The Untouchables

The Untouchables (1987)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

There have been many movies based on popular television programs — some good (’The Fugitive’) and some bad (’The Avengers’). In rare instances, the feature film even comes to overshadow the small screen show that served as its inspiration. Such is the case with ’The Untouchables.’ Featuring a sterling cast, gripping screenwriting, and deft direction by Brian DePalma, ’The Untouchables’ was widely hailed as an instant classic upon its release in 1987 and is now available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.

The setting is Chicago during the 30s at the height of the Prohibition era — a city run by corrupt politicians and police and besieged by gangsters, chief among whom is none other than Al Capone, played by a slick Robert De Niro. When straight-arrow Treasury agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) rolls into town to clean up the mess he has absolutely no idea what he’s getting himself into. But a hard-bitten Irish cop named Jim Malone (Sean Connery) sees something in this All-American boy and soon the two are joined by Giuseppe Petri (Andy Garcia), a fresh-faced Italian-American cop they just recruited out of the academy, and Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) a nervous FBI accountant who, come to find out, is quite handy with a shotgun. Together, this gang of four sets out to bring Al Capone to justice — no matter the personal or professional cost.

Bringing to life a story of legends in American history, "The Untouchables" manages to tell a captivating tale while maintaining the myth surrounding it. Almost like a time-capsule, the movie takes a snapshot of an era long gone and at the same time shows us that things weren’t all that different from today. Captured in beautifully atmospheric images and masterfully acted out by a splendid cast, "The Untouchables" gets everything right. It is educating, informational and thrilling!

’The Untouchables’ is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> preserving the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the original theatrical release. While there are a few minor issues with the transfer, overall it’s quite good. Colors are deep and rich and black levels are excellent. The image is also very finely detailed and surprisingly sharp although some slight film grain is evident. The original film elements must have been in good shape as nicks and blemishes are rare. My only quibble with the image quality is that, in a few of the darker scenes, the picture becomes almost too dark, losing a bit of detail in the process.

While the film’s photography pays tribute to the Film Noir genre and makes heavy use of shadows to create its look, the nighttime shots for example are clearly reproduced too dark, cloaking most of the screen in impenetrable blacks. On the whole, however, this is the best ’The Untouchables’ has ever looked on home video and the high resolution of the <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer gives the presentation a lot of finely delineated definition. The compression is without flaws and no compression artifacts of any sort are evident in the transfer.

Audio on this release comes in your choice of a <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 Surround track or a newly created Dolby Digital <$5.1,5.1 channel> mix, neither of which is very good to be honest. In each case, surround use is infrequent and seems quite out of place even when it does kick in. Additionally, dynamic range is very limited resulting in a flat sound that makes dialogue difficult to hear and renders Ennio Morricone’s beautiful score almost powerless. As you might assume at this point, deep bass is also lacking from either mix. What we’re left with is a very front-centered, muddy sound that doesn’t begin to do justice to this fine film. For what it’s worth, I found the 2.0 soundtrack to be less of a distraction than the poor <$5.1,5.1 mix>. It is a bit disappointing that in many of Paramount’s releases the audio end of the films are so overlooked while the studio is indeed willing to commit to new <$16x9,anamorphic> transfers.

Perhaps most disheartening is the fact that the DVD release of ’The Untouchables’ offers only the original theatrical trailer as a bonus feature. I understand that none of the talent of this movie has been available to contribute to this release, which left Paramount pretty empty-handed at this point, but hopefully they will be able to revisit this modern masterpiece some time to give it a full Special Edition treatment. That notwithstanding, the utter lack of any information about the film, be it in the form of production notes, talent biographies and most importantly historical information about the real-life characters we have just been watching is inexcusable. After watching this powerful film I am sure every viewer is interested in understanding the background of the story and learn what effect the work of the Untouchables had on society, as it is entirely untouched upon in the film itself. What happened to Eliott Ness or Al Capone? It is a question that for most, only a search through history books will answer at this point, when in fact the DVD could have helped enormously to educate viewers while still holding their attention.

As a film ’The Untouchables’ is beyond reproach. Unfortunately, Paramount Home Video’s DVD release leaves much to be desired. While the video transfer is the finest I’ve seen for this movie, the lousy audio is a big disappointment. Throw in the complete lack of any real extras and what you’re left with is a beautiful film half-heartedly transferred to DVD and priced at a premium. Fans of ’The Untouchables’ likely won’t be able to resist buying the DVD – I count myself among them – and the quality is by no means a complete wash, it’s just that I expected much more for a movie of this caliber.

Paramount’s Martin Blythe responds to the review:
"Your review of The Untouchables misrepresents the situation with regards to the audio tracks. This is a 1987 film transferred from 70 mm and the audio configuration in those days was inherently mixed for the front speakers. We (Paramount Home Entertainment) have chosen to be faithful to that configuration. For any older film, if the bass is muddy or there is no stereo surround, then that is how the original film was.This is a matter of aesthetics and it is our general policy to remain true to how the filmmaker finished the film."