Tag Archives: Ennio Morricone

Composer’s Corner: Nate’s Top Ten Film Scores by Ennio Morricone

I don’t know what I can say about Ennio Morricone that the maestro hasn’t already said with his unique, extraordinary and altogether legendary career in music composition, direction and innovation. He’s likely in my top five film composers of all time and the tactile, eccentric, melodious, often experimental and unmistakably singular presence he brought to the industry will never be forgotten. Ennio has passed this month but his work will live on immortal, and here are my personal top ten musical scores he crafted:

10. Wolfgang Petersen’s In The Line Of Fire

Tension and suspense are what this terrific assassination thriller is all about, and Ennio rises to the occasion for a nerve jangling yet quite beautiful piece of work. Favourite track: ‘Taking the bullet’, a propulsive entry that highlights secret service Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) and the penultimate beat of his character arc.

9. Phil Joanou’s State Of Grace

This gritty neo noir sees Irish mobsters clashing in 1990’s New York City and Morricone perfectly captures the moody, smoky street aesthetic while still heavily maintaining his melodic tendencies. Favourite track: Hell’s Kitchen, a mournful urban lullaby that highlights character and setting wonderfully.

8. Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More

The holy trinity of spaghetti westerns sees Ennio pack this middle chapter with iconic passages of his gorgeously eccentric, trademark composition. Favourite track: the main title, which makes full use of boings and twangs while that trademark whistle carries on in harmony.

7. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars

The opener and introduction to Clint Eastwood’s legendary Man With No Name, with some of the Maestro’s most recognizable work. Favourite track: Finali, with fluttery flutes and whip cracks to prove once again that our man could sample any sound under the sun and integrate it seamlessly into his work.

6. Roland Joffé’s The Mission

A period piece sees Spanish priests protecting an indigenous village from Portuguese tyranny and Ennio composed an utterly holy piece of orchestral bliss that at times sounds like an angel’s choir and soars on high. Favourite track: ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’, one of the most moving pieces he’s ever done.

5. Sergio Corbucci’s Navajo Joe

I’ll be honest I only watched this film once and it’s a decent if severely brutal and scrappy Burt Reynolds spaghetti vehicle. The main reason I’ve included it here is because Quentin Tarantino samples much of Ennio’s work on it for Kill Bill Volume 2, which to me is an iconic film. It’s epic, bold, bleeding heart melodrama put to music. Favourite track: The Confrontation, a war cry of a finale piece that plays during crucial scenes of both Joe and Bill.

4. Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The big daddy of the Man With No Name trilogy and some of Morricone’s most prolific, well recognized work. Favourite track: The Ecstasy Of Gold, a lilting, airy composition that accents landscape and character awesomely.

3. John Carpenter’s The Thing

He goes frozen, paranoid, lonely and sketched out for this low key yet deeply unnerving piece. It’s like No Frills Ennio in the best way possible, a somewhat counterintuitive undertaking based on what he was known for, but one of the most effective, chilling horror film scores ever crafted. Favourite track: Humanity Part 2, a driving, propulsive examination of the inevitably creeping horror making itself known in the story.

2. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West

This western epic has some of his most achingly beautiful work ever, from the melancholy main theme to the eerie Harmonica strains to the booming, impossibly epic final showdown. Favourite track: Farewell To Cheyanne, a resolute, hauntingly downbeat exodus piece for Jason Robards’s character that meanders along beautifully and always sticks in my memory when I revisit the film, which is oh so often.

1. Oliver Stone’s U Turn

I know, I know, what a choice for number one. This film means a lot to me though, it’s incredibly underrated as a breathtaking piece of avant-garde, cheerfully fatalistic noir nihilism. A sunny Arizona set neo-noir with heaps of both black comedy and deeply buried tragic pathos seems like a tall order for any composer, but Ennio could quite literally rise to any challenge. Portions of his work here are bonkers, playful, full of hyperactive zips, zooms, boings and twangs and later he brings a haunting, echoey resonance to the storied Arizona landscape and suggests layers beneath the initial set up that turn the film from surface level nihilism into something more deep, profound and thoughtful. It’s ironic that this is my favourite work he’s done because you can’t find this anywhere unless you watch the film, and I *literally* mean anywhere. YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, nada man, it’s like the ghost score that everyone forgot. Check the film out though because his work is beyond beautiful here and brings me to tears every time I view Stone’s unheralded masterpiece. Favourite track: ‘Grace’, an evocative, quietly unsettling yet gorgeous piece that echoes off the canyon walls and provides so much atmosphere you feel like you’re right there.

-Nate Hill

John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic

Calling Exorcist 2: The Heretic a horror movie is a bit of a stretch, but anyways. The only heretics to be found here are the studio heads that green-lit this script and the nimrod who edited it. This is a an embarrassment to the power of the first film and a weird (not in a cool way), hectic, inexplicable piece of wanton disarray. I don’t usually give out and certainly never enjoy these lashings but this one knows good and well what it did and had it coming.

Directed by John Boorman (who also did the solid Deliverance and the masterful Emerald Forest so maybe we shouldn’t fault him entirely here), this sees a now teenage Regan McNeil (a now teenage but still baby faced Linda Blair) afflicted once again by that pesky demon, or sorta kinda. The Vatican wants answers as to what happened to their first two dudes and so they send an investigative priest (Richard Burton) who teams up with Regan and her psychiatrist (Louise Fletcher) to stir some shit up. This all runs parallel to an expansion on Father Merrin’s (Max Von Sydow) exploits in Africa battling the very same demon and I know it’s supposed to all make some sort of intrinsic sense but the thing feels like it was written on an etch-a-sketch and edited with a jackhammer.

So what actually works? Well the film looks great, from Regan’s aggressively postmodern penthouse apartment to the spooky crags and mud huts of Africa. The visual atmosphere is great and permeates everything. And what doesn’t work? Pretty much everything else, really. Blair doesn’t have the same magnetism she had as a kid and both her lines on the page and her delivery feel detached and flat. The great Ennio Morricone takes scoring detail but I’m not sure what he was on that day because what he comes up with here is… I dunno. Where atmospherics should have been employed he’s used a soundboard of wails, howls, hollers, hoots and other nondescript aural diarrhea to the point where it’s laughable and distracting. The hypnotism and African stuff sort of work in isolated fashion but in terms of tying a coherent story together they’re used in a completely nonsensical way and there’s just so many “huh?” moments in the plot. I’m not sure what went wrong here but I’m sure there’s a reasonable story behind the mess, perhaps one more interesting than the actual film itself. Probably, because I feel like doing taxes would be more interesting and less confusing than this thing. Stick to the classic first one or also excellent third instead.

-Nate Hill

Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

How iconic has the image become of Clint Eastwood, poncho adorned, rolled cigarette locked firmly in that drawn snarl, peering out from a wide brim, dust caked hat atop a horse? The Man With No Name is such a household name these days that he’s shown up everywhere from Stephen King lore to an animated Johnny Depp movie, but it all began with Sergio Leone’s original spaghetti western trilogy, the best of which is the fireball classic The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

The trilogy itself not only launched an entire sub-genre in the early sixties but created a mood, a feel that no one besides Leone has ever been able to so specifically distill. Extreme closeups on eyes deep set in furrowing brows. Languid establishing shots of frontier town streets, expansive railroads and acres of dry brush-lands. The actors aren’t necessarily blocked from scene to scene with any kind of briskness but rather wade languidly through an ambient space seemingly at their own leisure and never with haste. Spaghetti westerns are never about the plot, but about the moment, the setup, the apprehension in the saloon, grotto, civil war torn graveyard or desert that these hard bitten folks find themselves in.

Eastwood’s nameless gunslinger meanders across a bitter, busted up American west that is, of course, actually Italy, engaging in war games and an obsessive treasure hunt with two other pieces of work, the sociopathic monster Angel Eyes (Lee Can Cleef) and the lecherous, untrustworthy rodent Tuco (Eli Wallach). All three are after a legendary gold stash somewhere out there in the desolation and are prepared to kill anyone who stands in their way, bonus points for each other. Eastwood is cold, calm and opaque, Cleef is cheerfully, sadistically ruthless, Wallach oozes weaselly survival instinct and together they make a captivating trio.

Three scenes in particular stand out in my mind; the first is the epic showdown between them all, stood a few hundred paces apart in a triangle, locked in a tense pre shootout stare-down as Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous and threatening score booms around the landscape and plays with expectations wonderfully. It’s a kicker of a scene and probably the showcase Western showdown in cinema. The second (and I’m assuming at this point that anyone who’s read this far has seen the film) is the final sequence where Eastwood taunts Wallach by literally leaving him hanging and riding away as Morricone yet again gives our eardrums symphonic bliss. It’s a wicked little epilogue that illustrates the character’s dry, subtle sense of humour nicely and I remember my dad (this was a favourite for him) rewinding it just to catch the beats a second or third time. The third is a moment where Eastwood comes across a soldier who is dying in the dust. He offers the man a drag off his cigarette, and the simple action suggests a beating heart and flickers of compassion in a mostly hard, stoic fellow. Nice touch.

-Nate Hill

Oliver Stone’s U Turn

Ever had one of those days where literally everything seems to go wrong and there’s some kind of invisible cosmic force aligned against you? Sean Penn’s Bobby has one of those in Oliver Stone’s U Turn, a deranged, sun drunk parable by way of neo-noir and near Boschian displays of brutal human behaviour punctuated by pockets of the blackest comedy one can find. This is a deliberately, brutally unpleasant slice of nihilism that wouldn’t be easy to swallow were it not so fucking funny, so gorgeously visual, so perkily acted by the knockout ensemble cast and so beautifully scored by Ennio Morricone. Penn’s Bobby has the rotten luck of breaking down in the one horse town of Superior, Arizona, where bumpkin mechanic Billy Bob Thornton takes his sweet time patching up the rig, leaving him to drift about town and get in all sorts of trouble. There’s a rockabilly maniac named Toby ‘TNT’ Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix) who wants Bobby’s head for ‘making time’ with his girl (a loopy Claire Danes). The menacing local Sheriff (Powers Boothe) seems hellbent on doing anything other than protecting and serving. Jennifer Lopez is sultry babe Grace, who snares him up in a dangerously lurid love triangle with her husband Jake (Nick Nolte at his utmost Nick Nolte-iest), who also happens to be her stepfather (!). This all boils into a mucky miasma of murder, violence, sex games, insurance fraud, gas station robberies, betrayal, severed limbs, manipulation and any other noisy calamity you could think of to befall a small town in Arizona that the rest of the world has seemingly forgot. Bobby is on the run from a scary Vegas loan shark (Valery Nikoaelev), but nothing he can do compares to the level of hurt these warped townsfolk inflict upon him, so it’s kind of an out of the frying pan into the fire type scenario. The thing is, Bobby himself is something of a reprehensible scumbag anyways, so there’s a cheeky masochist edge in watching him traverse this dusty, 9th ring of Americana hell and circle an ending of inevitable doom. ‘Treat others how you wish to be treated’ is an adage that almost every single character in the film seems to have sadly forgotten or chose to ignore except one individual, a blind old native man played with disarming truth by Jon Voight. Bobby has several encounters with him, and he’s the only one who isn’t after something, doesn’t display hostility or unkindness, he speaks plainly and offers Bobby bitter pearls of wisdom that ultimately go unheeded. Stone employs the same type of jittery, whacked out visual surrealities he used in Natural Born Killers, a deeply saturated colour palette, tumble dry editing techniques and more breathe life into this vivid version of curdled small town life in the vast, lonely desert. Morricone’s score is a spring loaded jack-in-the-box in areas and a melodic, melancholic lullaby in others, an underrated composition that gives the film an eerie sadness and zany vibration all it’s own. There’s more going on than meets the eye here; at surface level it’s a dark crime comedy with a quirky edge, but both Voight’s character and a few mysterious hints at Lopez’s backstory with the tribes in the region hint at a deeper, darker sense of malice lurking out there with the coyotes, suggestive of an almost mythic aspect. Stone gets high praise for his political dramas, but I’ve always loved him best when he’s doing genre stuff, he’s such an expressive storyteller and the real fruit of his imagination comes out when he’s turned loose. For me this is his second finest work after Natural Born Killers and before Savages, the three films that seem most genuine and celebratory of the medium. In any case, U Turn is a southern fried, asphalt laden, angry, sexy, perverse road trip to sunny noir heaven or hell, and a masterpiece. Watch for neat cameos from Laurie Metcalf, Bo Hopkins, Brent Briscoe, Julie Hagerty and Liv Tyler.

-Nate Hill

Wolfgang Petersen’s In The Line Of Fire

Wolfgang Petersen’s In The Line Of Fire is as solid as action pictures get, a three course thriller meal, and one of my favourite Clint Eastwood flicks. Starting to show his age here and adopting a brittle, calcified hardness, he plays disgraced secret service agent Frank Horrigan, a quiet, resolute man who is haunted by his failure to protect Kennedy from that infamous bullet. He’s on undercover sting operations with his rookie partner (Dylan McDermott) these days, and is battling some health issues that go hand in hand with getting up there in years. No better time for predatory, mercurial ex CIA assassin Mitch Leary (a terrifying John Malkovich) to taunt him out of retirement with threats against the new president, up for election. Leary is a cunning psychopath who won’t go down so easy, and Frank is just the determined wolfhound to take him down, as a dangerous, violently suspenseful game of cat and mouse plays out. There’s an obligatory female love interest too, but the film shirks the usual ditzy throwaway chick and goes for something classier in Rene Russo, a capable senior agent who initially roasts Frank for his age before eventually warming up. Russo is an unconventionally attractive, intuitively engaging actress whose subtly likeable nature sneaks up on you and the muted chemistry she has with Eastwood is terrific. The three excellent leads are surrounded by a nebulae of awesome supporting players including John Mahoney, the always solid Gary Cole, Fred Dalton Thompson, a sleazy Tobin Bell and scene stealing character actor Steve Railsback in a brilliant cameo as Leary’s shady former Agency handler. Subtlety has never been Petersen’s forte, but his approach works here as he tells the story in big, bold strokes that highlight each set piece with sterling suspense. There’s also a brooding score by the master himself, Ennio Morricone, which takes the solemn, scary route instead of blaring up the Zimmer-esque fireworks. As great as the action is here (that plastic 3D printed gun though), my favourite scenes are the creepy late night phone calls that Malkovich makes to Eastwood, teasing him but also betraying notes of loneliness in his perverted psyche. This is a battle of wills before it even gets physical, and the two heavyweights spar off of each other with calculated portent and restrained, fascinated loathing. A thriller classic.

-Nate Hill

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West

There isn’t much I can say about Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West that the mythical, larger than life masterpiece couldn’t say for itself, especially on its magnificent, crystal clear Blu Ray transfer that blows the dust out of the cracks and showcases it’s sunny cinematography in full remixed glory. From the coming of the railroad to a fledgling empire, the corrupt businessmen employing hard bitten thugs to do their nefarious bidding (a prophetic motif if there ever was one), the searing forbidden romance between the archetypal ex-working girl and the silent, lethally dangerous drifter, the dusters adorning gunfighter that sway in a lilting prairie breeze, the trod of hooves, the thunder of impending gunfire preceded by the eerie calm of the showdown before, this is the western to end all westerns, the textbook example, the crown jewel of the genre and the one wheat-stalk saga that I just can’t get enough of. Leone basically patented an entire sub-genre between this and the Man With No Name trilogy, it’s a now timeless flavour that rippled down throughout the generations and changed the face of the western forever. The film itself is perfectly balanced symphonic storytelling, in every aspect of the medium. Charles Bronson’s mysterious loner Harmonica blusters into town, opaque and uttering few words save for the melancholic strains of his instrument brought to wailing life by composer Ennio Morricone. Henry Fonda’s elegant, magnetic and unbelievably evil mercenary Frank hovers over everything like a black cloud of portent. Claudia Cardinele’s drop dead gorgeous Jill violently carves out her own path of survival, lust and grief amidst the unforgiving frontier. Jason Robard’s half injun outlaw Cheyanne tries hard not to wear an obvious heart of gold on his sleeve while seeking retribution for a diabolical frame-job. These mythical, monolithic individuals invite shades of grey into what we’ve become accustomed to in Western archetypes too, which is another hallmark of Leone. Gone are the stalwart sheriffs, stoic heroic leading men and obvious moustache twirling of clearly delineated villains. Bronson is rough, callous and never straight up chivalrous, Fonda is reptilian but oh so charming, the kind blue eyes barely suggesting what evil leers beneath, and Robards for his part turns an outright scoundrel into something of a teddy bear during his arc. It’s in the little, drawn out interactions and moments that we learn what we need to know about these characters, and Leone lets their performances, Morricone’s iconic score and the lingering space between action tell the story, so that by the time the monumental showdown rolls in, we know what we need to know about these wild, complex personalities and can get swept up in the revelatory spectacle of it. One for the ages.

-Nate Hill

Phil Joanou’s State Of Grace


Phil Joanou’s State Of Grace had the unfortunate luck of being released in 1990, the same year that also saw Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the third Godfather film. It’s hard to gain your footing when that kind of momentum is surging about, but this film is as good as the others, and deserves recognition or at least some kind of re-release. Set in the blistering inferno of Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, it’s a violent tale of Irish Mobsters, undercover cops, betrayal and murder, set to a smoky, mournful Ennio Morricone score that lingers in the air like smog. Sean Penn is Terry Noonan, a deep cover operative who returns to his childhood neighbourhood to reconnect with old friends, and dig up buried grudges. Ed Harris is Frankie Flannery, ruthless gangster and former ally, while Gary Oldman plays his hotheaded brother Jackie with a tank full of nitrous and the kind of unpredictable, dynamite fuse

potency one expects to see from a David Lynch character. The three of them are on a collision course set in the grimy streets of New York, bound by old loyalties yet destined to clash and draw new blood. Penn shares the screen with his once wife Robin Wright here, looking lovely as ever. There’s also supporting turns from John Turturro, John C. Reilly, R.D. Call, a geriatric Burgess Meredith and an unbilled cameo from James Russo. Penn, Harris and especially Oldman are like flint sparks, a trio that won’t be stopped and light up the screen for a spellbinding, visceral two hours until their eventual confrontation, hauntingly shot by cinematographer ” in the midst of a bustling St. Patrick’s Day parade. This one has been somewhat lost to the ages, like a number of other stellar crime dramas I can think of from the nineties. The cast, score and Joanou’s thoughtful direction make it an unforgettable piece of work. 

-Nate Hill

Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, came out at a hostile time in contemporary America. Tarantino joined marching protests against police violence; then the overly sensitive millennial online “journalists” chastised the film, and Tarantino, for painting shades of misogyny and racism. Tarantino was unfairly attacked by the extreme wings of each political party. Had no one paid attention to Tarantino films prior? Of course racism and misogyny plays a vital part in this film, because not only did those elements exist in the post-Civil War 1800’s, but also exist in reality.

Hateful Madsen

This film is a cataclysm of Tarantino’s self-indulgence. He constantly references his prior works (mainly RESERVOIR DOGS) while homaging Sergio Leone, Billy Wilder, and John Carpenter. His limited casting is formed of new Tarantino players: Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, and Bruce Dern who Tarantino has worked with twice prior; as well as his seminal ensemble made up of Samuel L. Jackson, Zoe Bell, James Parks, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen. Joining the Tarantino crew for the first time is Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir, and Channing Tatum.

For as visionary as Robert Richardson’s cinematography is and Ennio Morricone’s Academy Award winning hypnotic score, the greatness of this film lies within one of Tarantino’s best screenplays and one of the best acting ensembles since GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Tarantino is one of the most talented actor’s directors who has ever sat behind the camera. He carefully crafts each character with an actor in mind, playing on their strengths and bringing out untapped potential from even the most veteran actor he’s working with. The cast is absolutely brilliant.

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Kurt Russell does the best John Wayne impression ever as the hard barked simpleton whose stupidity is even more outrageous than his facial hair. Russell is always a joy to watch, and Tarantino’s use of him are highlights in an already legendary career. Samuel L. Jackson is one of the best linguists to ever grace the screen. Tarantino’s dialogue has never sounded better than coming out of Jackson’s mouth (aside from Harvey Keitel). Tim Roth gives one of his best performances delivering an English shtick of Mr. Orange from RESERVOIR DOGS. Perhaps the most surprisingly great performance in this film is that of Michael Madsen playing a caricature of himself. I can’t say anything more about Jennifer Jason Leigh that hasn’t already been said. She should have won the Oscar.

Tarantino outdoes himself with THE HATEFUL EIGHT; the script is outrageously funny, giving these talented actors so much to play with. Only Quentin Tarantino would be able to craft an epic western built upon heightened paranoia that is three hours long, set inside a tiny cabin that is filled with eight larger than life characters, filmed with a wide angle lens that is constantly on the move. Tarantino has reached Terrence Malick status by making films for himself, not for an audience, or a demographic, and that’s what he has excelled since GRINDHOUSE. No one loves movies more than Quentin Tarantino. Oh, and about that overt racism in this film, did those people not stay until the end?

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THE UNTOUCHABLES – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

UntouchablesConnery

Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) is a film that asks the burning question: is police brutality ever justified? It is when you’re dealing with the likes of Al Capone and Frank Nitti – gangsters that had no problem blowing up children and killing nebbish accountants to get what they wanted. The film doesn’t exactly adhere to historical fact opting instead to go with John Ford’s famous credo of printing the legend and in doing so raising the characters and their exploits to mythic status. De Palma’s adaptation of Eliot Ness’ 1957 memoir of the same name had all the makings of a powerhouse production destined for greatness. It featured a screenplay written by legendary playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), expert cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (Rumble Fish) was behind the camera, master composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad & the Ugly) was scoring the film, and Robert De Niro and Sean Connery were signed on to play larger-than-life characters. The result was an exciting, action-packed epic that helped revitalize De Palma’s struggling career (after the critical and commercial failure of Wise Guys) and earned Connery his first Academy Award.

It is 1930 and gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) controls most of the illegal business in Chicago with a ruthless, iron fist. After a ten-year old girl is killed in a gang-related incident, Federal Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is brought in to clean up the city. His first attempt is an embarrassing failure so he tries a different approach. He decides to form his own task force of three men to help him take down Capone and his empire. He picks a veteran beat cop named Malone (Sean Connery), who knows the city and becomes Ness’ mentor. He also selects Stone (Andy Garcia), a cop fresh out of the academy and ace shot with a pistol. Rounding out the group is Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), a bookish FBI accountant who figures out a way to nail Capone. Together, they form an incorruptible group determined to bring Capone to justice.

De Palma and Mamet make it clear right from the get-go that The Untouchables isn’t going to be some half-assed, sanitized gangster film as they proceed to have Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) blow up a bar with a little girl in it. This shocking sequence, juxtaposed with Capone lying about not using violence to enforce his will, sets an all-bets-are-off tone as we get an idea of just how brutal life is in Chicago and how far Capone is willing to go to make a point. This is then contrasted with Eliot Ness’ blandy-McPlainWrap home life with a loving and dutiful wife (Patricia Clarkson) and cute-as-a-button child. We see just how far removed from Chicago Ness’ home life is and what a rude wake-up call he will get when he starts working in the city.

Kevin Costner is wisely cast as the stiff, idealistic Ness. He’s the least interesting character and plays the role straight, trying not to go the obvious heroic route. His all-American looks and Gary Cooper-esque style are ideally suited for the role of the last honest man in the corrupt town (which Oliver Stone would also utilize in JFK). His Ness is as straight an arrow as they come, which makes the character’s arc over the course of the film an interesting one. He goes from staunch upholder of the law to someone who has adopted Malone’s by-any-means-necessary philosophy.

This allows Connery to rightfully shine as the aging cop torn between riding out his remaining time and retire alive or making a difference with Ness and his crew. Unlike Ness, Malone has grown up on and worked the mean streets of Chicago. He understands that they are at war with Capone and must do whatever it takes to bust him and break up his empire because he will be just as ruthless. Upon the first meeting, Malone imparts a valuable lesson to Ness: “Make sure when you shift is over you go home alive.” It seems obvious but is an important one to know. It is also the reason why Malone initially turns down Ness’ offer to form the Untouchables. Connery shows what a once great actor can do with the right material and this results in a truly inspired performance — arguably the veteran actor’s last great one.

Rounding out his trilogy of memorable cameos in the 1980s (including Brazil and Angel Heart), Robert De Niro put on the pounds again (which he first and most famously did for Raging Bull) and transformed himself into Al Capone. Like Tony Montana in De Palma’s Scarface (1983), Capone is surrounded by luxury and opulence but is still just a cruel thug at heart. In the few scenes that he has, De Niro makes them count and it is a thrill to hear a great actor say Mamet’s tough-guy dialogue (listen to how he says the word, “enthusiasms,” in a scene). The actor clearly relishes the role and treats the dialogue like he’s enjoying a rich meal and each word is a juicy morsel that he savors.

The supporting roles feature some fantastic actors, chief among them Billy Drago who exudes just the right amount of oily menace as Nitti. For example, there is a scene where he cordially threatens Ness and his family. On the surface there is the appearance of civility but we know what his true intentions are and it doesn’t take Ness much time to figure it out but by then Nitti is speeding off in his car. He’s made his point. Drago doesn’t get many lines or a lot of screen time but makes the most of what he’s given, making a fine addition to De Palma’s roster of cinematic sociopaths.

Speaking of Mamet’s dialogue, it crackles and pops with intensity and provides many of the film’s classic scenes, perhaps none more memorable than Malone’s famous speech to Ness where he tells him how to get Capone. “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.” Sean Connery delivers this speech with the passion and conviction that rightfully earned him an Oscar. The other scene of classic Mamet dialogue is Capone’s infamous dinner table monologue where he talks about teamwork before braining a hapless flunky with a baseball bat for not being a part of the “team.”

Brian De Palma’s stylish direction is perfect for this epic story: long, uninterrupted takes, slow motion and excellent compositions within the widescreen format. He may well be one of the greatest practioners of this aspect ratio. Just look at a simple set-up in the scene where Malone takes Ness to a church and lays it all out for how they’re going to get Capone. Both men take up most of the foreground occupying either side of the screen. The camera is low looking up at them so that we also see part of the beautifully ornate church ceiling. It is this kind of shot that would be totally destroyed when shown pan and scanned on television. Then there is the much-celebrated train station shoot-out, which was a shameless homage to a famous sequence in the legendary film, Battleship Potemkin (1925). It’s a bravura sequence that is beautifully orchestrated by De Palma as he builds the tension leading up to the shoot-up for what seems like an unbearable eternity. The entire sequence is a brilliant lesson in editing and camerawork.

Although, De Palma does go a little over-the-top (even for him) with the Ness-Nitti show down at the end, which features the director’s obligatory homage to Alfred Hitchcock. There is also a silly bit of business where we see two old cops duking it in a rainy alleyway as Connery and veteran character actor Richard Bradford laughably beat each other up in a scene that I could’ve done without. Also, Malone’s prolonged death scene drags on for what feels like an eternity but these are really minor flaws in an otherwise unimpeachable stone cold classic as De Palma does his best to distract us from these histrionics with giallo lighting in the Connery fight scene and suspenseful point-of-view steadicam work in the death scene.

In 1984, producer Art Linson met with Paramount Studio’s president Ned Tanen about adapting The Untouchables television series into a film. Tanen liked the idea but Linson did not want to do a sequel, a remake or a parody. He wanted “to create a big-scale movie about mythical American heroes.” Linson needed a screenwriter and thought of David Mamet, fresh from just having won a Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway play Glengarry Glen Ross. He met with Mamet and the writer agreed to do the film. The screenwriter was a native of Chicago and something of a gangster history buff. He envisioned a story about “the old gunfighter and the young gunfighter … It occurred to me, what happens if this young innocent, who’s charged with defending the law but only understands that in an abstract way, meets an old disenchanted veteran, the caretaker of the law, soured at the end of his career because of the corruption in the city?”

Mamet asked Paramount to show him two episodes of the original series and he liked them but felt that “there was nothing I could use in the movie.” Mamet wrote an original story after realizing that the real events – Capone being caught for tax evasion – were not that dramatic. Mamet created the character of Malone and gave Ness a family (he did not have one in real life). After eight months, Brian De Palma was approached to direct by Linson after Mamet wrote the third draft of the script. The director liked that the script was more about the characters and did not see it as a gangster film but more like The Magnificent Seven (1960). He felt that the project was “different from anything I’ve done in the past, because it’s a traditional Americana picture, like a John Ford picture.” He, Linson and Mamet worked together on it with De Palma emphasizing the Capone character more. According to De Palma, the film “reflects upon the incredible pressure we place on our police by not equipping them to adequately fight criminals. Why are we surprised that some of them go overboard?”

For the role of Eliot Ness, Linson and De Palma initially considered William Hurt and Harrison Ford, but, according to Linson, they wanted “someone with the right combination of naiveté, earnestness and strength.” They ended up casting Kevin Costner who wanted to do the film because it was so different from the television series and Ness “has to ask for help. It’s the more modern notion that a smart man takes a step back sometimes – that to be a hero you don’t have to be Rambo.” For Jimmy Malone, the filmmakers wanted Sean Connery but assumed that he would not want to play a supporting role and take a pay cut. However, Connery was drawn to the project because of Mamet’s script and the chance to work with Robert De Niro. He ended up signing on for a percentage of the profits. For the role of Al Capone, De Palma wanted De Niro. Paramount initially balked at the actor’s asking price of $1.5 million but relented.

The principal actors rehearsed together for a full week and Connery tried to remain in character even when the cast was relaxing. By the time principal photography began, whole scenes had been blocked and unworkable ideas rejected. A rapport between the actors playing the Untouchables had also been established, which definitely shows in the film. In preparation for the film, De Niro put on 30 pounds between the end of his Broadway run in Cuba and His Teddy Bear and his days of filming scheduled at the end of the 70-day production schedule. He analyzed old Movietone newsreels in order to get Capone’s voice, movements and mannerisms. On an interesting note, the famous scene in the church between Ness and Malone as originally written, took place on a street, but Connery suggested it take place in a church – the only place left in the city where they could speak freely.

Principal photography started in mid-August 1986 and utilized over 25 separate locations in Chicago with the border raid sequence shot on the Old Hardy Bridge spanning the Missouri River because of its period look. The train station shoot-out cost $200,000 to light because extra light was needed to shoot the sequence in slow motion. It took six days to shoot the scene, which cost an additional $100,000. Not surprisingly, staging this sequence like the one in Battleship Potemkin was De Palma’s idea. The budget escalated from $17 million to $24 million thanks to the cost of production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein transforming an entire block of LaSalle Street in Chicago into the 1930s complete with 125 costumed extras and 60 period cars.

The production design for The Untouchables is fantastic, especially the opulence of Capone’s headquarters, with Morricone’s score resembling a 1930s riff on the music from De Palma’s Scarface. This film is one of those rare big-budget, star-studded blockbusters that actually works. All of the right elements came together at just the right time and place and resulted in an incredibly entertaining motion picture. The Untouchables shows what a master filmmaker like De Palma can do with a director-for-hire paycheck movie. He may not be making a personal statement with this film but he still gives it his all in terms of style and virtuoso camerawork. This film certainly set a high standard for period gangster films, casting a long shadow over future endeavors like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) and the HBO T.V. series Boardwalk Empire.