Review for The Untouchables
Why do people insist on devaluing the language? Politicians love to do it, as do their spin-doctors. When I hear vacuous phrases like ‘alternative facts’ and ‘known knowns’ and ‘Brexit means Brexit’, it makes me grind my teeth. Imagine writing a dictionary like that, ‘the meaning of odalisque is odalisque’. Of course it all started with advertisers and marketers and odious salesmen who will come up with all sorts of mendacity to part you from your money. Take the term Collector’s Edition. When I bought The Untouchables on DVD, it was a Limited Collector’s Edition. You want to know what was Collectable about it? It was the standard barebones disc in a cardboard box and digipack instead of the usual Amaray case. You want to know what was Limited about it? It had an individual number written on the box. I’ve got The Untouchables DVD #03417. It’s unique! Felonious marketing aside, I love the film, and it was one that I was quick to double dip to Blu-ray, even if I haven’t been quick to re-watch it. It took a look at the standard Blu-ray Amaray case last night before putting the disc in, and clearly printed at the top, ‘Special Collector’s Edition’. I want to do to these marketers what Al Capone wanted done to Eliot Ness.
Al Capone, the charismatic and media friendly mob leader runs Chicago with an iron fist, selling his bootlegged liquor with impunity. Random mob violence affects the ordinary citizens though, and it’s Treasury Agent Eliot Ness who is sent to shut Capone’s organisation down and bring him to justice. However, Ness’ initial campaign against Capone is a dismal failure played out in front of the harsh glare of the reporters’ flashbulbs, and it isn’t long before he is a laughing stock.
It rapidly becomes apparent that Capone owns the Chicago Police Force in effect, if not in fact. It’s a chance encounter with beat cop Jim Malone that offers a glimmer of hope to Ness. Malone has been passed over for promotion because of his unwillingness to be bought, but in Ness sees the opportunity to do some good. He takes Ness under his wing and begins to teach him the Chicago way of doing things, and with the aid of rookie cop George “Giuseppe Petri” Stone, a second generation Italian and mild mannered accountant Oscar Wallace, The Untouchables (so named because they refuse to be bribed) take the fight to Capone.
The Untouchables gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer that is watchable, but nothing more. This is an old release, almost 10 years old now, and it’s from back when Paramount weren’t treating their back catalogue titles with respect for the high definition age. The Untouchables may be clear, the colours may pop, and print damage and signs of age may be wholly absent, but the film has been put through the post-processing treatment that has mostly de-grained it, removing any of the filmic feel it should have. Skin tones can appear waxy, I noticed a little ghosting early on, detail levels are consequently reduced, and the film also suffers from black crush. Certainly it looks better than the DVD, the period details come across better than before, and the lavish art deco of Capone’s apartments, the Chicago locations, can be fabulous to watch. But the HD cleansing of the print for the Blu-ray does Brian dePalma’s exquisite direction, Stephen H Burum’s cinematography absolutely no justice.
If you were hoping for Ennio Morricone’s score to get its dues with a lossless soundtrack, prepare to be disappointed again, with a Blu-ray that offers only DD 5.1 EX English, French, and Spanish, and if you want to triple the bitrate, DTS ES 6.1 English, along with subtitles in those languages. I chose the DTS audio and it was acceptable, the action coming across well, the dialogue clear, and the music suitably epic and rousing. But it does lack the punch and fidelity of a lossless soundtrack.
One disc in a Blu-ray Amaray (with the DVD blurb on the back), which boots to an animated menu; but at least we have extra features this time, taken from a 2004 DVD re-release.
The Script, The Cast lasts 18:32 and looks at the conception of the movie and the casting process.
Production Stories lasts 17:19 and the cast and crew discuss the filmmaking process.
Reinventing the Genre lasts 14:24, and looks at how The Untouchables offered a new angle on a well-worn gangster genre.
The Class lasts 5:41, and offers a bit on the post-production, but mostly discusses the audience and critical reception to the film.
The Original Featurette “The Men” lasts 5:26, and as you might expect is a PR piece from 1987.
All of these featurettes are in 480i format, and most of them offer 2004 interviews with Brian dePalma and the rest of the crew, while the cast interviews are with one exception taken from 1987.
Finally, the theatrical trailer is in 1080p.
The Special Collector’s Edition of The Untouchables is a joke! The overly processed transfer of the movie is such that you will double dip if it gets a new release more faithful to the original film experience. But the film itself is most certainly not a joke. The Untouchables is still one of the finest period action movies from the 1980s, retelling the Eliot Ness, Al Capone story in a contemporary way that really appealed to audiences in 1987, and feels just as fresh and exciting now, 30 years down the line. For me, The Untouchables was a halfway point. Movies like Scarface and The Godfather were full on gangster movies, which played to certain audiences. The Untouchables on the other hand bridged the gap between a genre film and broad entertainment. This was a film that everyone watched, and it still feels that way today. I have to be in the mood for a Reservoir Dogs or Carlito’s Way, but I can just put The Untouchables on and chill.
It’s one of those films where everything falls into place, the visual aesthetic, the direction, the script, the casting and the performances come together to create a classic motion picture. The dialogue is sharp, the balance between humour and drama is spot-on, and it’s very much a character piece. I also find that as the years pass, it’s certainly entering the timeless classic category in my home video collection.
The pre war years have a certain mystique about them, a sense of elegance and style that has never been equalled, a society in flagrant excess and an opulence and glamour that is tantalising. It’s all depicted with lush extravagance in The Untouchables, with Al Capone portrayed as the epitome of this luxurious greed, yet even the down to earth characters like Ness and Malone live in wonderfully furnished environments that speak of a lost comfort and style. And even on this compromise Blu-ray transfer, the brilliant production design comes across well.
It’s a curious contradiction in terms of violence though, at times sudden and brutal, as when Capone demonstrates his batting technique on the skull of a hapless Lieutenant, at other times operatic and finely choreographed as in the bridge shoot out and the now infamous and often parodied Chicago Station sequence, itself an homage to the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. But it also serves to avoid glorifying violence to an excessive degree, and shows, through some excellent direction that the consequences are shocking and harrowing.
It seems more and more likely that we’re going to be saddled with the poor decisions of distributors when it came to back catalogue Blu-rays at the start of the format’s life. The decline in physical media sales means that it’s less likely that these films will be revisited again for the 4k restorations that they need, and that new back catalogue Blu-rays tend to get these days. It’ll be a shame if this is as good as this film will ever look on home video, but at least The Untouchables isn’t Unwatchable.