The Untouchables (1987), starring Kevin Costner and directed by Brian de Palma, is an excellent portrait of an innocent man becoming cynical and cruel. Eliot Ness, as invented for the film, begins as an earnest law enforcer and ends as a man willing to bend the law not only to seek justice but also exact retribution.
In the film, both lawmen and criminals spill blood that spreads like an unholy halo about the head and torsos of the dead. One criminal is even killed twice, once in reality and once to demonstrate the lengths to which the Untouchables will go in order to learn the truth and put an end to Al Capone’s reign of terror. Capone himself is the architect of one of the more gruesome scenes. Cold, calculating Capone, played by Robert de Niro, walks behind his minions seated at a large, round dinner table armed with a baseball bat. Their diners' demeanors shift from companionable to terrified, and they should be. Blood spatter comingles with food and drink as Capone bashes in the head of one man who’s violated the Capone code.
This scene seems necessary as a counterweight to the increasingly violent, stealthy methods used by the Untouchables. In that scene, we see that Capone is worse, and because he is worse, we understand why Eliot Ness steps over the line separating the law-abiding from the law-breaking. By movie’s end, Ness will do whatever it takes to capture and crush Capone’s syndicate. In fact, Ness lets a man fall to his death instead of saving him for the courts, his first inclination, until the man reveals that he is the one who killed the old, honest beat cop, Ness’s mentor, father figure, and friend.
Capone’s violence begets Ness’s violence, at least in the world of film. Indeed, art, literature and film suggest that those to whom violence is done do violence in return. W. H. Auden asserted a similar claim in “September 1, 1939,” writing those to whom evil is done do evil in return.
Now Kathryn Bigelow’s latest war film, Zero Dark Thirty, has inspired another discussion about the role of violence in human affairs for she has woven a story about men and women mutating from earnest and capable to jaded and hard. In fact, the film begins in violence as a detainee is being tortured. The brutal blows upon his body and his spirit cause Maya, the film’s protagonist, to look away. Soon, however, familiarity with the methods habituate her to the cruelty thought to foster good intelligence. She no longer looks away, and we surmise, endorses torture because later in the film, a colleague warns her to watch her back because the political will and wind have shifted.
Nevertheless, after co-workers die in the pursuit of bin Laden, Maya vows to find him and kill him. She believes she was spared in order to finish what other operatives died doing. She may not carry the weapon that kills bin Laden, but she would if she could.
In other words, Bigelow’s film suggests, as de Palma’s did some twenty-five years ago, that those to whom evil is done do evil in return. What other works of art and literature offer the same statement about the human experience? Here’s a very partial list:
• Golding’s Lord of the Flies
• Shakespeare’s Hamlet
• Shakespeare’s Othello
• Brontë’s Wuthering Heights
• Powers’s The Yellow Birds
• O’Brien’s The Things They Carried
Read the film, The Untouchables from 1987, Zero Dark Thirty from 2012, and W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15545) each referenced in this post.
Select a story, poem, film, or novel. Identify and explain how it demonstrates the theme: those to whom evil is done do evil in return.