The Untouchables (1987)
July 29, 2014 7:01 PM - Subscribe

Federal Agent Eliot Ness sets out to stop Al Capone; because of rampant corruption, he assembles a small, hand-picked team.

This film injected new life into the tired, well-worn genre of the gangster film. Music played a key part in this movie, building tension and intensifying the emotional moments.

While the music contributed to the world-building, so did the locations, set design and costumes. As a result, The Untouchables won the Oscar for Best Score, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sean Connery).

The film was based on the book by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley. (There was also a TV series that ran from 1959 to 1963 on the ABC.)

In DePalma's film, there is a synergy among the four male leads, and many of the scenes' underlying theme is how each character is more vulnerable alone, but, operating as a team, can use their own skills to make the group stronger and more effective at stopping (and convicting) Al Capone.

And David Mamet wrote the screenplay!

Bob Hoskins was almost cast as Al Capone (how different that would've been), and the extended set-piece in Union Station is a nod to a famous scene in the Russian film, Battleship Potemkin.

You can read a summary of the critical reception at Wikipedia.
The soundtrack.
The filming locations: Part 1, Part 2
Promotional piece for the film. (lots of film clips if you want to revisit the highlights and quotable quotes)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (26 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Connery's Irish accent in that first scene -- on the bridge, after Ness's humiliating failed raid -- is really, really noticably wobbly. Much more so than in the rest of the movie, in which his accent is much closer to his native Scots.

I always wondered if there was a "look Sean, you're great, but he's supposed to be Irish so could we just try one establishing scene with the accent?" conversation.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 7:18 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

A great role for Connery, though. And Costner isn't even that annoying in this movie.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:13 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, he is great in it, no question.

Costner is quite wooden in it; although mostly they get away with it because his stolid acting plays well to the Elliot Ness character's innate stiffness. (It's the Keanu Reeves in The Matrix thing: sometimes the actor's limitations fit the role.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 8:32 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

My 12 year old self was so saddened when Charles Martin Smith's character was killed.
posted by MoonOrb at 8:44 PM on July 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, and I can usually take or leave (leave usually) DePalma, but that set piece at the train station with the baby carriage bouncing down the stairs is so awesome.
posted by MoonOrb at 8:46 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

That scene is an homage to the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:34 PM on July 29, 2014

Ah yes, Agent Oscar Wallace. Radar O'Reilly with the heart of lion. He deserved so much more than an offscreen death.
posted by whuppy at 6:06 AM on July 30, 2014

Bob Hoskins would have been great as Capone.

I wondered if they were hoping for a surprise reveal of De Niro. The movie opens with Capone in the barber's chair, surrounded by fawning journalists, with his face draped in hot towels; and then the barber removes the towels and HEY LOOK ITS ROBERT DE NIRO.

But looking at the movie posters, De Niro is credited left of the "and", ahead of Sean Connery; so it wasn't a secret.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:11 AM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

"You got him?"
"Yeah, I got him"

Andy Garcia. *sigh*
posted by TWinbrook8 at 12:00 PM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

This was probably my first exposure to David Mamet's writing and I still can't believe how many flat-out great lines there are in this movie.

"What are you prepared to do?"

"He pulls out a knife, you pull out a gun. He puts one of yours in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue. That's the Chicago way! and that's how you're gonna get Capone!"

"Alright, enough of this running shit!"

"What's the matter? Can't you talk with a gun in your mouth?"

"You carry a badge? Carry a gun."

And on and on....
posted by wabbittwax at 4:09 PM on July 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Roger Ebert was disappointed in De Niro as Capone, and is somewhat damning in his three-star review:
The script is by David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, but it could have been by anybody. It doesn't have the Mamet touch, the conversational rhythms that carry a meaning beyond words. It also lacks any particular point of view about the material and, in fact, lacks the dynamic tension of many gangster movies written by less talented writers. Everything seems cut and dried, twice-told, preordained.

The performances are another disappointment. The star of the movie is Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, the straight-arrow federal agent who vows a personal struggle against the Capone mob. Costner is fine for the role, but it's a thankless one, giving him little to do other than act grim and incorrigible. The script doesn't give him, and he doesn't provide, any of the little twists and turns of character that might have made Ness into an individual.

But the big disappointment is Robert De Niro's Al Capone. All of the movie's Capone segments seem cut off from the rest of the story; they're like regal set-pieces, dropped in from time to time. De Niro comes onscreen with great dramatic and musical flourish, strikes an attitude, says a line, and that's basically the whole idea. There isn't a glimmer of a notion of what made this man tick, this Al Capone who was such an organizational genius that he founded an industry and became a millionaire while still a young man.
I think he's right about Mamet, his work got obliterated by DePalma, or obscured, or buried. And, yes, there's little for Coster to do but be grim.

I thought the movie emphasized how Capote had everyone in his pocket: the police, the press, the whole city of Chicago, and that part of his skill was acting "charming" and telling stories. Every single scene, practically, is DeNiro weaving a story or creating a propaganda narrative, about himself or how to be a team player.

If DeNiro and Costner were kept very separate, I think part of the reason was to emphasize the very distance that lay between them (why would Capote be accessible to Ness), but another reason is... DENIRO SUCKED THE AIR FROM ANY SCENE WITH COSTER.

That whole "Never stop fighting... never stop fighting" or whatever he said in the final scene in the courtroom is so laughably bad - even DeNiro's "what? huh?"s are better acted. What a dud, disappointing line to an otherwise fine movie. (The "here endeth the lesson" line that immediately follows it was gorgeous, though.)

I HAVE SO MANY FEELS ABOUT THIS MOVIE. I don't want to choke the thread - please do chime in if you want to!
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:15 PM on July 30, 2014

"THAT'S the Chicago way!"
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:15 PM on July 30, 2014

"A man become pre-eminent he's expected to have en-toos-iasms. En-toos-iasms.... "
posted by wabbittwax at 4:23 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:28 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Costner is fine for the role, but it's a thankless one, giving him little to do other than act grim and incorrigible.

Way back in 1987 maybe it wasn't yet apparent that his performance in The Untouchables was pretty much the ceiling for Costner's acting ability. At the time, I just thought Costner was awesome--Silverado, Field of Dreams, No Way Out.

Back when I was 10-15 it seemed like every movie I saw was a great one. I wish I could go back to that naive enthusiasm for movies. I'm not sure how films like The Untouchables would hold up for me on a first viewing now; for years I counted it in my top ten favorite movies of all time, though. I maybe had a higher tolerance for so-so movies and crappier acting. By 1990 or so I saw Revenge and I think that was my first inkling that maybe not only was Costner really not a good actor at all, but actually he may be kind of awful, and nothing he's done since has changed my feeling.

I feel so much nostalgia when I think about this movie: this was back when Connery and DeNiro just seemed to be acting gods to me, before they became caricatures of themselves and their performances made me cringe. Connery was just a few years removed from roles in Family Business and Medicine Man, both movies I saw (god knows why) in the theatre, but also made me think, wow, whatever this guy had, he doesn't have anymore. And DeNiro was still in the midst of his glory then, as far as I'm concerned: in the next decade he did Midnight Run, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino, Heat, Jackie Brown, and even Ronin before he just imploded into unwatchable schtick.

So for Connery, it was sort of like this movie marked the beginning of his end, for DeNiro, not so much the end of the beginning, but the end of the great middle period of his career, and for Costner, well, he was never really any better or any worse than he was in this movie. He's played the same cardboard cutout in every movie in which he's appeared.

By god, this movie even convinced me for a while that Andy Garcia was a good actor and that Brian De Palma was a great director, ideas that I now think were delusions of an impressionable young moviegoer, not credible things to ever believe.
posted by MoonOrb at 4:40 PM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

There's this weird thing with the soundtrack where it sort of nudges the film towards its more Western-ish tendancies and I don't know if that's the soundtrack's doing, or Morricone picking up on the film, or whatever. But the scene with the Bridge is one of my most indelible memories of film Westerns, even though it isn't really in a Western.
posted by selfnoise at 5:04 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Brian De Palma was a great director, and he, me, and Pauline Kael will stand by that forever. He seemed to have stalled with Carlito's Way, his last genuinely great film, but I hold out hope yet.
posted by maxsparber at 5:09 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

If DeNiro and Costner were kept very separate, I think part of the reason was to emphasize the very distance that lay between them

Right -- Capone's stooge lawyer taunts Ness with "you think you're untouchables?" but really the heart of the movie is that it's Capone that seems invulnerable. The movie portrays him as strutting peacock, living like a king in his hotel suite, taunting Ness via proxies and the press. They don't meet often because Capone exists on a different stratum to Ness.

(And when they do, when Ness goes to confront Capone at the hotel, it's at great danger to himself. The way the scene plays, and the way De Niro plays it, gives the impression that Capone would have had no compunction whatsoever in killing Ness right there; and that he would have expected to get away with it.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 5:10 PM on July 30, 2014

The brilliance of Blow Out cannot be overstated.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:11 PM on July 30, 2014

maxsparber, within the last year I've watched Dressed to Kill, Snake Eyes, and that shitshow of a movie with Rachel MacAdams, and my opinion of him has gone rapidly and precipitously downhill. For the record I thought Casualties of War and Carlito's Way were both fabulous but have always been so meh about Scarface. Please don't make me try to remember The Black Dahlia, either.

I guess my feeling on De Palma is that he made a few great films, a lot of trash, and a bunch of forgettable stuff. Which probably isn't too bad of a body of work in the grand scheme of things.
posted by MoonOrb at 6:22 PM on July 30, 2014

Our family still quotes "All right, enough of this running shit!"

And Andy Garcia is a classic case of hottie supporting performer stealing the show (cf also Oded Fehr in "The Mummy")
posted by mogget at 10:00 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I thought the movie emphasized how Capote had everyone in his pocket: the police, the press, the whole city of Chicago, and that part of his skill was acting "charming" and telling stories.

Best typo ever.
posted by entropicamericana at 1:44 PM on August 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would watch that mash-up. Hmm, PSH Capote, Toby Jones Capote, or Paul Stewart Capote ... or Truman Capote Capote (Annie Hall)?
posted by dhartung at 1:57 AM on August 10, 2014

The sax in this part of the soundtrack always gets me. I loved so much about this movie; the genre, the direction, the score, the cinematography, clever script, interesting characters and great acting.
posted by NoraCharles at 5:36 PM on September 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm going to take an unpopular stance and say that Costner is great in this. He excels at playing a particular kind of earnest, sincere role. He's probably the best at that since Gary Cooper.

One thing that is interesting about Costner and very particular to his era as opposed to Cooper's is that Costner nearly always chooses his "earnest" roles in films that question whether an old school straight arrow is a hero or a buffoon, a role model or a sap. This is a good example of that.

I share both the fondness for Mamet's sharp lines noted above and the belief that he sort of phoned this in at times, or at the least was partially thwarted by De Palma's near total fixation on a number of set pieces at the expense of the more ordinary scenes.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:55 AM on June 29, 2023

Watched this on a whim yesterday and I didn’t think it is holding up very well. So many of the scenes lacked atmosphere, and there seemed to be very little thought given to transitions. The set pieces are fun, but sort of nonsensical in terms of being justified by or moving the story along. I think the pairing of Mamet and De Palma was just ill-advised.
posted by jimw at 8:27 PM on October 23, 2023 [1 favorite]

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