Jun 202010

Rating: ★½☆☆☆
Users: [ratings]
Paramount Pictures, 1987, 119 Minutes
Cast: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, and Robert De Niro
Screenplay: David Mamet
Suggested by the book by Oscar Fraley and Eliot Ness
Producer: Art Linson
Director: Brian De Palma

Historical Background

Al Capone had been brought to Chicago from New York in late 1919 to help Johnny Torrio, his mentor, operate a network of brothels and gambling establishments. The introduction of Prohibition, which made it illegal to manufacture, sell or transport intoxicating liquor, on January 16, 1920 was a godsend to the numerous gangsters in Chicago. Capone’s willingness to employ violence combined with Torrio’s business sense and contacts in city hall ensured that their outfit became one of the dominant gangs. Torrio negotiated an agreement among the various gangs to cooperate, rather than pursue bloody and meaningless squabbles over territory, but it fell apart in late 1924.

The resulting Beer Wars drove Torrio to hand over the business to Capone, as open warfare broke out between Capone’s syndicate, supported by the Sicilian gangs, and the Irish gangs, loosely allied with Polish and Jewish gangsters. The war took a deadly toll on both sides, and Capone himself barely survived several assassination attempts. By late 1926, enough people had died that another truce was arranged. Capone’s syndicate had become the alpha gang, controlling half of the city, and he even played a leading role in ensuring the re-election of a mayor who could be relied on to ignore the astonishingly lucrative business of selling people alcohol. Embracing his fame, Capone became the symbol of the lawlessness in Chicago, which attracted the attention of the federal government.

Plot Summary

In 1930, gangster Al Capone rules Chicago, brazenly flaunting Prohibition to sell illegal alcohol, while killing anyone who gets in his way. Eliot Ness, an idealistic Treasury agent, is sent to the city at the request of the Chicago city government, but becomes disillusioned when he finds out that the police department is feeding information to Capone. The mission seems futile until a meeting with the mother of a little girl who was killed when Capone’s men blew up a rival bar re-energizes him. Since the only other Treasury agent assigned to the case is an accountant who wants to indict Capone for tax evasion, Ness realizes that his superiors intended him to fail. After persuading a wise, experienced cop to show him the ropes, they enlist the accountant and a police recruit to avoid the corruption that permeates the police department. When both bribery and intimidation fail to deter Ness’ men, they become known as the Untouchables, and they soon pose a serious threat to Capone’s empire.

Historical Analysis

Little in the movie is related to the facts.

The basic premise of the movie is that a naïve, honest policeman finds himself in a corrupt town and turns to a veteran cop for guidance. This is a completely invented scenario.

Aware that most of the roughly thousand men in the Prohibition Department of the Treasury were corrupt, the real Ness had pored over personal records until he found twelve honest agents and used them to create a new unit. Although the movie presents Ness as a token effort meant to fail, Chicago’s leading citizens had lobbied President Herbert Hoover to take action against Capone because they wanted to clean up Chicago’s image before the 1933 World Fair, which would be held in the city. Personally angered by Capone’s notoriety, Hoover repeatedly pressured his cabinet to solve the problem.

A corrupt alderman did place an envelope with money on Ness’ desk in an attempt to persuade Ness to abandon the crusade against Capone, which did lead to them being called the “Untouchables.”

Beer was sold everywhere in Chicago, so the real Untouchables simply followed the beer delivery trucks that brought empty barrels back to the breweries. Using a truck that had been custom-fitted with a bulldozer’s blade, six breweries and five beer distribution plants were seized by Ness’ men between March 1931 and March 1932. No breweries appear in the movie because that would have involved revealing the cooperation between brewery owners and gangsters to circumvent an unpopular law and make huge profits. Pointing out that greed drove many members of the establishment to work with the gangsters would have introduced nuance to the film, thus contradicting the image of Capone as a ruthless thug who imposed his will on a defenceless city.

A group of IRS agents led by Frank Wilson had been sent to Chicago in January 1929, but unlike Ness, they did not advertise their presence. Capone’s brother Ralph was the first target, since he refused to pay the token amount of $4,065.75. He was successfully convicted in April 1929, and evidence from the trial led to the conviction of Jake Guzik, the Syndicate’s accountant, and Frank Nitti. The gangsters were caught off-guard because their traditional combination of bribery and intimidation had failed, and they could not grasp that the government expected them to pay taxes on illegal income. Ralph’s arrest motivated Al to hire a tax lawyer but he still dismissed the threat of the IRS agents.

Capone himself proved harder to get since he had no bank accounts, no property in his name, and always paid cash. The IRS had to contact his tailor, check his hotel bills, the value of his cars, and even how much he had paid for a gold-plated dinner service. It was not enough but the IRS agents were determined, and they gradually found witnesses who would testify against Capone. After examining over a million documents, Wilson and his tireless assistants finally achieved success when Lou Shumway, a key bookkeeper for the Syndicate, was arrested in February 1931.

The fictional accountant Wallace embraces the action role as a pleasing change of pace from the boring struggle with figures, as if accounting is not a manly profession. This portrayal is an insult to IRS agent Frank Wilson, who brushed off death threats and relentlessly pursued an exhausting trail. The hard, dreary work performed by Wilson and his team of IRS agents was ignored by the movie, as well as earlier convictions of Ralph Capone and Frank Nitti. Furthermore, undercover agent Mike Malone does not play a role in the movie, even though he had successfully penetrated the gang and lived to testify against Capone.

The story’s message is that no one, not even the police, would defy Capone because they knew that it meant their lives. Actually, the police were off-limits. Gangsters who killed a policeman during a shoot-out would be prosecuted, although rarely convicted, but any gangster who assassinated an honest cop would have his operation crippled. Assistant State Attorney William McSwiggin died in April 1926 because he had the misfortune to be drinking with childhood friends who were gangsters engaged in a conflict with Capone’s outfit. Although it was eventually determined that his death was simply bad timing, the police had launched repeated raids against Capone-controlled speakeasies and brothels in an attempt to find information. Capone not only bore the considerable damage to his revenue stream without complaint, but decided that it would be better for his health if he spent the summer in Michigan while the situation calmed down.

The movie’s portrait of Capone as an evil man, who used intimidation and violence to achieve his goals, is not wrong. If anything, the savage ruthlessness that was part of his everyday life is underplayed. By focusing only on the way that he broke the law to sell people alcohol, the film sidesteps the widespread and systematic white slavery that kept Capone’s large network of brothels operating. Perhaps director Brian De Palma and screenwriter David Mamet considered forcing women into a life of prostitution to be less evil than selling illegal alcohol.

The screenplay’s error is that it overstates Capone’s iron grip on the city and understates the efforts of law-abiding citizens to reclaim their city. Capone’s thugs beat and killed municipal officials in small towns outside the city because they could get away with it, but Chicago was too big. Most important, it was unnecessary since bribery was much more effective. Capone thrived because he bribed everyone. So many policemen were on the take that the gangs kept records to ensure that nobody double-dipped, while numerous city officials and judges received regular payments, so his people were usually released soon after being arrested.

The real Capone accepted that reformers would sometimes bring enough pressure to close down some breweries, and that it was part of business. There was so much money floating around that a few seized shipments barely affected his bottom line.

However, this tolerance did not extend to rival gangsters. Intimidation and violence were commonly employed when competing outfits fought over market share. Early in the film, a small bar is blown up because the owner did not want to buy Capone’s beer. Speakeasies were shot up, busted up and bombed, but usually as part of turf wars between opposing gangs, not because independent bar owners valued quality over death threats.

A key scene shows Capone beating a man to death with a baseball bat, thus confirming that he is simply a thug in a tux. The scene is based on a dinner where three men (John Scalise, Albert Anselmi and Joseph Giunta) were bludgeoned to death because they had been caught conspiring against him. Scalise and Anselmi were Capone’s most lethal enforcers, so they were lulled into relaxing their guard, seized by bodyguards, beaten savagely and then killed. Capone was a thug in a tux, but he was not atypical. The gangsters lived in a harsh environment, and most of Capone’s rivals did not live to see prison.

One of the most action-packed parts of the movie is when the Untouchables cooperate with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to arrest Capone’s men when they are receiving a shipment of Canadian whiskey. While it is an entertaining scene, shipments from Canada were handled through New York gangsters, who then trucked the alcohol to Chicago.

Aside from numerous nameless thugs, Nitti is the only member of the actual Capone’s organization in the movie. Billy Drago’s Nitti is quite fearsome but has little relation to the real Nitti, who was a shrewd administrator. The scene where Nitti was caught with a gun in the courtroom is one of the handful of factually accurate parts of the movie, although Nitti is standing in for Capone’s bodyguard Phil D’Andrea. Realizing that he was intimidating witnesses, the police frisked D’Andrea and arrested him for possession of a gun. Despite presenting a deputy sheriff’s credentials, he was sentenced to six months in jail for contempt of court, and witnesses no longer had difficulty remembering their testimony.

As part of the movie’s efforts to portray the city of Chicago as lying prostrate at Capone’s feet, the screen Ness is a valiant crusader hampered by timid and corrupt officials. The District Attorney is unwilling to risk his reputation without a witness, until Ness points out that his men are risking their lives. To say that this is unfair would be a serious understatement. Chicago prosecutors worked hard to convict Capone and other gangsters, and kept trying despite repeated defeats. The court case followed the general chronology shown in the movie, aside from the minor detail that Ness had no involvement in the case at all because the IRS team operated independently. More important, the real judge was much more pro-active, refusing to accept a plea bargain arranged by the District Attorney and awarding the lengthiest sentence possible. The vital information that ensured a fair trial was not discovered by Ness, but by an informant, who was later assassinated. Showing the judge ignoring the blatant evidence is insulting to the real judge. Implying that he was guilty of receiving bribes is reprehensible.

Costner’s Ness is a decent man with a loving family but the real Ness was not married. Ness’ family serves no other purpose other than to be threatened, and thus make the screen Capone appear truly villainous, as if operating brothels and illegal speakeasies, and executing rivals was not enough.

The screen Capone admits to the press that he is a businessman who responds to market demand, but denies using violence to settle affairs because it is bad for business. While the real Capone never confessed to having had people killed, whenever rivals were assassinated he would tell the press that they should have realized that there was enough business for everyone, instead of trying to become too big. However, the film ignored his repeated complaints about the dangerous nature of his business and his frequent lament that his son did not see him for months at a time.

Aside from a scene at the opera, the movie does not show Capone’s widespread acceptance in society or his famous generosity (admittedly funded by bootlegging and prostitution), such as the soup kitchen he opened during the Depression.


While historical accuracy is not the movie’s strong point, the set design is fantastic, and the gunfights are suitably exciting. Hard to believe as it may be but Ennio Morricone’s score is uninspired and limp. Malone’s lines would have been corny without Connery delivering them, and his portrayal of a brave man who is not afraid to admit his fear is a moving performance, which deservedly re-sparked his career.

Mamet is usually an impressive writer but his script did not have a single nuanced character. The dialogue is uneven or was toned down, but some lines stand out: “You carry a badge? Carry a gun.” The script only comes to life when Mamet was able to indulge his love of profanity and racial slurs, such as the brilliant scene where Andy Garcia’s character is recruited into the Untouchables.

A criminal overlord holds a city in a stranglehold of fear. A naïve cop turns to a more experienced colleague for guidance. The death of a trusted partner makes it personal. The determined officer is hindered by timid and corrupt officials. The hero must break the law to bring down the crime lord. Given the numerous clichés, it should not be a surprise that there is little room left for the facts.

Malone gives a stirring speech about how getting Capone requires going to war beyond the law, using the sexy catchphrase ‘it’s the Chicago way’ as justification, and a key theme of the movie is that Ness will have to learn how to break the law to win. This is complete, unadulterated crap. The real Untouchables stayed within the law, and Capone was beaten by the IRS.

The incessant glorification of Ness is repulsive. Presumably Mamet and DePalma thought of the money whenever they looked at themselves in the mirror.