“The Untouchables” by Brian De Palma
“The Untouchables” directed by Brian De Palma is a hard-hitting and superb example of a gangster movie. De Palma brilliantly makes use of specific film techniques to represent the protagonist character Eliot Ness. The film is about Ness and his attempts to stop a ruthless, powerful gangster, AL Capone, from smuggling alcohol into Chicago around the 1930’s. Kevin Costner was skilfully chosen by De Palma to play the leading role because of his star image which has been built up by his roles in other films such as, “Robin Hood” and “JFK”.
In these films Costner plays the brave American hero, which suits his look and acting skills. Based on his previous roles, I expected Ness to be determined and triumphant against the formidable odds, which he has to fight, David Mamet also adds to the feel of Ness being a typical American hero by giving phrases to speak like: “Let’s do some good” Although this makes him seem naive and unaware of the forces he will be battling against. Montage is important in portraying Ness as it helps give the audience a sense of what type of character Ness is and to understand his emotions with ease.
Setting, I think, does this tremendously well as the background can reflect his emotions. An excellent example of this is just after Ness has unsuccessfully carried out his first raid. You can tell he has been humiliated and is depressed, as the background is wet, dark and dull. Also he was walking down stairs, which conveys that he is being brought down to reality, and has noticed what things are going to be like in the future. Clothing supports Ness’s character as it makes him look clean-cut but also the opposite of Capone who looks like a wealthy, powerful gangster.
The juxtaposition of scenes with Ness and Capone helps to emphasise the difference between the two characters. This style of editing is successful in pulling across Capone’s heartless and violent character and a particular scene which does this well is one in which Capone tells reporters how he runs a non-violent business. The moment Capone says “business” the scene abruptly cuts to another of a gangster blowing up a shop and killing innocent people, in particular a young girl.
This helps the audience notice the connection between the two scenes. This scene is then followed by a scene in which Ness’s homely goodness is revealed. Moreover, music is used skilfully to represent Ness and to capture and emphasise his emotions. The sombre saxophone music after his failed first raid assists in illustrating the disappointment he feels in himself. Another spectacular example of music being used successfully is when one of Capone’s many employees kills Malone who was a tutor, friend and father figure to Ness.
When Ness discovers Malone dead this scene and the scene with Capone at the opera merge and the strong emotional opera music portray Ness’s anger, sorrow and guilt. De Palma has skilfully used camera shots and angles in portraying Ness. The scene with Ness chasing Nitty, which I felt was essentially about avenging Malones death, contained many different camera angles and shots the low-angle shot in this scene shows Ness’s power over Nitty as the gangster dangles from the building. It also illustrates how different Ness is now in comparison to the beginning of the film as he now has more power and is more ruthless.
The high angle shot highlights Nitty’s weakness and vulnerability as Ness has control and has the choice of whether the gangster is to live or die. Also used in this scene is the close-up, which emphasises Ness’s anger and determination. Finally, the extreme close up makes the audience wonder whether Ness is going to shoot in cold blood or not. Furthermore, David Mamet expert use of dialogue helps De Palma to present the character Eliot Ness. At the beginning of the film we can see that Ness was naive, unaware of what he was up against and sometimes ridiculed.
We can see this when Ness says: “Let’s do some good” At this point the reporters, policemen and most importantly Capone see him as a fool and unthreatening. However, this changes later on in the film when Ness is at the Canadian border on his second raid attempt and with the Canadian Mounted Police. This is the scene in which Ness kills someone for the first time. Ness pointlessly shouts three rhetorical questions at the dead gangster to express his anger and remorse.
Also when the chief of the Mounted Police says he does not approve of his methods Ness replies: You’re not from Chicago” This depicts how Ness has developed and has become ruthless and it is in this scene that he realises he will have to fight violence with violence. Also, Ness builds, maintains and loses many relationships throughout the film, which illustrates the kind of character Ness is. Ness is a devoted, loving husband and father. This is noticeable at the start of the film when you see his wife slipping a note of encouragement into his lunch and comforting him before his first day at work.
Malone and Ness have a special relationship, as Ness would never have succeeded without Malone beside him. Malone had shown Ness what was necessary in defeating Capone and Ness viewed Malone as a father figure and loyal friend, which is why he was so emotionally distraught when Malone was murdered. Ultimately, I think that Brian De Palma was extremely successful in representing Eliot Ness using specific film techniques. I felt personally that “The Untouchables” was a realistic, moving and overall enjoyable gangster movie, which is to be applauded.
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