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Film: The Untouchables

"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, and that's how you get Capone."
Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery)

The Untouchables is a 1987 movie directed by Brian De Palma and written by David Mamet. It stars Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Andy Garcia and Patricia Clarkson in her screen debut. Connery won an Academy Award for his interpretation.

Based on the exploits of (Real Life) 1920s Chicago Prohibiton agent Eliot Ness and his group of loyal agents, nicknamed "The Untouchables" because of their refusal to be bribed by the Mob as many others were at the time. Most notable for pursuing bootleggers and gangster Al Capone (and eventually arresting him—on tax evasion charges!)

The movie was theoretically The Film of the Series of the 1960s TV series, but Mamet ended up largely ignoring the TV series, going back to the original sources and crafting his own version of the story.

The film includes the following touchable tropes:

  • Adaptational Badass: The real Frank Nitti preferred not to get his hands dirty, and generally left the violence to his subordinates.
  • Adipose Rex: Al Capone is an obese kingpin. Robert DeNiro gained 15 pounds for the role, which is not much by his standards. He wanted to double that figure, but the schedule was tight, so he had to wear pads and pillows under his clothes.
  • Adult Fear:
    • Nitti threatens Ness' family, but particularly his daughter.
    • Clichéd as it is, the Baby Carriage scene is this. Come on, your kid's carriage is not only going down a flight of stairs, but it's caught in the middle of a shootout!
  • Agree to Disagree
  • At the Opera Tonight: Wicked Cultured Al Capone is seen attending an opera when Frank Nitti comes up and whispers the news that Jim Malone had been killed.
  • Baby Carriage: During the fight in the station, a runaway baby carriage presents Ness with the dilemma of trying to save the baby or dealing with a gun-wielding mobster. He chooses the mobster, trusting that Stone will save the baby. It's the right choice, as Stone stops it with his legs. While still shooting down some mobsters. And the baby is fine in the end.
  • Badass Boast: Several, especially considering: a) Eliot Ness is trying to convict Villain with Good Publicity Al Capone; and b) Ness' team is called The Untouchables. Best seen when he refuses a bribe from an alderman.
    Alderman: You're making a mistake.
    Ness: Yeah I know, well I've made them before I'm beginning to enjoy them.
    Alderman: You fellows are untouchable, is that the thing? No one can get to you? Hey, everyone can be gotten to.
    Ness: You tell Capone, that I'll see him in hell.
  • Badass Bookworm: Oscar Wallace.
  • Badass Mustache: Malone.
  • Batman Gambit: Ness bluffs the judge overseeing Capone's trial to switch juries (as Capone's had been bribed), by telling the judge his name was in the ledger listing all of Capone's payouts. The DA notes that they didn't find the judge's name in that ledger....
  • Batter Up: Al Capone famously used a baseball bat to savagely murder one of his subordinates.
  • Big Bad: Capone, of course.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Don't insult Stone's heritage, or he'll shoot you. Malone uses this as a Secret Test of Character when recruiting his team.
    • At the beginning of the shootout at the bridge, Oscar Wallace is cringing, with a "Oh dear God please get me out of here" look on his face. Then Stone gets shot. Cue Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
    • Eliot Ness flips and throws Frank Nitti off a building when he gloats about killing Jim Malone.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Capone is behind bars, his deadliest enforcer Nitti gone and his criminal empire shattered. But two of the Untouchables are dead, and Ness had to violate a lot of his personal code of honor - including his tossing Nitti off a roof in revenge for Malone's death - to get Capone.
  • Black and White Morality: Capone orders the deaths of children and beats men to death with baseball bats. Ness is all-American Hero who loves nothing more than his family and getting notes from his wife in his lunch. As the film goes on, it turns into Black and Gray Morality as Ness uses more questionable means to bring down Capone.
  • Blood Brothers: Malone takes Ness to a church, where they talk about a Blood Oath and Malone tells Ness they are now bound by it.
  • Bond One-Liner: A classic Non-Bond example. Happens after Ness has thrown Frank Nitti off the roof of the courthouse and he lands on the roof of a Model A:
    Stone: Where's Nitti?
    Ness: He's in the car
    • Notably, this is all vengeance for killing Bond.
    • Also, Costner's line to Nitti just before.
  • By-the-Book Cop: Eliot Ness, at least at first.
  • Car Cushion: Frank Nitti's in the car after being thrown off the roof by Eliot Ness.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • The mobster with the bowtie. He is seen several times, particularly when he lures Malone out to be shot by Nitti and is later the one who takes the bookkeeper hostage on the train station steps and gets shot by Stone.
    • The mobster Ness punches in the face when he tries to stop Ness from confronting Capone. Unfortunately this means he remembers Ness, which sets off the shootout when he sees Ness with the Baby Carriage at the railway station.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Capone tells Eliot Ness, "You talk to me like that in front of my son? Fuck you, and your family!" In front of his son....
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: After murdering Oscar Wallace and George the Bookkeeper in an elevator, Frank Nitti uses their blood to write the word "TOUCHABLE" on the wall.
  • Dangerously Close Shave: The opening scene.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Malone died in Ness's arms.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: While he's lured to his death quite easily, Malone doesn't die after absorbing a full magazine of bullets, still crawls epically for a few meters to bring a vital clue into Ness' atention and then he delivers his meaningful Final Words in his final breath. The scene couldn't be underscored better by Morricone's death theme.
  • Dirty Cop: The rule rather than the exception, hence the need for a group of untouchables.
  • Disney Villain Death: Nitti.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Done in the first scene when Capone's thugs blow up a bar that wouldn't buy his booze.
    • Malone passionately defends that the only way to defeat Capone is by escalating the conflict because Capone will, and the mobster won't give up the fight until Ness is dead. It is a simple rule: They pull 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!
  • Doomed Moral Victor: The death of Jim Malone.
  • The Dragon: Frank Nitti.
  • Escalating War: "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, and that's how you get Capone."
  • Evil Gloating: Something Nitti probably should have done after getting safely off the roof!
  • Evil Overlooker: The poster has Capone looming large like Darth Vader over Elliot Ness as he is about to shoot you and the other Untouchables in rifle poses.
  • Fake Kill Scare: Done with a twist — Malone scares the crap out of a captured smuggler by letting him see Malone demand that his accomplice reveal information, threaten to blow his head off if he won't talk, and then literally blow the accomplice's brains out. What the surviving captive (who, terrified, tells all he knows) didn't know was that the accomplice had already been fatally shot in the gunfight just before: Malone was "interrogating" a corpse.
  • Famous Last Words:
    • "What are you prepared to do?" Malone
    • "He died screaming, like a stuck Irish pig. Now you think about that when I beat the rap." Frank Nittinote 
  • Fanfare
  • Fatal Family Photo: A variation with the same outcome. Two of the four untouchables who pose as brothers for a photo are killed shortly afterwards.
  • The Film of the Series
  • Foil: Elliot Ness starts as Chicago's idealist white knight, but his nature gets deconstructed by The Unfettered and weary Malone, who during his Disproportionate Retribution speech mentioned above, points out that Ness' by-the-book and clean methods won't get him Capone.
    Malone What are you prepared to do?
    Ness Everything within the law.
    Malone And then what are you prepared to do?
  • Going by the Matchbook: Frank Nitti has the address of Jim Malone written on a book of matches. Unfortunately for him he does not dispose of it after killing Malone, so when Eliot Ness searches him later it leads to their final shootout.
  • Heroic Bystander: The two guys in the train station who die in the crossfire as they try to stop the baby carriage tumbling down the stairs.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: The bookkeeper and his mobster bodyguards walk right past Elliot Ness at the train station, as all they see is a man helping his wife pull their baby carriage up the stairs. Unfortunately the last mobster to enter the station has a bandaged nose from Ness punching him in the face, and remembers the man who gave it to him.
  • Hollywood Law:
    • When they discover the jury has been bribed, they switch Capone's jury with the jury next door. Something like this really happened, but not the way it's depicted in the film. Of particular note, in real life the jury was switched much earlier in the trial - the pool of jurors both sides could select or veto was switched; switching it when they did in the film, even if it had been allowed, would have meant that the new jury was handicapped by having missed the presentation of key evidence.
    • Capone's lawyer attempting to enter a plea without his client's consent is not based on reality, and, in real life, is a good way to have a mistrial, an overturned conviction, and disbarment for the attorney.
  • Idiot Ball: Ness and Co are in a corrupt town, they know they can't trust most of the police and what do they do with their key witness? They put him in an elevator with just one Untouchable (Oscar the accountant) and don't bother to clear out the elevator of anyone they don't trust. They were really holding onto it that day.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: George Stone.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: On asked what he'll do when Prohibition is over, Ness replies he'll have a drink.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted and subverted. Ness' own young children, prominently featured throughout, survive without a scratch. On the other hand, one of the first scenes in the movie shows a gangster walking out of a bar, and a little girl running after him, carrying him the suitcase he left behind. Guess what's in the suitcase....
  • Jury and Witness Tampering: Al Capone bribes all the jurors in his tax dodging trial to acquit him—but Ness smells something fishy with the trial, and asks the judge to switch the juries. He even puts some pressure on the judge, on a hunch that he's also been bribed, and the gambit pays off.
  • Justice by Other Legal Means: Getting Capone on tax evasion, of all things. Even Ness lampshades it in the movie when his accountant sidekick keeps pointing it out. (Though a standard legal tactic today, convicting criminals on tax evasion was a radically new idea at the time, and though it had been used successfully as far back as 1927, no one had ever tried it on so large a scale, or against so prominent a criminal.)
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Malone. Ness starts as a Knight in Shining Armor, but gradually turns into one of these as well.
  • Let's Get Dangerous: After he runs out of bullets Wallace runs towards a gangster, screaming, and hits him twice with the butt of his gun. Finally Wallace enjoys a sip from a nearby barrel of liquor.
  • Light Is Not Good: Frank Nitti is always seen dressed in white.
  • Meaningful Echo: "What are you prepared to do?"
  • Man in White: Frank Nitti.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Jim Malone.
  • Naturalized Name: George Stone's birth name is Giuseppe Petri, a close-enough translation ("Petri" is close to pietre, Italian for "stones", but Giuseppe's English equivalent is traditionally Joseph, not George).
  • Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight: Malone provides the page quote and this memorable line, "Now isn't that just like a wop, brings a knife to a gunfight!" Subverted in that the knife guy is actually just bait meant to lure Malone into Frank Nitti's Tommy gun ambush.
    • Could also be a Call Back to Malone's "Chicago way" speech
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Ness' speech about the Chicago way and all his moves to honor it (read the conflict escalation) ultimately puts his family in great danger, so that his wife and daughter have to move away from their house to avoid murder or worse. Strangely enough, the threat to his family comes as a surprise to Ness, implying that he honestly thought that Capone would never go that far (or, as in his speech he always has the last word, maybe he would go even further than Capone's murder of his family... Better not to know).
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Malone is very vocal about his anti-Italian prejudice, but Stone earns his respect.
  • Officer O'Hara: Malone and Mike.
  • Oh Crap: Malone has a tragic one when he sees Nitti waiting with his tommy gun and realizes he's been set up.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Sean Connery's Irish-Scottish brogue.
  • Psycho for Hire: Frank Nitti.
  • Put Down Your Gun and Step Away: Subverted.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Probably unintentional on the part of the filmmakers, but the Untouchables in general and Ness in particular have a problem with this trope. The latter has a nasty habit of pointing at things with his weapon, and even hugs his daughter while carrying a .45 with his finger in the trigger well.
  • Reliably Unreliable Guns: The tommy gun of one gangster jams during a fight. (Truth in Television: a problem real tommy guns were frequently subject to, which is one of the many reasons it was never as popular as gangland movies would have you believe.) To the gangster's credit he tries repeatedly to clear the jam, but it gives the mousy accountant among the Untouchables time to get close enough to KO him with the butt of his shotgun.
  • Schiff One-Liner: "I think I'll have a drink". Doubles as a meta-continuity nod to the TV-series.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Moral crusader Eliot Ness earned his men the nickname "The Untouchables" by his vehement refusal of a large bribe from Al Capone.
  • Shame If Something Happened: Frank Nitti threatens Eliot Ness's family in this manner.
    Frank Nitti: Nice house.
  • Shotguns Are Just Better: With the exception of the occasional Tommy Gun, the Untouchables wield pump-action shotguns as their main long arms.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The baby carriage rolling down the stairs in Union Station is a direct homage to the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence in Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 masterpiece The Battleship Potemkin.
    • This being a Brian De Palma film, the opening bar bombing owes a debt to Hitchcock.
  • The Sociopath: Capone is a violent psychopath who finds joy in the death of his adversaries, and so does Nitti, his dragon.
  • The Squad: Also a Badass Crew.
  • Steel Ear Drums: The baby in the carriage sequence.
  • Team Shot: See the image up there. Also a in-universe example, the four pose for a family photo in a restaurant.
  • Title Drop: "You fellows are untouchable, is that the thing? No one can get to you? Hey, everyone can be gotten to."
  • Too Dumb to Live: No, Mr. Nitti, I don't think it's a particularly good idea to taunt Ness about his partner you murdered when both of you are standing on top of a tall building.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Oscar, the federal accountant assigned to Ness's team. More an office worker than a field agent, he takes to wielding a shotgun pretty quickly and gets a few Moments of Asskickery during the Canadian border raid.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Malone's keychain.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Ness and his Untouchables really existed. They really did get Capone on tax evasion. The baseball bat scene and the jury switch are based on real events. On the other hand, quite a lot of the story is just plain made up. The depiction of Ness owes more to dramatic effect than historical accuracy, and the rest of the Untouchables depicted in the film are entirely fictional. In real life there were 11 "Untouchables" not counting Ness, and they all lived to see the end of Prohibition. So did Frank Nitti, who took the reins of the Chicago Outfit after Capone went to prison, successfully diversified the Outfit's interests to keep it going after Prohibition ended, and eventually died by his own hand in 1943. The tax evasion case was based on information collected by Frank J. Wilson, from the Treasury Department's Bureau of Internal Revenue; the credit for bringing down Capone belongs to him, not Elliot Ness. Al Capone and Eliot Ness never met face-to-face.
  • What the Hell, Hero?/Where Do You Think You Are?:
    RCMP Captain: I do not approve of your methods.
    Eliot Ness: Yeah, well... You're not from Chicago.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Ness is sorely tempted to shoot Nitti during the rooftop chase, when it's just the two of them there. He decides against it and arrests Nitti instead. But then Nitti just had to go taunting about how Malone died by his hand, and how he'll still beat the rap....
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Establishing Character Moment for Capone's organization involves a child being killed when a bar is blown up.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Where to begin: as soon as the Judge decides to switch the Juries, Capone freaks out at his lawyer. As soon as his lawyer switches pleas, Capone punches him. When Ness gloats to his face, he repeats the phrase "You're nothing but a lot of talk and a badge." to the point where the more he says it, the more he realizes his life of crime is over.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Capone, who is popular with the media (and somewhat of a celebrity) despite his illegal ties.
  • You Have Failed Me: Al Capone beats one of his goons to death with a bat.

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