#249 The Untouchables (1987)

untouchablesxlg

119 Minutes

Director: Brian De Palma

Writers: David Mamet

Cast: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro

Storyline: Due to rampant corruption in the Chicago police department, Federal Agent Eliot Ness assembles a hand picked team to bring Al Capone to justice.

Disposition

Brit Boy:

I had seen The Untouchables several times before, the last time being several years ago. My lasting memories being that of an impeccable performance by Sean Connery as Malone, even though I was 13 at the time The Academy obviously agreed with me as he was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in this role. I really am quite excited to view this film for two separate and quite distinct reasons. The first being I just haven’t seen it for ages and know it will be 2 hours well spent, the second as with all the films covered in this blog, it will be great to look at the film with a critical eye.

American Girl:

I have not seen this movie before, but after a quick glance at the cast list it definitely spiked my interest.  I tend to really enjoy gangster movies/shows, but would “The Untouchables” be a gritty and realistic drama like the “Sopranos” (which I loved), or would it be slow moving and plot heavy like “Heat”?  I tend to be more intrigued with movies that have action, blood, and good special effects (I know this is so un-“ladylike”).  If a movie has a plot which is too heavy or too convoluted I tend to nod off before I really ever understand what is going on.  However, with a cast which includes Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Andy Garcia, I was certain it would not disappoint.

Set the Scene

Brit Boy:

Well unlike Jurassic Park and I’m sure a lot of the films following this, I have the unique opportunity to watch this in the comfort of my own home with the dog and a couple of beers, unlike the previous film I will have to pause the movie to top myself up, rather than have service, but I will struggle on.

American Girl:

I decided to curl up with my blanket and watch this, one night after work, after I had tucked all my kids into bed.  Brit Boy was on an airplane for one of his business travels so I knew I was on my own for this review.  I wouldn’t have anyone to text or chat with as the plot progressed. It was just me, a few gangsters, and my thoughts.

Final Cut / Review

I was so excited to finally be done with our first movie review of “Jurassic Park”.  It felt like such a huge conquest and it took Brit Boy and I a few weeks to finalize our very first blog post.  We sent drafts back and forth for days.  I must admit, once it was posted I hoped I would never see another dinosaur again, and I was very happy to move on to the Untouchables, a movie of a completely different genre.  However, when Brit Boy and I looked at our Jurassic Park post (which was EIGHT typed pages in total) we decided it looked more like a school report than a proper movie review.  We broke the plot down scene by scene, and even more taboo….we gave away the ending (gasp!). (But c’mon, it was Jurassic Park, cut us some slack, everyone knows how it ends.)  I was still proud of our work, and our first attempt, but I wanted us to grow and really find a way to get our individual points of view across in a more concise fashion.  So over a number of Skype calls, glasses of wine, and Google searches we found some pointers on how to write a good movie review.  With these tips we both set forth into this review in a different mindset. With no further ado, I hope you enjoy our examination of the “Untouchables”….

The opening title sequence with the Ennio Morricone’s masterful soundtrack always blows me away. I can remember all those years ago when I watched this for the first time as a teenager that the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I just knew I would love this film. Today, although not as electrifying, those childhood feelings stirred and the excitement about what was to come surfaced once more. We learn from the opening titles we are entering an era where:

1930. Prohibition has transformed Chicago into a city at war. Rival gangs compete for the cities billion dollar empire of illegal alcohol, enforcing their will with the hand grenade and tommy gun. It is the time of the Ganglords. It is the time of Al Capone.

When I begin to watch this movie, all I know is that it is based on the infamous gangster “Al Capone” and his era of bootlegging liquor. The Capone story is well known, so I have a bit of an idea of what to expect.  The intro begins darkly lit and playing background music which seems direct from the 1930’s era.  I almost expect the first scene to be the shot of a detective in a room full of smoke, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, while he pores over a case file.  Instead, you are instantly brought into the bedroom/bathroom suite of Al Capone.  You do not see the actor’s face for the first few minutes, but when finally the camera pans to Capone’s face you are left unsurprised to recognize De Niro.  De Niro has an early quote setting the tone for his character for the entire movie…

Control your business through violence.”

I love the opening sequence here with your first glimpse of the “hard man” Al Capone having a shave and manicure surrounded by a raft of lackies. In stark contrast to the opening titles this first scene begins in total silence, giving you the tension and anticipation of the people in the room, waiting for the hot towel to be removed from the face of Al Capone. The camera positioning is perfect with the viewer looking down upon the room as if having an out of body experience. Robert De Niro gives a consummate performance as Al Capone, always appearing jovial but with a real air of menace. I was on a knife edge every time I saw him in a scene because I didn’t know when this good-humored person would flip and show us the true Capone. This tension was introduced to the first scene incredibly well when the barber accidentally cuts Capone’s cheek, following this we see one of his great monologues:

‘l grew up in a tough neighborhood.  We used to say, “You can get further with a kind word and a gun, than you can with just a kind word. And in that neighborhood it might’ve been true. And sometimes your reputation follows you. There is violence in Chicago, but not by me and not by anybody I employ. Because it’s not good business.’

untouchables

Within the first 10 minutes of the film, I am aware this movie is more of a “period piece” versus a modern adaptation of the story.  The film tries to bring the audience back in  time to the early 1930’s.  Generally, I feel it is successful and the use of music, special effects, costumes, and lighting do adequately portray this era.  However, this almost instantly causes me to start yawning.  I haven’t given up on the movie, but I also know this will not be an edge of your seat action movie.  I am very aware that I will need to pay attention, as many of the idiosyncrasies of the plot are quickly or indiscreetly addressed. 

Whilst watching the film I really did feel immersed in 1930’s Chicago, having visited it just less than two years ago (just Chicago I don’t possess a time machine yet, I’m working on it….), I felt a desperate yearning to go back and try and find some of the locations. Where was the police precinct? Or the hotel used for Al Capone? I guess, as with all of these blogs it’s going to result in some furious IMDB-ing or Wikipedia-ing to find out some answers. One of the early scenes showing a little girl purchasing liquor for her parents really captured the feel of 30’s Chicago especially prohibition and the need to get underground liquor, in the case from a launderette (that’s a Laundromat to you American Girl).

When we are introduced to Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner’s character) I seem to lack any connection with him.  He always seems to be glowing and brighter than all the other characters (perhaps as an attempt to portray his good heart?)… I do not think it was a bad script, but I think the casting of Costner in this role was not successful.  However, much of this could be attributed to the fact that this was one of Costner’s first “big” movies, and since then he has been typecast into more of a romantic comedy role.  I felt his acting was forced and unbelievable.  I never believed in his character and would always envision other Costner movies such as Field of Dreams or Tin Cup whenever he was on screen.  The scenes in the movie which include his wife and daughter annoyed me even more.  These were completely unnecessary. The wife drove me crazy, and the daughter even more.  Costner could have been portrayed as a devoted husband and father without these unnecessary scenes.  (And I would like to know what small child would be allowed to be awoken in the middle of the night, shoved in the back of a police car, forced to say goodbye to her father, and whisked away to some undetermined location, without so much as a snivel or a tear? I just didn’t buy any of it…)

Take a seat American Girl, because I actually agree with you. Eliot Ness came across as a naive goody-two shoes who was far too trusting and idealistic. I’m not sure whether this was supposed to be a journey / coming of age for his character but I did feel his life was portrayed as too perfect and twee.

It’s interesting to note that this was Kevin Costner’s big break, which he followed with ‘No way Out’, ‘Bull Durham’ and ‘Field of Dreams’, If you build it… HE will come….. sorry I digress. I certainly don’t think it was one of Costner’s most memorable performances but he obviously did enough to get future work, where he made a name for himself. I think he may have just been out-classed by the outstanding Sean Connery and Robert De Niro.

As for Eliot’s wife and child, no-one can be that perfect, and “do you want to brush my hair….” Of all the cheesy come bed lines… it obviously worked because a baby appeared soon after, in true film form. Also American Girl, I was amazed that as well as not crying for her Dad when being whisked away in the night, the daughter was immaculately dressed and looked as if she had had a full makeover. Good job they weren’t in a hurry….

In contrast to Costner, I loved Connery’s portrayal of the beat cop that agrees to join forces with Costner, thus becoming the backbone of the “Untouchables” crew.  There is a reason Connery won an Oscar for his portrayal of Malone.  It is perfect, and he nailed it, even the inflection in his voice is right on.  He portrayed a level of mystery to the character, yet in the same breath you trust him implicitly from the moment he appeared on screen.  I cannot even pinpoint exactly what makes him so good, but this is probably why he makes gazillions of dollars being an actor and I don’t. His Oscar was well deserved and without his performance and the performance of De Niro, this movie would have fallen flat and I am sure never would have made this list.

JMalone

Sean Connery stole every scene he was in, his portrayal of Malone was sublime, an incredibly likeable character who you bonded with and trusted instantly, a real no-nonsense ‘Bobby on the beat’, that’s ‘Beat cop’ American Girl… It’s also interesting to note that Sean Connery’s career, had reached a hiatus prior to 1986, and it was “The Name of the Rose” and “Highlander” in 1986 and this film which put him back on the radar. I’m sure the fact that he won an academy award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Malone really gave him the boost he so richly deserved. It would be interesting to know how much of an influence this role had on his selection as Professor Henry Jones, in ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ which was released two years later.

The other characters were smaller in my honest opinion, and not crucial to the plot.  I think Garcia was added as a pretty face and in attempt to get more women to consider watching this movie.  Maybe Brit Boy will have more to say, but I don’t.  The “Untouchables” crew is formed early on in the movie and consisted of Elliot, Malone, Stone, and an accountant.  At one point they are smoking cigars and congratulating themselves on a job well done, a picture of the four of them is taken by a photographer.  At this moment it seemed more like a “hit list” than a picture portraying a happy moment.     The photographer quips… you “fellows are untouchable”.  (Just as the Titanic is “unsinkable”….)

The-Untouchables-Gli-intoccabili-2

Andy Garcia put in a solid performance in again his first film break, and Charles Martin Smith also didn’t let the side down. Their contribution was definitely as secondary players but both provided good interpretations of the characters if not particularly memorable. I always felt Charles Martin Smith looked familiar but wasn’t sure why, maybe it was because he reminded me of Rick Moranis, I’m not sure. I think the four untouchables were well selected and did appear to have some chemistry on screen.

 This gang of “good guys” continues the rest of the movie in active pursuit of Capone.  I must admit I am not entirely sure of their motives.  I kind of wanted a bit more, especially to understand the motives of Eliot’s character.  He seems obsessed with getting Capone, but why? Why make yourself a target to the worst American Gangster of the time (possibly ever)?  I didn’t quite get it, and in the end, I think it was mainly because Eliot had an ego as big as Capone’s and he was determined to “win”.  The accountant I am sure was simply excited to finally fit in with the cool guys, to be considered one of the group.  I did find the irony early on that he is continuously laughed at when he mentions his ideas of catching Capone due to tax evasion.  It is a prime example that a quick brain can outsmart brawn more times than not.  However, while the rest of the cast have since done memorable roles, I do not recall seeing the accountant in any subsequent films of notice.

Final Cut

It was great to take a jaunt back to my childhood and also 1930’s Chicago, the film was enjoyable with solid performances all round and two incredibly memorable ones by Connery and De Niro. I won’t be rushing back to view this anytime soon but the Blu-Ray will remain on my shelf for me to turn to once in a while, for nostalgia if nothing else. Brian de Palma’s direction along with Ennio Morricone’s score were key to my enjoyment and they married up beautifully. It’s interesting to note that de Palma and De Niro have a long filmatic relationship, having worked on four films prior to The Untouchables:

  •  Greetings                            1968
  • The Wedding Party            1969
  • Hi, Mom                               1970
  • Scarface                               1983

I’m not sure if any of these films are also on the list, but I really hope Scarface is, this is a film which is on my list but I’ve never seen.

I did fall asleep halfway through the movie and had to continue watching the second half the following day.  However, I thought the movie was well written and thanks to De Niro and Connery, it held my interest.  I do not intend to watch this movie again, once was enough for me.  I wish the plot would have delved more into the history of Capone.  After hitting Wikipedia, I learned more about Capone in a small article than I did over the course of this entire move.  I may have connected with the plot more had I understood the individual motives of the characters, which would also include those of Capone.  Wikipedia claims that Capone was actually referred to as a “modern day Robin Hood”, being a regular contributor to children’s charities, and even opened a soup kitchen for the homeless. The movie portrayed him only as a mad lunatic.  Someone that seemed to be a money-making mastermind, but would beat your head in with a baseball bat for no real cause. 

Do I think this deserves a spot on the list?  For the sake of Connery and his Oscar winning role, I will give this one a pass, I am glad it is at least at the bottom of the list.  Granted, it may just not be my kind of movie.  However, I will admit it has really given me a hankering to watch some Sopranos… “Woke up this morning and bought myself a gun…..”  Now this is a gangster show I enjoy.  I wonder if Brit Boy has a copy I could borrow……

I’m not sure I agree that Al Capone could be thought of as a modern day “Robin Hood” American Girl, maybe the entry in Wikipedia was created by someone high on prohibition liquor 🙂 . It is interesting though how we have another Kevin Costner connection, having starred as the lead in ‘Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’, I really hope that isn’t on the list…..

However, I do think this film deserves to be on our list if for no other reasons than Connery’s performance, combined with the sublime score and direction. Certainly from a holistic cinematic perspective it also deserves to be higher than Jurassic Park.

As for the Soprano’s, I do have the first 3 seasons on DVD, I’ll put them in the mail……

Footnote – Six Degrees of Sir Richard Attenborough

I thought it would be interesting in my own quirky way to see if we could link each of the films back to #250 Jurassic Park, and the obvious way I considered doing so was via Sir Richard Attenborough. I hope the others in this list are as easy as this first one:

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 Sir Richard Attenborough directed Sean Connery in ‘A Bridge Too Far’

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2 Responses to #249 The Untouchables (1987)

  1. Pingback: Album #500 – Outkast : Aquemini | Aural Excitement

  2. Pingback: Nelson Riddle – The Untouchables Theme (1959) | mostly music

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