Weekend Film Recommendation: The Untouchables

Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” is fantastic update of old time gangster movies with knockout performances by Robert De Niro and Sean Connery

sean-connery-as-jim-malone-in-the-untouchablesMany classic TV shows have been made into dreadful movies, but Brian De Palma came up aces in 1987 when he made this week’s film recommendation: The Untouchables.

The plot: Naive treasury agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) comes to Prohibition-era Chicago to do battle with bootlegger, murderer and king of the gangsters Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Realizing that the police and politicians are all corrupted by Capone, Ness assembles his own team of “untouchable” agents who can’t be bought. His squad is anchored by a cynical, over-the-hill beat cop named Jim Malone (Sean Connery), who teaches him how the game is played in the Windy City. The two of them and their fellow untouchables embark on an epic confrontation with powerful, violent mobsters and a legal system that is rotten from top to bottom.

The key theme of the film is voiced by Connery, in one of the many scenes where he virtually acts the bland Costner right off the screen: What are you prepared to do? The basic tension of David Mamet’s crackerjack script derives from the fact that the good guys can’t win without breaking the rules they have sworn to uphold. This adds moral weight to a story that is also packed with thrilling action sequences and powerful dramatic moments.

De Palma often echoes classic films in his movies, and The Untouchables is no exception. A spectacularly executed shoot-out sequence in Union Station is an homage to the equally brilliant Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Although I don’t know for sure, I believe the first scene of the movie, in which a terrified barber reacts to having nicked Capone’s face while shaving him, is an echo of one of the opening scenes of a prior RBC recommendation: The Chase. De Palma makes these allusions is such a way that you don’t have to get them to enjoy the film, but if you do it’s even more fun.

This was a big budget Hollywood film and it shows in every scene. The set design and art direction are darbs, and the period cars, clothes and architecture are the cat’s meow. Producer Art Linson is a Chicago native, and clearly knew where to spend money to bring the Prohibition Era alive. To top it all off, Ennio Morricone contributes one of the most memorable and evocative scores of the 1980s.

deniroOther than Costner, who is painfully weak here, the entire cast explodes. But even in that field, Connery and De Niro tower over everyone with powerhouse performances. Capone has been portrayed many times on film, but never in such a scary fashion. In De Niro’s hands, he is a man who can go from mirth and charm to murderous rage with no warning, and the viewer fully appreciates why all of his underlings tiptoe around him.

Connery, who won a long-overdue Oscar for playing Malone, also tears up the screen. His Malone is world-weary and tough yet also capable of wit and even a sort of gentleness (His big brother-little brother relationship to Andy Garcia’s rookie cop is perfectly played by the two actors). Because he became famous playing James Bond, it took Connery a long time to convince people that he really is a fine actor. I have commended his strong performances in RBC recommendations many times, including in The Hill and Outland. He triumphs again in The Untouchables, one of many reasons to see this near-perfect update of classic cops-versus-gangsters television shows and movies.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

12 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Untouchables”

  1. SPOILER ALERT:

    Isn’t this the film where, in the final scene, the villain taunts the hero about how badly one of his colleagues died, and the hero responds by pushing the villain off a high place to his death? When I saw it, the audience cheered, which is clearly what de Palma and Mamet intended. I wanted to vomit.

    “What are you prepared to do?” could be the motto of “24.” It’s the credo of a coward, someone who thinks that evil is by its nature more powerful than good and is willing to align himself with evil (always, of course, in a good cause) whenever he thinks he can get away with it. The problem is that human beings aren’t machines, and eventually people who license themselves to commit murder and torture get into the habit.

    We saw its results at Abu Ghraib, and before that at Treblinka and in the Katyn Forest. It’s the punchline of an old Yiddish joke: “If you think that someone can go down a chimney and not get ashes on his clothing, you’re not ready to study Talmud.”

    1. Yes. Ness (Costner) – having just resisted shooting Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) in cold blood – pushes him of the roof in a rage when taunted about Malone’s death. From full synopsis. It’s not, so far as I can recall, presented as a calculated means in Ness’ mission, just a good man losing it. Not 24, more Hollywood having it both ways.

  2. “The basic tension of David Mamet’s crackerjack script derives from the fact that the good guys can’t win without breaking the rules they have sworn to uphold.”

    The basic irony of this is, of course, that in the end the ‘good guys’ turn out to have not even thought Prohibition was a good idea, so they were just breaking one set of rules to uphold a second set, without even having any basis for thinking the latter more important than the former.

    1. De Palma understands that prohibition is going to seem quaint to a modern audience. It’s the violence that powers the cops (and the audience’s) sense of outrage here, not the bootlegging. That point is raised in the opening scene when the question is put to Capone, and driven home with shocking force in the unforgettable scene that immediately follows Capone’s po-faced denial.

      Ness’ last line is “I think I’ll have a drink,” not “I think I’ll murder some children for money.”

  3. I liked how the movie touched on the real-life fact that Capone was never nailed for crimes committed as a gangster – they nailed him on income tax evasion. There’s the one character whose constantly bringing up that particular soft spot in Capone’s armor, but Connery and Costner ignore him for the most part because they want to do raids and intercepts.

  4. Is it relevant that Mamet is (at least in recent years) a notoriously vitriolic and rather hyperbolic right-winger, and if I recall correctly a fervent supporter of Dubya’s transgressions in pursuit of “Terrorism”?

  5. I’m always up for trashing David Mamet, as he’s always up for trashing women and liberals, but what I remember of this movie is one of my favorite lines of all time, delivered perfectly by Connery: “Just like a dago to bring a knife to a gunfight.” My Italian-American then-husband loved it, too.

  6. Connery’s film career may have started with Bond, but he was a great Hotspur on the BBC in 1961.

    1. Actually, by the time Dr. No was released, Sean Connery already had a substantial acting career, mostly on U.K. television but including several feature films, going back to 1954. Obviously it was Bond that made him a major star, but it was nothing like the beginning of his career.

        1. All that aside, thanks, Keith, for recommending “The Untouchables”. I hadn’t seen it, having reflexively dismissed it as one of that seemingly endless and pointless string of movies they kept making out of TV series. Happily, Netflix has it available for streaming, so I watched it last night. Not a brilliant movie, but a very well-made and very satisfying piece of work, and some bits of it were actually brilliant. I enjoyed it immensely. I would have said it was inconceivable that anyone could think Kevin Costner a better actor than Robert De Niro, but obviously someone up above has conceived it. De gustibus. Costner is not an embarrassment, but he’s a lightweight whose enormous success has always puzzled me. Perhaps his looks, which I find rather bland, may be more compelling to others. I really liked Sean Connery’s performance in this, although he sure talked like a Scotsman for an Irishman. Regarding the line “Just like a dago to bring a knife to a gunfight” mentioned above – a great line, but particularly effective setting up what happens immediately after, which was pretty stunning.

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