revisited – ‘the Untouchables’ (1987) an unforgettable magnum opus.

The Untouchables is a masterwork; a stroke of genius with original music composed and orchestrated by the maestro, Ennio Morricone, a cunning screenplay by David Mamet, and a work of art by director Brian De Palma. The film is a magnificent, vicious, attention-grabbing portrayal of the mafia lord who reigned over Prohibition-era Chicago and the lawman who swore to take him down. This definitive battle between the righteous and the wicked boasts a studded cast with Kevin Costner as Treasury Officer Eliot Ness, Robert De Niro as underworld lynchpin Al Capone and Sean Connery as Malone – the policeman who educates Eliot Ness on how to takedown the mafia: trusting nobody, recruiting your own team and giving them war.

Paramount Pictures (1987)

It does not get any superior than The Untouchables in terms of cast and crew. From musical composition, screenwriting, film directing, producing and acting; the best of the best got together in 1987 and made a glorious period piece about the 1930s – a vividly gorgeous time. The year is 1930 and Prohibition has distorted the Windy City into a battle stage. Opposing mobs contend for power over Chicago’s booming domain of prohibited liquor by imposing their force with extreme violence. Chicago in 1930 was the era of mafia lords; the epoch of Alphonse “Al” Capone. From government bribery to police corruption, Chicago was a depraved landscape. It took a sincere Federal Agent by the name of Eliot Ness to build a hand-picked team consisting of a rookie cop in the Police Academy, George Stone (Andy Garcia), an accountant named Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) and veteran Police Officer Jim Malone (Sean Connery) to dismantle Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and his rampant corruption by prosecuting him with tax evasion and a prison sentence of 11 years.

Paramount Pictures (1987)

Through and through, Brian De Palma makes his presence known with signature trademark styles. The opening shot is an overhead ‘godshot’ of Al Capone surrounded by his goons while simultaneously getting a razor shave, manicure and shoeshine. Capone rationalizes how his Illegal flow of liquor has created violence in Chicago. Moreover, David Mamet’s style of language is written all over this film. There is an obvious, intentional sense of humor in his screenplay that makes the fierce sequences of violence bearable and often enjoyable. When Eliot Ness busts what he thinks is an alcohol warehouse, he finds the boxes stored with umbrellas, and a photojournalist snaps his photograph, resulting in a humiliating article in the city newspaper. As an officer who just began his position, Ness has failed to make a good first impression, becoming the ridicule of the precinct. Moreover, what shines as a glorious layer on top of David Mamet’s writing and Brian De Palma’s directing is Ennio Morricone’s outstanding musical score, which contains its own personality and charm. Ennio Morricone’s music is heartening, uplifting and hypnotic; it’s so good it’s almost distracting.

When a little girl becomes the victim of a bombing, her mother gives Eliot Ness an ultimatum to stop the madness, in which we see Kevin Costner’s wild eyed performance as Ness become a determination to takedown Capone. When Capone’s main henchman, Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) threatens his wife and daughter, Eliot Ness is filled with a rage that drives him to dethrone the gangland kingpin at any cost; even if it takes extreme violence, or prosecuting him for tax evasion.

Paramount Pictures (1987)

When Jim Malone agrees to join Eliot’s team, he convinces him to leave the precinct because “the walls have ears”, so they go into a beautiful church for a secret meeting. Brian De Palma shoots at a low angle, highlighting the ceiling artwork. And he uses his signature split diopter to shoot Ness and Malone, side by side – a gorgeous scene. The exteriors of Chicago’s city streets are rich, colorful and slick. “If you’re afraid of getting a rotten apple, don’t go to the barrel, get it off the tree.” Malone informs Ness how they can’t trust the Police Department because they’re corrupt – a brilliant analogy written by David Mamet. Malone and Ness go to the Police Academy to recruit a “non-married” marksman. Malone finds George Stone, but presses for his real name, instinctually aware of Stone’s name change. Stone admits his birthname of Giuseppe Petri. “That’s all you need. One thieving wop on the team…you’re a lying member of a no-good race.” Malone says, putting Stone to the test with an offensive jab at his Italian ethnicity. “It’s much better than you, you stinking Irish pig.” Stone responds, after brandishing his firearm. George Stone, born Giuseppe Petri, was an American CPD officer and Bureau of Prohibition special agent during Prohibition, and as depicted here, during 1930-1931, he became a member of “The Untouchables” – on a mission to convict Al Capone of any crime they could.  

Paramount Pictures (1987)

The significance of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, makes its presence known as a necklace medallion that Malone shares when the Untouchables crew sit down to eat after their first successful raid. Brian Helgeland, the screenwriter of Man on Fire (2004) implemented a St. Jude pendant that Lupita (Dakota Fanning) gifts to Creasy (Denzel Washington). When Creasy passes away, he’s holding the pendant in his hand. In The Untouchables, when Malone is ambushed, breathing through his final moments while lying on the floor, we think he’s reaching for his St. Jude pendant to obtain solace, but we come to realize he was reaching for a ledger that lists the particulars of Capone’s bust. This is a cunning move by writer David Mamet; instead of playing on the drama of prayer and death, he has Malone more concerned about taking down Capone upon his last breath; this tactic is both hilarious and cinematically brilliant.

Paramount Pictures (1987)

For the first half of the film, one can’t help but be reminded of David Mamet. The language used within the dialogue is undoubtedly Mamet’s world. “Baseball! A man stands alone at a plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But, in the field – part of a team. Looks, throws, catches, hustles; part of one, big team. Bats himself to live a long day. If his team don’t field, what is he? No one. Sunny day, full of fans. What does he have to say? I’m going out there for myself. But I get nowhere unless the team wins.” Al Capone says, in a brilliant monologue written by Mamet that serves as an analogy for the execution of one of Capone’s goons, who gets his brains bashed immediately thereafter with a baseball bat. Moreover, from the second act all the way through the film’s ending, Brian De Palma finds his groove and we’re completely immersed in his style of direction; Morricone’s music and Mamet’s words settle nicely, and it’s De Palma’s visionary style that comes to the forefront with phenomenal cinematic framing and larger-than-life suspense.

Paramount Pictures (1987)

Legend has it that during his performance, Robert De Niro wore the same silk underwear Al Capone wore in real-life. Robert De Niro loses himself in the role of Al Capone and delivers a sublime performance. In 1987, Kevin Costner was relatively unknown to the masses, in addition to Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith being fresh faces. In 2020, the cast looks like a line-up of all-stars, but in the late ‘80s, the only prominent actors in the film were Sean Connery and Robert De Niro. Nevertheless, in hindsight, upon revisiting this film, one can only appreciate and be grateful for its existence. It is a cinematic rarity for such instances to occur, where you have masters in every field of film production providing a stroke of their individual genius. David Mamet’s baseball analogy delivered by Robert De Niro as Al Capone serves as an example of the great teamwork involved in the making of The Untouchables. From its producer Art Linson (Heat, Heist), to its cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (Snake Eyes, Mission: Impossible), and legendary film editor Jerry Greenberg (The French Connection, Apocalypse Now) – all phenomenal at what they do; the best of the best.

Paramount Pictures (1987)

The stairway shootout scene at the Union station is breathtakingly exquisite. A young mother loses a grip on a baby carriage at the foot of the steps while carrying a weighty suitcase, and Brian De Palma masterfully directs this sequence with exhilaration; there’s no dialogue and minimal sound, just superb cinematography and editing as the carriage falls down the stairs amid chaos and gunfire. Another notable sequence is the bridge shootout when the Untouchables raid an alcohol trade on horseback near the mountainside, giving the film a brief Western atmosphere amid its 1930s tommy gun wielding, hand grenade throwing Gangster picture. The rooftop chase scene where Eliot Ness tracks down Frank Nitti is unpredictable and surprising. The Untouchables is an artful, innovative and informative picture; it’s a master class on how to use the zoom technique and a thematic lesson on teamwork. The Untouchables are a crew of different men who team up for the greater good. Eliot Ness is heartfelt and genuine. Jim Malone is the wise, transcendent leader. George Stone is the madcap, daredevil, deadeye marksman. Oscar Wallace is the logistical accountant, oddball member who ultimately becomes ruthless. Jim Malone is the old dog who teaches the new dogs. “Everyone knows where the booze is. The problem isn’t finding it. The problem is, who want’s to cross Capone?” Malone says to Ness before their first successful liquor raid. The members of the Untouchables crew develop a camaraderie that seeps through the screen and into the viewers heart. This film is magnificent; one of the greatest pictures ever made that can be seen time and time again.

The Untouchables (1987) Trailer

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