In 1987, Ennio Morricone Proved He Was Untouchable

Brian De Palma's star-studded blockbuster is still the best sounding gangster film

Ever wonder which movies inspire your favorite bands or how filmmakers work with artists to compile your favorite soundtracks? Sound to Screen explores where film and music intersect. This time, we’re staying home in Chicago — Capone’s Chicago.

On June 3rd, 1987, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables arrived in theaters fully stocked with outstanding characters. There was Kevin Costner as charming Prohibition agent Elliot Ness, Sean Connery as grumpy Irish mentor Jimmy Malone, Andy García as hotshot Italian rookie George Stone, Charles Martin Smith as brainy accountant Oscar Wallace, and naturally, Oscar-winning juggernaut Robert De Niro as historic Chicago mobster Al Capone. Even now that would be a murderers’ row of talent, but 30 years ago, it was the type of cast that could shift millions of tickets — and it did.

To everyone’s credit, they’re all excellent, particularly Connery, who earned his first and only Oscar the following year. In fact, his final scene as Malone still draws tears from this writer, specifically when he musters all of his strength to tell Ness about Capone’s chief bookkeeper as he coughs out one final line of command: “What are you prepared to do?” Oy. Chills. There’s also that great scene when Capone reflects on his divine passion for baseball with his pals and that terrifying moment when Billy Drago turns around in the elevator and sends Wallace and his bickering informant’s brains to the wall.

Note to self: Never step on an elevator with Billy Drago.

But, out of all the film’s characters, none are more important than Ennio Morricone. Now, you might say, “That’s a little unfair. Guy’s a composer for Christ’s sake,” and here’s what I’d say to you: “An actor becomes preeminent. He’s expected to have enthusiasms. What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which gives me joy? A great score! An actor stands alone on the silver screen. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But along with a score, what? Part of a movie. A movie. Lights, camera, action, the hustle. All part of one big movie. Acts himself the live-long movie, De Niro, Connery, and so on. If his movie don’t sound good … what is he? You follow me? No one. Sunny day, the streets are filled with mobsters. What does he have to say? I’m goin’ out there for myself. But, I get nowhere unless the movie sounds good.”

All joking aside, there’s no denying how vital Morricone is to De Palma’s gangster epic. From the thudding main titles to the sweeping end credits, his Grammy Award-winning score rarely leaves a frame of the picture, glossing over the historical Chicago scenery, beefing up the undulating tension, and making every onscreen relationship feel palpable. That latter notion is by far the most important facet to his score, as the story’s success is paramount to whether or not you love the characters. If you do, you’re likely on the edge of your seat, hoping and praying that heroes like Malone and Stone make it out alive. If you don’t, well, De Palma’s blatant homage to Old Hollywood may come off a little too schmaltzy and cartoonish for your tastes. That’s how Ebert felt.

“De Palma’s Untouchables, like the TV series that inspired it, depends more on clichés than on artistic invention,” the late critic argued three decades ago for the Chicago Sun-Times. To his credit, he’s not wrong. The film leans heavily on clichés, but that’s kind of the point, as De Palma takes these familiar tropes to prey upon your emotions. Ness isn’t anything but The Good Cop out to “do some good” just as Capone isn’t anything but the big baddie who wants to see everyone “DEAD!” Arguably, the only face with any actual nuance is Connery, who, alongside De Niro, was the only true veteran of the bunch and had the chops to rise above David Mamet’s surprisingly mild screenplay. Though, unlike De Niro, he wasn’t fulfilling the hype of a major historical figure and wasn’t required to be a larger-than-life caricature, so he had a little more agency in front of the camera.

Morricone factored into all of this by carving out a score that gave a heart and muscle to De Palma and Mamet’s familiar archetypes. His compositions for The Untouchables are large and vibrant, gushing with all sorts of angst, swagger, and gusto. Take Capone’s theme, for instance, which thunders along with ragtime piano, boozy brass, and velveteen strings. It’s boisterous and over the top, but so is De Niro’s performance, and the ebbs and flows of Morricone’s instrumentation paint the scenery with broad strokes that actually wind up doing a lot of the heavy lifting for Scorsese’s prizefighter. The same treatment occurs for Costner’s Ness, namely his lonely plight as an unpopular Prohibition agent. Morricone’s “Death Theme”, which is without a doubt one of the composer’s most beautiful works to date, adds an unshakable weight to the officer’s violent quest. His ironclad determination in fighting for truth and justice is signified by the lone saxophone that pines at the solitude and loss that comes with such a fate.

As the film burns through its 119-minute runtime, Morricone’s themes quickly become signifiers, and that extends not only to the characters but their heroics and villainy. Maudlin flute watches over the Ness family, bass and drums belong to the mob, and brass lifts our four Untouchables far above the skylines of Chicago. These signifiers elevate a number of key scenes — the entire shootout on the Canadian border; Malone’s heart-wrenching, gory demise; and Ness’ cat-and-mouse rooftop chase with Frank Nitti — making Morricone more or less responsible for the strongest feelings one might draw from the film, whether it’s awe and wonder or suspense and remorse. The greatest example of this is at the very end, when Ness returns to his office to clean out his desk and finds a photo of his colleagues, two of whom are now deceased. Almost instantly, Morricone swoops in to catch us, tearfully uncorking all of those feelings we’ve been reserving for the film’s four untouchable heroes.

Even when he strays, Morricone never stumbles, and that much is obvious during the film’s climactic shootout at Union Station, aka The Baby Carriage Scene. Dubbed “Machine Gun Lullaby”, his composition for this sequence welds the sounds of a baby mobile to his more traditional brass and strings. It’s an unorthodox move that some may consider too on the nose, especially given how many shots De Palma supplies of the goddamn carriage. But, and this may be a reach (just roll with it), this juxtaposition is a brilliant subversion. Because in addition to turning the whole situation into a hazy nightmare, it also adds a certain gravitas to Ness’ psyche. If you recall, his whole charade against Capone truly started, at least narratively speaking, following an emotional run-in with the grieving mother of the little girl who died in the film’s opening. It was she who lit the fire under his shoes — Ness is also a parent, mind you — so it’s rather poetic the film would come full circle and place the life of another child in Ness’ hands.

Looking back, Morricone’s always been a workhorse, having contributed breathtaking scores to hundreds of films and television shows throughout his storied career, but he was on another level heading into The Untouchables. By 1987, he was a year removed from delivering his masterful score to Roland Joffé’s The Mission and only three years out from scoring Sergio Leone’s swan song, Once Upon a Time in America. Maybe by then he was simply comfortable scoring epic period pieces starring Bobby De Niro or maybe really dug the story of Al Capone, who knows, but whatever magic he conjured up for those two films certainly carried over into The Untouchables. There’s a fiery spirit to every one of the tracks, and while one might criticize De Palma for being overindulgent or Costner for pulling his punches or even Connery for his (admittedly) awful Irish accent, Morricone’s score has and always will remain untouchable.

Here endeth the lesson.


Follow Consequence