Retouched: How Inaccuracy Improves De Palma’s ‘Untouchables’

By  · Published on May 26th, 2017

It’s often the case that biopic films are judged by their adherence to the facts of the actual stories on which they are based. It would then stand to reason that the more accurate the filmic depiction, the better the movie. Right? Not necessarily. While creative license is often met with resistance, sometimes biopics benefit tremendously from veering heavily away from historical veracity.

Case in point, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables.

One would presume that the story of a legendarily irreproachable squad of law enforcement officers taking on one of the most notorious villains in American history would warrant no creative tinkering to sell to audiences. However, the 1987 movie takes a Tommy gun to the facts of Elliott Ness’ crusading squadron and the adversarial nature of his relationship with Capone. And thank goodness it does.

The actual story of The Untouchables is, cinematically speaking, as interesting as reading the language of the Volstead Act itself. There were no violent acts of retribution perpetrated by Capone against Ness’ men. Capone never went after Ness’ family, and in fact, Ness had no children during the years he pursued Capone. This would completely negate the scenes of Nitti outside Ness’ home as well as the moment wherein the mother of the little girl killed in the prologue instills confidence in Ness with her teary-eyed affirmation, “it’s because I know that you have children too.” In fact, the scene wherein Ness expels from his office a Capone agent attempting to bribe him represents the entirety of Capone’s nefarious tactics for dealing with the troublesome lawman.

Drama requires conflict; the more heated and personal that conflict, the more compelling the drama. Robert Deniro and Kevin Costner screaming at each other in a courtroom while Capone’s goons hold the mobster back from starting a full-on brawl, that’s dramatically viable. Less so is the fact that historically Capone and Ness were never actually in the same room with one another at any point in their lives. Frank Nitti being thrown off a roof by a vengeful Elliott Ness, incredibly dramatic! The real Frank Nitti killing himself on a railroad track–missing with the first shot to his own head–is more sad than dramatic.

Most importantly, The Untouchables crafts a bonafide boy scout out of Elliott Ness, aforementioned roof-tossing of Nitti aside. In reality, Ness was a troubled individual whose crusades beyond bootlegging included prosecuting anyone who had contracted a venereal disease. He had several failed marriages and ended up drinking himself penniless with several visits to brothels along the way. This suggests a man far more morally conflicted than the spit-polished hero of the film. Although we watch him wrestle with crossing the line in multiple scenes, there is always the sense of a greater good being pursued. Almost as a nod to his real-life, morally gray personal life, the last line of The Untouchables is Ness answering a question as to what he would do if Prohibition were repealed with, “I think I’ll have a drink.”

There are valid reasons to deride factual revision for the sake of entertainment, but when a filmmaker is concerned with the legend of a historical figure more than the textbook facts, it creates multiple perspectives by which to evaluate that figure’s worth. It also has the potential, as in the case of The Untouchables, to make for a far more thrilling cinematic experience.

Feel like investigating further? Why not muck with the Gs of Junkfood Cinema as they dissect Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. Rest assured, they do it the Chicago way.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.