Sometimes dubbed “the Master of the Macabre,” director Brian De Palma is best known for his enactments of the supernatural (“Carrie”), mania (“Dressed to Kill”) – and his mob stories. The latter part of his reputation is primarily grounded on four of his movies from the ten-year period between 1983 and 1993: “Scarface” (1983, starring Al Pacino), “Wise Guys” (1986, starring Danny De Vito, Joe Piscopo and Harvey Keitel), “Carlito’s Way” (1993, again starring Pacino) … and “The Untouchables” (1987), featuring an all-star cast including Robert De Niro, Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith. Among these, “The Untouchables” stands out as the only movie not primarily told from the gangster’s but from the lawmen’s perspective – but what it does share with all of De Palma’s works is an almost voyeuristic appeal to its audience’s visual senses; going far beyond the lavish display of film blood it is most often cited for.
Less fact-based than cinematic grand opera par excellence, the movie takes as its premise the end of the career of Chicago’s ganglord of ganglords, Al “Scarface” Capone, who (after a few half-hearted attempts to prosecute him for murder had failed due to the unavailability of witnesses) pled guilty, in 1931, to evading federal income tax, and was sentenced to an 11-year prison term and a $50,000 fine. Capone’s downfall was brought about by a group of initially 50 but later only nine Treasury Agents, formed in 1929 (not in 1930, as suggested here) with the express purpose of breaking up his operations, and headed by Eliot Ness, whose 1957 book “The Untouchables” posthumously gave new rise to his fame – Ness died of a heart attack without ever having witnessed the full extent of his book’s success – and inspired, inter alia, the like-named 1959 television series starring Robert Stack and Brian De Palma’s 1987 movie.
Scripted by Pulitzer Prize winner and Chicago native David Mamet (“Glengarry Glen Ross”), “The Untouchables” is not so much a study in character development as based on a western’s classic “good versus evil” setup; although that doesn’t mean that its protagonists are two-dimensional in any way. On the contrary: Robert De Niro imbues his Capone with a ruthlessness and glib charm very likely matching those of the real “Scarface,” who was known for his little hesitation to commit murder and other acts of violence as much as he cultivated a reputation as a savvy businessman and benefactor of the poor, for example by running several soup kitchens. (And yes, all of De Niro’s mannerisms are on full display, too; but rarely have they fitted a role as well as here.) Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness may be a little too assertive – Robert Stack once commented, after several conversations with Ness’s nearest and dearest, that the real-life Treasury Agent had been described to him as “rather soft-spoken, but very effective and brave” – but mildness is certainly not the principle trait written into the larger-than-life role of the man who “got” Al Capone, and Costner *is* an effective lead; although he is matched (not entirely sidelined, but darn near outplayed) by Sean Connery, who deservedly won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a National Board of Review Award as the crotchety old-timer Malone who has seen it all, somehow managed to stay both clean and alive, and now lets Ness talk him into becoming his tutor in all things Chicago Gangland. Andy Garcia, in his break-through role, is instantly likable as George Stone, the smart, fast kid from the South Side who doesn’t take kindly to put-downs of his origin but can nail a human target with one hand while lying down and holding a baby stroller with the other hand. Charles Martin Smith finally brings humanity and subtle humor to the character probably closest to the real-life “Untouchables,” accountant Oscar Wallace, who first has the idea to charge Capone for income tax evasion. Strong performances by Billy Drago as Capone’s right-hand man Frank Nitti (who of course was not really thrown off a rooftop by Ness), Richard Bradford as Police Chief Mike Dorsett, Patricia Clarkson as Ness’s wife, Jack Kehoe as Capone’s bookkeeper Walter Payne and others round out an altogether impressive cast.
Unmistakeably scored by Ennio Morricone (whose style often, and certainly here, doesn’t even take a full bar to recognize; and who with an ASCAP Award, a Grammy and a BAFTA Award was the movie’s other major winner besides Connery), “The Untouchables” lives off its splendid cinematography, production design – costumes courtesy of Giorgio Armani – and the exquisite timing of its sharp-edged dialogue and editing: Not only is screenwriter Mamet known to have his actors practice their lines according to a metronome; the editing of some of the movie’s most memorable scenes has the distinct feeling of a carefully choreographed, veritable ballet. This is particularly true for Malone’s death, pointedly set…
Was this review helpful to you?
This isn’t a documentary style film – it’s a gorgeous, over-the-top retelling of one of the most famous periods in America’s history. Al Capone and Eliot Ness are well known, as is the Chicago in which they lived. De Niro and Connery are fantasic in their roles, and the cinematography is beautiful. Costner as Ness also shines, but with these other two powerhouses his performance is almost overshadowed.
Great plot, great dialogue, great action, the movie is definitely a fun romp through an appealing period in history. The movie has even more significance as The Sopranos becomes a huge hit – people being drawn into learning about the mob way of life want to trace the roots of this drama and see where it’s taking its guidance. Many Sopranos scenes are taken from this movie, and the characters even quote it at times.
Highly recommended – a DVD you’ll watch many times over!
What do you expect from a film in which Kevin Costner and Sean Connery star as the good guys and Robert DeNiro plays all-time Bad Guy Al Capone? A great movie! And that’s what this is–a really really good gangster flick. No, it is not The Godfather, but then again nothing but The Godfather is The Godfather. Having said that, this is a wonderful film that actually does a pretty good job of explaining what Elliot Ness was up against when he was given the job of enforcing prohibition, gunning for Al Capone and cleaning up Chicago.
Costner is effective in his role as Elliot Ness. Connery does fine as the Chicago policeman Ness recruits to show him the ropes as to how things in Chicago operate. De Niro is matchless as Al Capone.
My favorite scene is the one in which Elliot Ness joins forces with the Canadian Mounties. Hilarious!
This movie is good entertainment and the storyline manages to move along pretty well without dragging and losing the viewer’s interest. The film never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously, and its use of humor is effective and prevents the movie from waxing pompous, which would have been easy for it to do, given the serious theme. This is one that you’ll watch again and again. Recommended.