It’s 85 years since Al Capone was sent down for tax evasion. Rachel Extance last watched Brian De Palma’s gangster flick 20 years ago at a teenage sleepover. Seems the right time to give it a rewatch.
What and why: There are moments of acute childhood anxiety which stay with you. And so it was that I was allowed a sleepover for a teenage birthday. I can’t quite remember which one but I think I was 15 or 16. There were two choices from the video store: The Untouchables and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (why these two is lost in the mists of time. I seem to remember there being a horror film I was too scared to watch as well). I chose The Untouchables.
To this day, my worry about whether my friends enjoyed the film or just tolerated the evening, curled up in sleeping bags on chairs or cushions on the floor, has remained. But very little of the detail of the film stayed with me, bar the guy being pushed off the roof and smashing into a car several floors below.
The opening music grabs you immediately. It’s urgent, dramatic and sets you up for a violent battle of wills: Al Capone versus law enforcer Eliot Ness.
“Robert De Niro’s Capone is equally cold and ebullient. He can entertain a room at dinner one minute and smash someone’s head in with a baseball bat the next.”
Picture a gangster and your image is likely to be based on Al Capone. The hat. The suit. The cigar. It’s 1930s Chicago and there is a billion-dollar trade in illegal alcohol. A billion dollars! Prohibition is one of those crazy pieces of history that’s difficult to comprehend, not least because everyone still drank; they just hid the stuff and played cat and mouse with the cops.
In comes Eliot Ness, the man from the Treasury, who’s been given the job of cracking down on bootleg liquor, even though the police don’t actually want the trade stopped. A failed raid (which the writers of New Tricks appear to have used as inspiration for their opening gambit when Sandra Pullman shoots the dog) leads to a chance encounter on a bridge with Sean Connery.
A crack team is brought together, including an accountant who turns out to be handy with a gun and after a few fights and betrayals, the good guys finally get their man. Not for murder and racketeering but tax evasion.
“I want him dead. I want his family dead. I want his house burnt to the ground.” Robert De Niro’s Capone is equally cold and ebullient. He can entertain a room at dinner one minute and smash someone’s head in with a baseball bat the next. The real Capone was stopped in his tracks by the tax evasion conviction at 33, by which time he was suffering from syphilitic dementia. He was far more vulnerable than he is portrayed.
But while Capone may be the centre of attention for the storyline, it is Sean Connery’s beat cop Malone who steals the film. He enters quietly, a character who could almost be invisible, scolding Ness for dropping litter. You almost do a double take as you realise who it is.
After that he grabs every scene, teaching a wet-behind-the-ears Ness how to take on the establishment – both the law and the lawless – in Chicago and win. He also manages to live for a long time after being riddled with machine gun bullets. His Oscar for best supporting actor is well deserved.
The Untouchables feels more like watching a play than a movie. After the opening credits, which hook you only by the force of Ennio Morricone’s score, there is silence as the camera shows a bird’s-eye view of Capone, face wrapped in a towel, being given a manicure and shave, surrounded by staff and reporters. The action is slow, interspersed by acts of extreme violence. There are clear set changes: the police station, the street, a character’s home, the Canadian border.
The scenes involving Eliot Ness are drab, slow and melancholy. A man with the world against him. The ones with Al Capone are glitzy and colourful with upbeat music. He’s the one calling the tune. At every stage the storyline is supported by Morricone’s music, signposting the mood of each scene.
The scene at the railway station with the baby in the pram is gripping. It’s impossible not to watch as the pram bumps down the steps while the shoot-out takes place around it. The echo of the wheels thudding, heartbeat after heartbeat in a life or death battle. Good or evil. Success or failure.
Rated or dated: The Untouchables is undoubtably a cracking story. The acting is excellent, the sets and the music spot on. But it feels slow. For all the drama of the shoot-outs, the intrigue and the battle of wills, you have to make yourself stick with it and not wander off to make a cuppa or pick up the paper, only to be brought back into it the next time there’s some action.
It’s a period piece and it’s caught between two periods: the 1930s where it’s set and the 1980s when it was made. That score is brilliant but it does fix it in the 80s for me. And if The Untouchables were made today I think it would be a more fast-paced psychological thriller. Sad to say, for me it is DATED, much like teenage sleepovers.
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Rachel Extance is a journalist and mother-of-two. Her main concern these days is making sure she doesn't walk out the house with yoghurt down her top.