The Untouchable Subtext

Originally published in The Indianapolis New Times in August 1987. I was in film school at the time, focusing mostly on theory, in case you couldn’t tell.

A group of British critics who write for an excellent film journal called Movie have coined a term to describe and categorize Hollywood films produced in the ’80s – “Reaganite Entertainment.” They are quick to point out that it’s both useless and inaccurate to blame the President either for the movies produced during his terms in office or for the mood of the U.S. movie-going public that accepts such offerings. No one I know is willing to attribute Ronnie with that much imagination or intelligence.

Nevertheless, there are certain characteristics common to most of these films which are similar to Reagan’s ideology and which are certainly indicative of larger needs within the American psyche. One of the more important of these characteristics is a tendancy to revere the past as a place to retrieve or rediscover lost honor and “traditional values.” Too often this is coupled with a contradictory need to rewrite history to satisfy strong ideological demands, often accompanied by the resurrection of the “American Hero.” These films range from trivial genre revivals (SilveradoTwilight Zone) to extensive and violand revision of reality in the form of reactionary political fantasies (RamboRed Dawn).

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Closely related to the preceding films are movies which attempt to construct the viewer as a child – the overriding message in these films is one of blissful reassurance. Such movies conduct a hysterical dialogue with themselves and with their audience in order to convey many things: the world is a safe and peaceful place, the social problems of the ’60s and ’70s have been confronted and resolved, there is no racial or sexual discrimination, everyone is a Christian and heterosexual, the Third World is one vast suburbia, Communism is dead, Reagan is the leader of the free world, nuclear weapons have been disarmed, God is love, ad infinitum. It’s not difficult to locate these discourses, however sublimated, within films such as E.T.The Color PurpleStar WarsTerms of Endearment, and Star Trek: The Voyage Home.

Paramount Pictures’ The Untouchables fits neatly on the list of Reaganite films. It’s clearly a studio picture in that grand Hollywood tradition – big budget, flashy sets and expensive costumes (Giorgio Armani designed the wardrobe), camera work, and acting. The gangster motif also fits comfortably with the nostalgic genre films. Most of this movie is hollow; it is as fat and flaccid as a Francis Coppola film. but it’s not a Coppola film; it’s a film by Brian de Palma – a director of extraordinary creative intelligence. De Palma’s films, though often utilizing standardized plots, are nevertheless complex, dense critiques. Though they certainly are not uniformly politically correct, his films raise important issues and attempt to work through them. Conversely, The Untouchables seems to be unrelentingly sentimental, patriarchal kitsch. However, it is possible to read against the grain – to analyze the film in a way which perhaps the filmmakers did not intend so as to arrive at a different conclusion.

The main body of work that I will draw upon for my analysis is one which many readers will find uncomfortable: psychoanalysis. There are many reasons for popular adverse reaction to psychoanalysis, the most important of which is probably the resistance that the dominant ideology exerts against modes of thought that attempt to read beneath the surface rather thaan simply accept things at face value. This idea that meaning resides primarily at immediate and obvious levels – the conscious levels – could be labeled the “common sense” approach. This fact is well-represented within Reaganite Entertainment and wihin most critical response from popular newspapers, magazines, and television.

I’m not interested in regurgitating the plot of any film; rather, my intent is to dig beneath the narrative in order to uncover the “unconscious” film – the mass of repressed desires that hint at the motivations for what appears on screen. I’m not trying to suggest thtat this mass constitutes the desires of the filmmakers themselves; I am suggesting that every film, as a socio-cultural product enmeshed in a specific historical context, partakes in a complex relationship with the desires and needs of the consuming public. In many senses, film, because of the content of its imagers, can be viewed as culture’s (or certain sectors of culture) thoughts or wishes about itself. This metaphor reveals the pertinence of utilizing psychoanalysis as a science for the interpretation of films. Thought this interpretation, it is possible to see that although The Untouchables shares characteristics with the bulk of Reaganite films, it differs enough to be of some interest.

Repressed homosexuality is a persistent theme running throughout Hollywood film history. The subject was nearly always present in John Ford’s films, for example, where the relationship between two men always superceded the often cursory love interest between the lead character and his girlfriend. Consider, for instance, Doc Holliday’s terrible secret which made him incapable of returning a woman’s love and which embroiled him in a love-hate relationship with Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine. This tendency for certain popular Hollywood films to represent the love relationship between men as deeper and more noble than the relationships between men and women can be seen in the long line of “buddy” movies such as ScarecrowSemi-ToughThunderbolt and Lightfoot, and Diner. Last year’s Stand by Me presented one of the most recent depictions of adolescent male love, characterized by nostalgic sentimentality and an abundance of lingering, loving, conspiratorial looks between two of the young male leads. Oliver Stone’s Platoon barely conceals the Charlie Sheen character’s crush on Willem Dafoe’s character. In a most remarkable scene, Dafoe offers Sheen his first hit of hash through a phallic rifle barrel, seductively suggesting, “Put your mouth on this.” It’s interesting to note that while Richard Schickel of Time magazine was willing to criticize Midnight Express for its prettified homosexual romanticism, he is unable to see the homosexual connotations in either Platoon or The Untouchables, though the latter is similar in its “pretty” depictions of male love.

The privileged discourse of The Untouchables (what the film feels most strongly about, not necessarily what the film is about) is the validity and importance of friendship among males. Effectively, there are no women in this film and no female love interest, though the fim is missing the strident misogyny that typically accompanies the veiled homoeroticism in these films. Ness’ wife functions only to show Capone as a threat to the traditional nuclear family. The film spends a great deal of time extolling the purity (hence the title) of male/male love, which, derived from the sanctity of God and Law, is under attack from the forces of corruption and lawlessness represented by Al Capone. Of course, that this purity must be defended so obsessively at all suggests that something other than what is apparent is taking place. My criticism is an attempt to discover what that something is.

Speaking in terms of meaning and not of plot, The Untouchables is organized primarily around the repression of forbidden desire. Elliot Ness (blandly played by Kevin Costner), a federal agent sent to clean up Chicago, declares that he “wants Capone.” This wish to imprison Capone is expressed in phrases that, in another context, would connote sexual feelings. In psychoanalytic terms, Ness’ love for his fellow Untouchables is repressed and displaced in a hysterical, obsessive desire to see Capone in jail. Since Ness’ love for men cannot be expressed in the context of patriarchy, his desire is displaced onto Capone. This displacement informs the whole structure of the film, sentimentalizing and exaggerating in the emotional extreme all the scenes between the male Untouchables. It is particularly evident in the scene in which Sean Connery’s character dies, where Ness is about a heartbeat away from kissing his friend on the lips. These intense feelings are matched only by the violence and extreme character of the two deaths perpetuated by Capone’s henchmen, which spurs Ness to finally “get” Capone, who, contradictorily, symbolically represents the threat of homosexuality. Simultaneously, these actions encourage Ness to continue seeking Capone’s imprisonment, resulting in more death and the loss of Ness’ integrity. This loss is understood by Ness to demonstrate the similarity between himself and Capone.

One of this film’s striking characteristics is its total lack of overt sexuality. The domestic scenes between Ness and his wife are whitewashed, asexual, pedestrian. Judging from the passion these two exhibit, it’s suprising that they have a child at all. All of Ness’ sexual energy is displaced onto his pursuit of Capone. And it is Capone who inhabits the film’s single scene that even hints of sexuality. Capone is walking around a table, gesticualting and talking about teamwork, relating his successful “career” to baseball and carrying a large, long bat. He suddenly erupts into violence when a fellow criminal rather innocently jokes about one of his declarations about teamwork. Capone beats the man’s head repeatedly, wielding the bat with impunity and malice. this demonstration of destructive, phallic power is in stark contrast with the following scene of domesticity – it is a good deal more potent and interesting than the saccharine nature of Ness’ family life. It is only when Ness appropriates this destructive power that he is able to beat Capone, just as Sean Connery’s character insisted, and it is as Ness becomes more and more like Capone that his wife and child pass completely out of the picture’s narrative. One object of desire has replaced another.

If this all sounds like a futile enterprise, it’s no accident – the whole “message” in the film is one of futility rather than the reassurance common to more Reaganite movies. Ness’ final words are the ultimate statement of futility. When a reporter informs him that Prohibition will probably be repealed and asks, “What will you do?”, Ness responds, “Probably go buy a drink.” In addition, Ness is not happily reunited with his absent family, unlike many typical Hollywood endings. Thus, in plot terms, the thing that Ness defended throughout the film – Prohibition – the thing that got his friends killed, disrupted his life, and excluded his family, will be done away with by a simple signature. The film pretends to be defending law, order, and tradition (Prohibition – the legislation of traditional values, the nuclear family), when in fact all it really wants to do is break the law (take a drink, love men).

As Elizabeth Wright states in the introduction of her book Psychoanalytic Criticism: “In the unconscious the body does not take the social mold, and yet the conscious mind thinks it has.” The conscious mind of The Untouchables struggles to take traditional values prima facie but it is ultimately unable to do so. Though the film does not attempt to reconstruct the men as they might be liberated from an opporessive law (that would be outside both the scope of the plot and of Hollywood cinema), it does demonstrate the destructiveness of repression.

I’m not trying to make a case for The Untouchables being a great movie or political test case; it’s not adequate to either task. Neither am I trying to say that any of the filmmakers have any idea what’s going on in their own film, that they intended any of the “meanings” I’ve discussed. what I am trying to present is an alternative way to look at films, and at social reality, proposing intellectual inquiry by avoiding superficial questions and facile conclusions.

Nothing obvious could possibly be important.

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