How The Untouchables transformed Sean Connery's screen image

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Tim Robey
·5 min read
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Sean Connery as Jimmy Malone in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables (1987) - CAP/MFS
Sean Connery as Jimmy Malone in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables (1987) - CAP/MFS

 

For any star needing to graduate fast from sinewy matinee idol to grizzled elder statesman, the Sean Connery playbook has every single answer.

A few years before The Untouchables, which would win him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and bridge the two halves of his career immaculately, Connery had turned his back on Bond – for the third and final time. In truth, the whole business of Never Say Never Again (1983) had been a fiasco. 

He’d already been paid a fortune to come back for Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and said “never again” after that one. At 53, he was lured back by an entirely different set of producers, who held the rights to Thunderball after a legal battle with Ian Fleming, and set about remaking it to cash in.

By all accounts, the experience was downright miserable. Even though he brought his own writers in and had a lot of control over filming, Connery described the whole production as “a Mickey Mouse operation”, marred by an exasperating lack of professionalism. 

If his general fatigue in the part wasn’t obvious – not for nothing is the first section set in a health clinic – he even had his wrist broken during physical training by the fight choreographer, none other than a young Steven Seagal.

Connery with Christian Slater in The Name of the Rose (1986) - Allstar/Cinetext Collection
Connery with Christian Slater in The Name of the Rose (1986) - Allstar/Cinetext Collection

It was clearly time to step aside for a new generation of action heroes. After a two-year break, Connery spent the rest of the Eighties doing just that. First he played the immortal swordsman Ramirez, mentor to Christopher Lambert, in the time-bending fantasy Highlander (1986), a flop on release that found its cult following only on video.

The same year, he was cast defiantly against type as the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, solving medieval murders – and mentoring Christian Slater’s novice monk – in The Name of the Rose. With this shift into professorial mode, Connery paved the way for Indy Senior, the tweedy dad he would play for Spielberg in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

But first came The Untouchables. And here, courtesy of Brian De Palma and a princely Paramount budget, was a piece of casting no one saw coming. Amid the rest of the ensemble, with Robert De Niro a plumly Italian-American Al Capone, how was the very Scottish Connery to pull off the fictional role of gruff Irish cop Jimmy Malone? 

Connery with (from left) Andy Garcia, kevin Kostner and Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables (1987) - Alpha Press
Connery with (from left) Andy Garcia, kevin Kostner and Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables (1987) - Alpha Press

He did it his way. It’s a part-swerve into character-actor territory, as well a classic example of an accent not mattering. There’s a vague burr of Chicago Irish struggling somewhere under that brogue, for which he received some irrelevantly carping reviews. In every way that mattered, it was a transformative star turn which got viewers to rethink their whole attitude to Connery on screen. 

The main function of Malone in David Mamet’s script, seized upon by Connery, is that of mentor-in-chief, laying down the law of the jungle to Kevin Costner’s goody-two-shoes Eliot Ness. Perhaps the most famous scene – a personal favourite of Connery’s – has him expounding on “The Chicago Way”, a kind of force majeure philosophy for seeing justice done. “You wanna get Capone?” he asks Ness. “Here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!”

The script had imagined this exchange in Ness’s office. It was Connery’s idea to move it to a church pew, which gives the scene a huge added dimension, as if these righteous crusaders are seeking pre-emptive atonement. And Connery’s delivery – it’s the first Oscar-clinching moment, this – is unforgettable.

There are rueful admissions dotted through that he isn’t so young anymore. “All right, enough of this running s---”, he wheezes, after chasing down one of Malone’s book-keepers. But his tough-guy credentials and history of violence are absolutely vital to the part. 

In one moment of shocking ingenuity, he dupes a prisoner into blabbing, using a bad-cop routine that involves blowing someone’s brains out. It’s actually someone that’s dead already, but from the angle he’s got, the terrified onlooker isn’t to know. Connery might be wearing comfy cardigans and your dad’s flat-cap, but his image isn’t softened as Malone – he’s still a brawler, a burly bruiser, an old-school pugilist who seems to have his fists up for the entire movie.

The fact that Connery still has his virility on screen is why – spoiler alert – the shock of Malone’s departure stings so much. In a seven-minute sequence that’s the suspense highlight, De Palma’s camera espies on Malone from outside his apartment, as goons break in to end his life. He chases one out with some feisty racial slurs and a shotgun, only to be tricked and gunned down by a second.

With opera flooding the soundtrack, he drags himself bleeding back inside, and has a final scene with Costner where he gives up the ghost. Not since the famous laser scene in Goldfinger had Connery been made to look quite so vulnerable – or, to use the film’s lingo, touchable. 

No one would have been at all familiar with watching him die on screen. As Bond tended to prove time and again, and Highlander only reiterated, wasn’t he meant to be immortal? For the first time here, he picked a role that helped him admit otherwise. It’s no wonder he won the Oscar, from that one and only nomination. It’s because Malone made us love Connery in a different way, by hinting at new frailty. And for the first time, we were given the chance to miss him when he was gone.