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Posts Tagged ‘Ennio Morricone’

There’s a danger that the general comprehensive grimness of much of this year will end up eclipsing the fact that there have been positive glimmerings of different kinds, as well. But neither should we let the disaster of the pandemic obscure other regrettable events that we might ordinarily have paid more attention to. Of course, our culture operating in the way that it does, we are approaching the time of year where tributes to some of the people we have lost make convenient and popular material to fill airtime. They showed Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables the other night, primarily as a tribute to Sean Connery, but of course it works just as well as a reminder of the gifts of Ennio Morricone.

This is one of those movies I originally ended up watching quite without meaning to. The film got its UK TV premiere back in 1991, when my sister – I hope she will forgive me for revealing this – had a bit of an adolescent crush on Kevin Costner. You can be silly when you’re young, and the fact that she wanted to tape The Untouchables (despite being a few years too young to watch it, strictly speaking) was enough to put me off the idea of seeing it. And yet, for whatever reason, I ended up watching the very beginning of the film, fully intending to switch off.

I learned a couple of important lessons that night: the most obvious one, that it’s possible for people you may have differences of opinion with to still like great movies, but also about the power of a great film soundtrack. Something about the main theme, with its drivingly urgent percussion and strings, hooked me instantly, and gave me the strongest impression that this was a movie made by people who really knew their craft.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie did nothing to dispel this impression. The story takes place in 1930, and concerns itself with the consequences of prohibition: specifically the rise of immensely wealthy and powerful gangsters, and the rise in violent crime accompanying this. One of these men, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) has reached the point where he has essentially become the unelected mayor of Chicago. However, Capone’s organisation is responsible for one atrocity too many and the government appoints Eliot Ness (Costner), an earnest and idealistic young agent of the Treasury, to bring the bootleggers to justice.

However, Ness’ initial operations end farcically, and it soon becomes apparent that the Chicago police department is as corrupt and compromised as the rest of the city’s establishment – well, almost. A disconsolate Ness encounters veteran beat cop Malone (Connery), who does seem – to coin a cliche – like the one honest policeman in the city. Against his better judgment, Malone helps Ness assemble a team including sharpshooting young cop George Stone (Andy Garcia) and accountancy expert Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), and they set about finding a way to bring Capone down…

This is, of course, the film that Sean Connery won an Oscar for. Some would say ‘finally’, although this rather depends on whether you’re of the school of thought that Academy Awards should genuinely reward the best pieces of film acting in a given year, or go to people with lengthy careers and impressive bodies of work as movie stars. I’ve often been quite lukewarm about Connery and his acting – there’s a good deal of potboiling dross on the Connery CV, alongside the undeniable classics – and the baffling accent he deploys as the supposedly Irish-American cop Malone is distracting, to say the least. In theory Connery is doing the same kind of thing as in Highlander a year or two earlier: he’s the wise old mentor, imparting his wisdom to a slightly dull and callow lead before obligingly letting himself be killed off in the second act, in order to allow the hero to have the spotlight to himself for the climax to the film. In Highlander it’s just a big character turn, with Connery at his twinkliest – but here, he manages to bring the film heft and depth, as well as humour. This is certainly one of Connery’s best films outside of the early Bonds, and it’s largely as good as it is because of his performance.

Nevertheless, a classic movie is rarely a one-man-show, and even before Connery appears and after he departs, the rest of the movie is slick and effective: it’s true that Costner initially comes across as a rather bland and insipid hero, but that’s almost the point – the journey here is of a man being blooded, only achieving success at the cost of losing some of his innocence. This finds its apotheosis in the moment when Ness finds Capone’s chief enforcer, the man who has killed many innocents and two of Ness’ friends, and has him at his mercy. The camera does an enormous zoom into mega-close-up on Costner’s eyes, and you can see the conflict in them as he contemplates simply killing the man out of hand: one of Costner’s finest moments, I would say.

Of course, the zoom and the mega-close-up are very obvious directorial effects, but then this is a Brian De Palma film and a degree of show-offishness comes with the territory: this is one of Tarantino’s favourite film-makers, after all. De Palma has lots of fun with long fancy shots and other tricks in the course of the film, but this never becomes downright irritating. He also manages to pull off the bravura sequence with the gunfight on the train-station steps and the lengthy build-up to it: it would almost seem pretentious to drop such an obvious homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin into what is, after all, a studio gangster movie, were it not that De Palma manages to make it work so well.

Understated restraint isn’t really De Palma’s thing, and the way the film ping-pongs between bloody violence and some quite sentimental scenes would usually be tricky to pull off. However, he has Morricone in his corner, and the composer supplies a score which draws the viewer in and manages to smooth the various transitions, as well as being lush and beautiful to listen to. It’s not quite the case that the soundtrack makes the movie, but once again it makes a significant contribution to it.

Film-making is a collaborative exercise, in the end, and the quality of this film is another reminder of that. On paper, it doesn’t sound like anything particularly special – maybe even a bit hackneyed and predictable. But the contributions of De Palma, Morricone, writer David Mamet, Connery, Costner, and the rest of the cast crew result in something which is entertaining, powerful, and even oddly poetic and beautiful in places. This is the kind of film anyone would be happy to be remembered for.

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