With a quartet of ace performances including an Oscar-winning Sean Connery plus Robert De Niro as a definitive Al Capone, Brian De Palma’s crime thriller THE UNTOUCHABLES is perfection.
From the opening bars of Ennio Morricone’s pulsating, Oscar-nominated score to that last great crane shot of a bustling 1930s Chicago street courtesy of similarly nominated production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein, Brian De Palma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES is perfection for me – an all-time movie classic.
It starts in a low-key tone with the first of several dynamite moments from Robert De Niro‘s scintillating and terrifying Al Capone, as he wows a group of journalists eager to hear his latest thoughts on how business is thriving in the midst of Prohibition: “Somebody messes with me, I’m gonna mess with him.” Capone advises the assembled group. The newspapermen are transfixed and so are we. Over the course of the next 1 hour and 59 minutes, we’ll watch enthralled as De Niro messes big time with our hero Eliot Ness, the straight-as-an-arrow federal agent and his team of likeminded policemen, THE UNTOUCHABLES.
Capone doesn’t want to play by any rule of Prohibition you see, it would seriously put a dent in his empire built from a gamut of illegal activities but Ness (played impeccably by Kevin Costner in my absolute favourite of his many great roles) wants to clean up this violent city and with the help of his somewhat motley crew of fellow law enforcers, we’ll watch just an enthralled, as he breaks the rules to do it.
And who are these fellow law enforcers? An Oscar-winning Sean Connery at his most devastatingly quip-witted as the old beat cop Malone. A charming Charles Martin Smith (here following his very endearing supporting performance in the brilliant Starman), who discovers the fun to be had when putting down his accounting books and picking up a shotgun to really earn the title agent Oscar Wallace. And a young Andy Garcia, fresh from a scintillating turn as a very bad guy in the thriller 8 Million Ways to Die and making a big splash here as Giuseppe Petri, the Italian cop now going under the name of George Stone to prove there are some good apples in the largely corrupt community.
De Palma orchestrates the action and violence that ensues between the criminals and the cops with his customary fierceness, having already given us Carrie, Dressed to Kill and Scarface by the time he came to make THE UNTOUCHABLES. It reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in the way it uses violence to explore the notion of violence. De Palma though also provides us with a ton of quieter moments in the film that are just as incendiary:
The first meeting of Ness and Malone late at night on the bridge “You just fulfilled the first rule of law enforcement – make sure when your shift is over you go home alive”.
The now-iconic ‘confessional’ scene in the church “You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?“
Capone’s monologue at a gathering of his lieutenants “Enthusiasms, enthusiasms…”
Ness and rookie cop Preseuski killing time before a raid discussing their home lives “It’s nice to be married, huh?“
It’s all superb and, of course, screenwriter David Mamet deserves heaps of credit too because he wrote the screenplay that dazzles you with lines like those above and many more. Here was a film script with razor-sharp wit, a dash of profanity which then knocked you for six with its cruelty. But we’re dealing with a cruel time and following the awful explosion that takes the life of a child at the beginning of the film, De Palma (with a nod to Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin) gets you on the edge of your seat for the finale with his incredibly staged train station sequence, where a baby in a pram tumbles helplessly down a flight of stairs as Ness and Stone try to save him.
Connery walked away with the movie’s only Oscar – for Best Actor in a Supporting Role – but Kevin Costner matches him. He’s sensational as Eliot Ness and with his performance in the superb thriller No Way Out the same year, this really heralded a new exciting actor on the movie scene.
In this, not only does he look absolutely spiffing in the period suits – thanks, Giorgio Armani! – he embodies Ness with a kind of Gary Cooper quiet, steely determination. Watching him go from idealistic agent to a law-breaker pushed to the moral limit, is a journey that I’m always moved by. When all’s done, near the end of the film and he looks painfully at the picture taken when he and his team had really accomplished something, he whispers “So much violence” – it’s terrific.
I watch THE UNTOUCHABLES every so often because, for me, it’s one of those rare movies where everything comes together to create the most wonderful cinematic experience. From the writing to the direction, from the design to the music, from the acting – I haven’t even got round to mentioning Richard Bradford’s compromised police chief, Patricia Clarkson’s serene Mrs Ness and Billy Drago’s frightening Frank Nitti – to the cinematography (regular De Palma collaborator Stephen H. Burum), it never fails to entertain me and put me right back on the edge of my seat. Thanks so much, Mr De Palma.