of his own barriers. It has little to do with killing Nitti, and everything
to do with his own internal development. He has now fulfilled the blood oath taken in the cathedral in what seems to be an
Let's go deeper here and compare
The Untouchables with vigilante movies, such as the Death Wish or Dirty Harry series. Paul Kersey
of the former, and Inspector Harry Callahan of the latter, break or otherwise flaunt the law early in their respective movies;
but Costner's Ness only becomes a lawbreaker after completing his journey. And there is a
political reason for so doing. While the "system" under which a Paul Kersey lives may be incompetent to protect its citizens,
and that which Dirty Harry serves may be overly lenient on criminals, the assumption is that they are still run by men of
good will. In Capone's Chicago it is revealed that the system
itself is criminal. In literally overthrowing Nitti, Ness is taking a revolutionary action,
liberating his city as well as himself.
In the final scene, Ness
turns over the key to the kingdom, in this case Malone's callbox key and religious icon, to Stone. Come to think of it, the
name "George Stone" is replete with religious symbolism: St. George slaying the dragon, St. Peter (from the Latin for "stone")
establishing a new order.
All this, need I say, has no small
ramifications for today. The reality is that the system has failed men, indeed, many citizens. Working with this system becomes
increasingly futile. What I'd editorialize here is that men must do what they do in The Untouchables—form their
own warbands (or the modern equivalent thereof) and take those steps necessary to restore the true law. You can not rely on
the law to protect your life, liberties or properties; you can rely on your fellow warriors.
"Why do you want to be a cop?" Malone
asked Stone during his recruitment. Stone gives a by-the-book reply which Malone dismisses. We see this question raised several
times in The Untouchables, but never actually answered. In a sense, the movie in its entirety is that answer.
The Untouchables all want to be
cops because they believe in the law, and ultimately, it is the law which guarantees a free society—whether the freedom
of a citizen to take a drink, or the freedom of a storefront owner to refuse an offer of alcohol sales and not have to worry
about being blown to kingdom come. The real struggle here is for the law, but not the law in the sense of the repression of
alcohol. We actually see two of the Untouchables imbibing at various points in the movie. Given this, why are they fighting
for Prohibition? As Malone takes pains to remind us, it's not the booze they are after, it's Capone. And Capone represents
the forces of corruption, the secret government behind the government, The Conspiracy if you like (capital letters and all).
These are the forces who establish their own perverse and debased law. Just as much of the American legal system today has
become debased by the usual suspects.
While Capone may claim to be a "businessman,"
the reality is that he does not operate by voluntary transaction but by the use of force and fraud. Which is one reason he
can corrupt government because government's two primary instruments are just that—force and fraud. The force is fairly
obvious, but the fraud is in the facades behind which Capone hides his organization, whether the false front of a post office,
the hieroglyphics of his accounting books, or the veneer of being a respectable businessman and politician. Ness
wins by ripping aside these frauds and seeing the truth. Outmaneuvered, Capone drops the final facade in the courtroom and
explodes into irrational violence, revealing his true corrupt self. Ness has completed the
quest for truth.
To put it in Randian terms: a free
society needs honest courts, honest cops, and honest soldiers. Well, we see how the cops and the courts have been corrupted
in the movie's Chicago, but the soldiers? That is what Ness and his men are, a warband wearing
three piece suits, carrying Tommy Guns and armed with secret knowledge. Think of them as a Roman comitatus gathering around
a warlord general in a time of barbarian invasion and government corruption, marching to repel the invaders and restore justice.
The end of the movie, with the expected
repeal of Prohibition, means that the struggle of the Untouchables might be considered pointless. But – again! –
it's not about the booze, it's about men freeing themselves and with that, bringing freedom to society. The hero's journey
is not about defeating the bad guy as much as it is in creating the good guy, in taking a man beyond the limits which were
set for him by society, or by himself. The hero has returned to the ordinary world, and Ness
may walk down the street and legally take...a drink.