July 12, 2012

The Untouchables

A surprising strong recommendation for the old Untouchables series, running now on basic cable. The SOURCE of many stereotypes, it is nonetheless a rather amazing production, excitingly violent, and quite brilliantly lit, shot, acted, edited.  Everyone on screen seems to both a type and an accomplished actor- the very reason there was a real Central Casting.  Eliot Ness (a tightly-wound Robert Stack) and the feds are not the focus - they are there to tie the racketeer story together and move it along.  There's usually a story-arc over a new character caught in the middle- of the law and crime, of torn loyalities, of the toxicity of corruption, of greed and desperation. It's emotional focus is usually on that single character, there for one episode. A moll losing her men and looks, a small time guy going big time, a circling of the drain just as you reach out for the big prize.   Tony Soprano, in his torn complexity and cowardly grasping at greed and power, would fit right in- so much so it seems like a direct influence.  Frankly, there's a lot more shooting, car chases and crashes, sudden bursts of machine gun fire, better clothes, and doomed foxy dames- most of whom are written as actual human beings with feelings- in The Untouchables.

In a show entirely about Chicago mobsters, I'm constantly going "holy shit, I can't believe they just shot those guys!" 

The production team came out of high noir - the intense light and shadow textures, as characters themselves, are almost a lost art. The compositional framing is often artful  (in "the don't talk about it when you can show it" school). And it's rare that I'm notable impressed by editing - but it's remarkable- the visuals cut very fast but with great coherence, and often poetic, if purple, resonance.

The 30s feel modern, just with old stuff- phones, fridges, cars, radios, airplaces, the world is dominated by a fast pace and fast-developing technology.  Worth noting that the real Untouchables' biggest successes came from wiretaps.  Unlike 70s and 80s cop shows, they somehow manage to make getting in and out of cars fast and interesting.  (You want a real car chase? Trying red-lining Dusenberg on a dirt road.)

It's a superb morality play, and it has some old-fashioned tropes.  Modern viewers would tend to get hung up on the archaic, gaspy narration by the O.D. (Original Douchebag) Walter Winchell.  It's a   cop show with a lot more sex and violence, developed empathy for awful people (something totally lacking in the Untouchables movie),  a full and remarkable visual tone, and lot snappier tailors.  It's more Scorsese than anything I can think of in a broadcast TV series.  


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