Anatomy of a Soundtrack | The Untouchables (1987) – Ennio Morricone

It only takes about five minutes of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables for you to realise that this is not setting out to be a realistic portrayal of the downfall of Al Capone.

The gentle, childlike tune that plays out in the background of the film’s second scene as a little girl is dramatically blown up by a bomb planted by Frank Nitti is followed by a comfortable, homely score as we get the first glimpse of Eliot Ness‘s home-life. He sits shaking his head reading about the explosion while his perfect family life goes on around him. The stage is immediately set, and it’s more or less set by Ennio Morricone’s score. This is an emotional, determinedly artistic and even operatic film where De Palma is determined to rewrite or just plain ignore historical detail in search of the one of the finest crime films of the 1980s. Or all time if you’re a De Palma fanboy as I happen to be.
Notes and analysis of Morricone’s career inevitably tend to centre on his work on Sergio Leone’s films. Despite a sprawling, consistently evolving and prolific career working on soundtracks, it is a testament to the impact of his work on Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy especially that it is the music from those films that people usually think of when his name is mentioned. Yet while I would agree with any suggestions that his work on The Untouchables is less memorable in comparison, it’s still my favourite Morricone soundtrack.
He underpins many scenes with incidental snippets that he is generally not renowned for. Much focus tends to be on his larger compositions yet his music was just as well utilised in smaller pockets, as he had also notably proved several years earlier on John Carpenter‘s The Thing. Snippets of Morricone’s magnificent opening title music is used in the scene where Sean Connery catches someone sneaking around his house.
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Although not his music, it’s worth noting the way that scene would later play out as Connery crawls dying through his apartment. De Palma uses some well-placed Pagliacci, just in case you were in any doubt as to the tone that the director was looking to achieve here. Indeed, in the aforementioned opening theme, there are almost hark backs to Once Upon A Time In The West in the occasional outbursts of harmonica that are used.
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There are western elements to The Untouchables and Morricone’s work only serves to strengthen that theory. The now-legendary showdown at the train station, although heavily influenced by Battleship Potemkin, plays out more like a saloon shoot-out. It also helps that Andy Garcia’s ‘George Stone’ seems to be the finest gunslinger in Chicago – that’s why he gets his job with The Untouchables in the first place.
In some ways the music could be criticised for being too obvious in what it is trying to evoke. This scene also features a segment of music that sounds like it comes straight from a baby’s mobile. But this scene also features the best used music in the whole film. A slow-motion shoot-out that heavily relies on sound, Morricone shifts his composition into the background to add to the tension of the events.
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It’s also worth noting that Morricone produced soundtracks for four other films in 1987 – and for three TV series. Understandably, his work has slowed down as his years advance (although not by much) but there are those of us who are as excited about the upcoming The Hateful Eight for his soundtrack as we are to see what Quentin Tarantino will come up with next.