The Untouchables should not be celebrated for its plotline, which basically boils down to: straight-laced cop chases charismatic criminal, catches him, roll credits. It certainly doesn’t earn points for historical accuracy, telling a wholly contrived story of Eliot Ness vs. Al Capone in Prohibition Era Chicago. And there’s not a lot of character development in this one. The good guys—led by Kevin Costner as the overly prim Ness—are all saintly, while the bad guys have no redeeming qualities.
That said, the film deserves its rating here. The reason? Over the course of 119 minutes, The Untouchables presents four of the iconic scenes in gangster movie history.
1. The Baseball Bat Scene. In the midst of a dinner party in his honor, Capone (Robert De Niro) takes out a Louisville Slugger and delivers a tribute to baseball as the All-American sport. As his underlings smoke cigars and chuckle in agreement, Capone circles a huge round table—finally stopping behind one nodding toadie. He briefly speaks of betrayal and then applies a few Ruthian swings to the employee’s skull.
It’s jarring stuff—for the audience, as well as for Capone’s flunkies. They sit aghast at the table as their cohort’s blood seeps across the white linen. And it really happened. In 1929, Capone learned that two of his hit men were hatching a plan to kill him. He called a dinner party and battered them to death in front of the entire gang.
“The point here,” director Brian De Palma explains in the film’s DVD commentary, “is that Capone is the king, the god. He makes people live, he makes people die.”
2. The Death of Agent Oscar Wallace. Charles Martin Smith plays the Treasury accountant who conceives the idea of nabbing Capone for tax evasion, rather than for his more hideous—but less prosecutable—crimes. Over the course of the film, we watch Wallace transform from a nebbishy money cruncher into a real cop. He comes to enjoy carrying a gun, throwing a punch and, yes, even sneaking a nip of Canadian whiskey.
Entrusted with protecting Capone’s bookkeeper, Wallace escorts the man onto an elevator in the police station. We, the audience, can spot that the elevator operator is Capone’s henchman, Frank Nitti—but Wallace does not know. The door closes and—BANG! BANG! By the time the other Untouchables reach the scene, the open door reveals that the bookkeeper has a bullet through his head, Nitti has fled and Wallace has been shot dead. His body hangs from a hook in the elevator, with the taunting word “Touchable” painted in his blood on the wall.
Two things you should know about the scene. First, De Palma, who never shies away from gore, looked at the scene’s setup and said, “No, too much blood.” Second, it ends with Sean Connery’s character of Jimmy Malone pulling Wallace from the hook and gently laying down his body. “When Sean did that beautiful gesture,” Smith recalled, “the other actors were all so emotionally touched that we started crying. We had to shoot it again.”
3. The Shooting of Jimmy Malone. Connery’s gruff Irish cop meets his end when a knife-wielding intruder lures him out onto the front steps of his home and he is gunned down by Nitti. The so-called “creeper scene” that sets up the shooting is a De Palma trademark, in which the camera follows the victim as if seeing him through the eyes of his hunter. It builds up the tension, in that the audience knows what’s waiting for Malone—but he doesn’t.
“Sean hated the scene,” De Palma says on the video commentary. “He was hurt by the [blood] pellets the first time and had to go to the hospital. He didn’t want to reshoot it.”
But De Palma wasn’t satisfied with the first take and made the legendary actor endure it a second time. He needed to, said the director, “because we had to make it a shocking moment.” Connery won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the movie.
On a personal note, a friend of the authors originally watched The Untouchables in a South Philadelphia movie theater, a few rows away from some notorious Philly wiseguys. The real-life mobsters cheered each murder by Capone’s men and erupted into raucous applause as Malone lay dying.
4. The Train Station Sequence. Sure, it’s cribbed from that Film 101 standard—the Odessa steps massacre in Battleship Potemkin by Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. But the scene at Chicago’s Union Station where the Untouchables nab Capone’s accountant—as a baby’s carriage rumbles down the steps—is riveting stuff.
And it was largely improvised. Originally, De Palma and writer David Mamet’s script called for the scene to involve a crash of two vintage-era trains, but Paramount Pictures didn’t want to pony up for that. Studio executives simply told the director that old trains could not be located. So De Palma took his cast and crew to the train station, which they had already rented out, and spent a few nights making it up as they went along. It works, right down to music director Ennio Morricone’s effect of the baby’s music box tinkling as bullets whiz by his pram.
There are other memorable moments in The Untouchables—the cross-border raid into Canada (which resembles something out of an old John Ford Western) comes to mind, as does Ness pushing the snide Nitti off a 10th-story rooftop.
So while we can’t say that The Untouchables breaks any new ground in the genre or stands as a great film, we can say this: if you pop it into your DVD player and grab a bucket of popcorn, there are enough creative and well-acted scenes to keep you well entertained for two hours.
HIT: Although filmed in the mid-1980s, The Untouchables really evokes the Great Depression era with its vintage cars, clothing and street scenes. To keep modern skyscrapers from showing up on screen (before the days when they could be digitally removed), De Palma shot most scenes at night and paid the owners of the post-1930 buildings huge fees to keep all their lights off.
MISS: Ness’s relationships with his wife (Patricia Clarkson) and daughter are beyond saccharine. The wife puts love notes in his brown-bag lunches before he goes into battle. There are butterfly kisses and bedtime prayers and eyes batting to syrupy string music. Not to sound unromantic, but we were ready to use Ness’s lunch sack as a barf bag.
BEST LINE: Capone on the lunacy of Prohibition: “People are gonna drink. You know that, I know that, we all know that, and all I do is act on that. And all this talk of bootlegging—what is bootlegging? On a boat, it’s bootlegging. On Lake Shore Drive, it’s hospitality.”
PIVOTAL SCENE: Initially, Malone refuses Ness’s request to help him nail Capone—largely because he has no faith that the by-the-book outsider has any prayer of success. Still, he agrees to meet with Ness—away from the police station, where “the walls have ears.” The two kneel in conversation in the front row of a Catholic church.
“Do you really want to get Capone?” asks the skeptical beat cop. “You see, what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?”
“Everything within the law,” answers Ness.
Malone scoffs. The only way to win the fight, he says, is to go way outside the law. “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.”
Ness—who likely has never even jaywalked—accepts the unholy deal. The two shake hands—“a blood oath,” as Malone terms it. Ness now has a streetwise mentor.
The scene was filmed by cinematographer Stephen H. Burum from a low angle that shows the men’s hands in front, their faces next and an intricately painted church ceiling in the background. Burum said the shot of their hands almost touching reminded him of Michelangelo’s famed Creation of Adam mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We don’t know about that, but it is visually grabbing.
REALITY CHECK: Oh, almost everything, starting with the fact that the real-life Ness had nothing to do with pinning tax evasion charges on Capone. Regard this movie as entertainment, not as anything approaching actual history.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “The Untouchables is not a realistic recreation of Chicago during Prohibition. Nor is it a typical effort from Brian De Palma, who has often put his awesome technique and his admirable sense of film history to trashy (Dressed to Kill) or trivial (Wise Guys) ends. Instead, it goes to that place that all films aspiring to greatness must attain: the country of myth, where all the figures must be larger and more vivid than life.”—Richard Schickel, Time
CASTING CALL: Paramount did not envision The Untouchables as a big-budget movie, so executives turned down De Palma’s ideas of casting Jack Nicholson, Mel Gibson or Michael Douglas for the role of Eliot Ness. Instead, they selected Costner, a relative unknown at the time. De Palma was reluctant until he spoke with Steven Spielberg, who had directed Costner in a TV episode and was enthused over the young actor.
Paramount also balked at De Niro’s exorbitant fee for two weeks of shooting and hired British actor Bob Hoskins (The Long Good Friday, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) to play Capone. De Palma drew the line, said he would quit the project if De Niro wasn’t cast, and won the chance to work with an actor he had discovered as an unknown in the 1960s (and once paid $50 for a role).
Hoskins got $200,000 to walk away. He later called De Palma and asked, “Are there any other movies you don’t want me in?”
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: De Niro, a notoriously meticulous method actor, anguished that he could not gain sufficient weight to portray Capone in time for filming, so he wore a body suit during most scenes. He also insisted on wearing exactly the style of clothes that Capone wore in 1930—right down to hand-sewn silk underwear.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Connery and De Niro always deserve an encore. Beyond that, it’s worth seeing again to watch the film that launched Costner’s once-thriving career.
GOOF: As Malone lay dying, Ness hugs his ally’s bullet-riddled body and hears his last words, directing Ness that he can capture Capone’s fugitive accountant at the train station. Ness immediately leaves—with a stainless and well-pressed suit. It’s a neat trick for a man who was just rolling around in blood.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: No shortage of blood, bombs and bullets. And baseball bats. This is, after all, a Brian De Palma film.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: How many scenes the white-suited Nitti appears in, usually without speaking and often in the background. In the video commentary, De Palma says he wanted Nitti as a “constant evil force” passing through the film.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Nerdy mob accountant Walter Payne is played by nerdy-looking Jack Kehoe. You may recognize the spectacle-wearing, mustachioed actor from his roles in Serpico, The Sting and Midnight Run. We’ll always remember him as the unlikely outside shooting star “Setshot” from The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.
BODY COUNT: Twenty-three, starting with a ten-year-old girl being bombed and ending with Nitti flying off a roof.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The original 1959-63 television series of the same name, starring Robert Stack as the incorruptible Ness and featuring the memorable narration of Walter Winchell. The show was created by Desilu Productions, the studio owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball (of I Love Lucy fame). It struck such a nerve that a mob informer later told the government there was a Mafia hit temporarily ordered on Arnaz.
Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.
[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”