Revisiting Childhood Movies Part XVIII:

The Untouchables

  • The most famous graduate of my high school becomes a star.

    The most famous graduate of my high school becomes a star.

    Director:  Brian De Palma

  • Writer:  David Mamet  (suggested by the book by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley)
  • Producer:  Art Linson
  • Stars:  Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Award Nominations:  Academy Awards – Supporting Actor, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design; Golden Globes – Supporting Actor, Score; BAFTA – Supporting Actor, Score, Production Design, Costume Design; WGA (Adapted Screenplay); NBR – Supporting Actor
  • Length:  119 min
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  5 June 1987
  • Box Office Gross:  $76.27 mil  (#6 – 1987)
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #12 (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor, Editing, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Notables:  none
  • First Watched:  the week it came out on video
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  5 or 6

As a Kid:  I don’t think it was known yet when I saw this film.  The “it” in the preceding sentence is not that Kevin Costner was about to become one of the biggest stars on the planet.  It’s that Kevin Costner was the most famous person to ever come out of my high school.  I already liked him before I was inclined to like him and this film (along with Silverado) was a major reason why, even before he starred in the two best baseball films ever made at a time when baseball was a massive part of my life.

Costner plays the straight hero role in this film, something I could already see.  He was the Luke Skywalker, playing things straight while trying to conquer evil.  Yet, he’s also drawn into a fight that is bigger than his ability to completely play it straight.  I could tell that I was supposed to cheer when he throws Frank Nitti off the roof.  I knew I was riveted during the staircase scene in the train station.  I was bummed when Connery was blown away, but admired how dutifully he moved with his final effort to make certain that he didn’t die for nothing.

This was one of my favorite movies at a time when I was just starting to really appreciate film.  When I made my very first list of the Top 100 movies I had seen, this was near the top, one of the very first films that I rated at ***** with my original rating system.

As an Adult:  I use a four star system now and over the last 20 years, since adopting that system, I have gone back and forth on this film between a high ***.5 and a low ****.  Going into re-watching it before compiling my 1987 awards, I had it at a ***.5.  After watching it again, for maybe the 20th time, I bumped it back up to ****.

This is an intricately crafted film, something that helped spark a pure love of the medium in me.  I had never seen The Battleship Potemkin when I first saw this film.  I suspect most people who saw this film hadn’t.  But even now, after I have seen it numerous times, that doesn’t make what De Palma does on those steps any less masterful.  It’s not just the brutality in the scene, it’s not just the horror of potentially watching a child in danger.  It’s the sheer tension that creeps through the scene, concluding with that brutal shot through the mouth of a man who deserves it and that blood inching down the wall behind him.

Much of the film is like that and it is all a reminder that the mythology of gangsters is a mistake in American society.  This film doesn’t buy into the mythology of Capone.  What it does is show how much Capone and the Chicago of his era believed in it and allowed themselves to be controlled by it.  From the opening moment, when that bomb explodes, a moment of sheer film shock, through the beating he throws down on one of his underlings with a baseball bat, we remember that Capone was a brutal killer who didn’t care who got in his way, the Whitey Bulger of his time.  This film makes a hero out of Elliot Ness because Ness managed to get Capone into prison, something no one else had done, and that was heroic.

This film is not a history lesson and no one should be looking at it for anything resembling that.  Yes, Ness managed to oversee the downfall and conviction of Capone on tax evasion but little else of the film resembles history.  What it does resemble is a period of history, with great sets, first-rate costumes and a wonderful look.  The cinematography and editing, on the staircase alone, are first-rate, but they continue throughout the rest of the film as well.  The score, written by longtime Sergio Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone, is incredible in the way it pushes the film’s tension and if it comes in second at the Nighthawk Awards, well bear in mind the winning score is from The Princess Bride and it’s what my wife walked into our wedding to.

Of course, one of the best things about this film is Sean Connery’s performance.  But Connery’s performance doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  There are those who have maligned David Mamet’s script, but it’s with lines like “He brings a knife, you bring a gun.  He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.  That’s the Chicago way and that’s how you get Capone,” that Connery’s performance so comes to life.  There’s no question that it’s the best performance of his career.

In Roger Ebert’s review he is unkind about De Palma’s direction.  But De Palma manages to ratchet up the tension in this film, from the shot of the hood climbing through the window following Connery, to the death of one of the Untouchables in the elevator to the staircase scene that keeps the film so riveting.  Apparently there wasn’t enough action in the film for Ebert.  But remember, Ness nailed him using his brains, not through force and the film reflects that.

This is a film, that no matter where it ends up, is one I keep loving and returning to.  The four years I spent in high school with our most famous alumni as the king of the film world means I will pretty much take Kevin Costner in any role.  But I love him here in the hero role, the straight man who will learn what he has to do and then do what he has to do to bring down this man, even if it means throwing the gunman off the roof.  And so, I’ll smile when he says “I think I’ll have a drink” and that wonderful Morricone music comes on in triumph.

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