The other day I watched the 1987 Brian de Palma movie The Untouchables. And it was a pretty odd film. I guess because it started out as a mostly normal gangster film about Eliot Ness’s attempt to catch Al Capone in 1930s Chicago. There were a few intimations of weirdness. For instance, the first scene features a little girl getting blown apart by a bomb. And then at another point Al Capone beats someone to death with a baseball bat for no reason.
By the middle it was getting stranger. I guess spoiler alert for this stuff (it’s a thirty year old film, though, so I don’t feel too bad). But at the midpoint of the movie, Elliot Ness teams up with some Canadian mounties to intercept a shipment of whiskey at the border. And for some reason everybody is on a horse? And they charge the bridge on horses? And then have a bloody gun battle?
But by the end the movie was seriously crazy. There was a ninety-second first-person sequence where a knife-wielding assassin stalks an unsuspecting Sean Connery (who’s Kevin Costner’s sidekick in this film) through the narrow hallways of his tiny apartment. And then Sean Connery struggles across his floor, dripping blood, so he can leave a clue for Costner.
But nothing could have prepared me for the weirdness of the ending, where Kevin Costner and the one remaining member of his squad, Andy Garcia, are at the train station waiting for Capone’s book-keeper to show up so they can arrest him. And while they’re waiting, Costner is distracted by this woman who’s trying to carry her baby, in its carriage, up the steps. And Costner keeps scanning the building, looking for the book keeper, and then looking down at this woman, and this goes on for like sixty seconds, if not longer, and meanwhile I am like, “Am I high? What is happening here? What is the point of this?”
Finally Costner gets so frustrated with the woman’s struggle that he runs down and starts to help her! But meanwhile he has his rifle hidden inside his jacket, literally hanging down along his side, and he’s helping with one hand to pull the carriage up the steps. And then, of course, the book-keeper comes up and they have a shootout…with the baby carriage right there in the middle of the scene (it starts going down the stairs, but Andy Garcia catches it).
It was seriously odd! But not so odd that the movie had slipped entirely into the realm of the surreal. It was, just, like, this is a strange thing to happen. It’s also strange for cops to have a bloody shootout in a train station with a bunch of gangsters. Like, that didn’t often happen, did it?
I just didn’t get it. I mean, it made an impression. It’s a thing I’ll always remember. But I didn’t get it. What was the intention here? What effect were they going for? For me, the result was that I disengaged, emotionally, from the movie. All the weird stuff substantially weakened my suspension of disbelief. But people liked this movie, apparently, and I believe it. There was certainly a virtuoso quality to it. But…oh well…maybe I’ll rewatch it in twenty years and be like…ohhhhh, now I understand!