Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind Brian De Palma’s 1987 crime drama The Untouchables, starring Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, and Sean Connery.
Only two words are needed to know that Brian De Palma’s 1987 crime classic The Untouchables takes its inspiration from reality: Al Capone.
In the film, the famous mob boss, played by Robert De Niro, is pursued by a band of special agents of the U.S. Bureau of Prohibition nicknamed the Untouchables. A group headed by Eliot Ness, played in the film by Kevin Costner. The other Untouchables include Sean Connery as Jim Malone, Andy Garcia as George Stone, and Charles Martin Smith as Oscar Wallace.
The screenplay, written by David Mamet, is based on a memoir of the same name by Ness and Oscar Fraley. Ness died in May of 1957, just before the book’s release. His posthumous fame soared to new heights after the film’s release. Whether you’re new to the film or just settling in for a re-watch, here is a look at the true (and not so true) stories behind The Untouchables.
Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 in the United States. The outlawing of liquor gave leverage, power, and wealth to organized criminals like Capone, who during the period more or less controlled all of Chicago. De Palma’s film begins with a reporter asking Capone why he does simply declare himself the mayor.
In January 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed, banning liquor manufacture, sale, and distribution. Later that year, lawmakers passed the National Prohibit Act, which outlined how the new law would be enforced. People quickly nicknamed it the Volstead Act after Minnesota Congressman Andrew Volstead, who headed the House Judiciary Committee and oversaw the passage of the legislation.
The legislation also established the Prohibition Unit, a division of the IRS responsible for enforcing the law. According to The Mob Museum:
[The unit was] staffed by agents who were not required to take Civil Service exams, leaving the door open for members of Congress and local pols to appoint their cronies, including applicants with questionable backgrounds.
Naturally, this left room for corruption in the process. And mob bosses like Capone could operate with a certain level of protection.
The Bureau of Prohibition
Throughout the 1920s, members of the Prohibition Unit, often with assistance from local law enforcement, went to work cracking down on bootleggers. The Mob Museum notes that some of these agents earned national fame, and some were covered in movie theater newsreels.
In 1930, the Prohibition Unit moved from the U.S. Treasury Department to the Justice Department. It took on a new name: the Bureau of Prohibition. The Mob Museum notes that the escalation of violent crime precipitated this move to the DOJ, which was better equipped to deal with mobsters like Capone.
The Real Untouchables
One of the stars of the Bureau was Special Agent Eliot Ness. At just 26-years old, he was appointed the new investigative chief of the Bureau’s Chicago office. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Ness’s age was precisely why the Bureau was interested in hiring men like him. Their youth meant they were “extremely dedicated and unbribable.” And thus, the nickname “the Untouchables” was born.
The Untouchables gang consisted of around 10 to 15 men. The “last of Ness’ men,” Albert Wolff, died in 1998 at 95. His New York Times obituary quotes him as saying:
I wasn’t born to sell out; I wasn’t built that way. The pay wasn’t good, but I wasn’t forced to go on the job, I was happy to go on the job. There weren’t many of my kind in the department in that era, and I was proud of it.
In his later years, Wolff worked as a technical advisor on De Palma’s film, even showing Costner how to hold a gun properly. But when the film screened, he took issue with some of the depictions. Referring to Ness’ famous encounter with Capone in the film, Wolff reportedly said, “You didn’t just bump into someone like Capone on the street.”
It was only the beginning of the film’s complicated relationship with reality.
Who Was the Real Elliot Ness?
Like his forbearers, Ness, too, was fond of the press, as De Palma shows in the film. Historian Alex von Tunzelmann notes in an essay for The Guardian that Ness “was a self-publicist of the first order.” But, as von Tunzelmann continues, that was pretty much one of the only accurate depictions of the real Ness in the film.
In 2014, Neel Tucker wrote in the Washington Post of Ness’ book, “it’s almost all fiction.” The history of the Untouchables resurfaced that year after a group of U.S. Senators proposed naming the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives after Ness. As author Daniel Okrent told the post, “You might as well name it after Batman.”
The Post reports that much of Ness’ account is mythologized and hyperbolic. In the book, Ness “ducks a hitman’s bullets, dives from a car that tries to run him down, punches out thugs, trades quips with saucy prostitutes and dries up Capone’s massive operation.” Its the kind of daring heroics depicted in the film.
Ness also wrote that Capone demanded his cronies kill Ness. Of such claims, The Post notes:
It was pretty much all nonsense, but people loved it.
So what really happened?
The Tax Strategy
Ness was a highly influential law enforcement official, often credited with helping to modernize investigative work. And he did severe damage to Capone’s operation in Chicago. The truth, however, becomes murky when discussing just how much credit Ness deserves.
In the film, Ness is at the center of the action: working with the attorneys, coming up with the tax fraud idea (with help from Oscar Wallace), and later convincing the U.S. attorney to stay on the case. This is just not really how things went down.
According to the Post, Ness and his men spent the “first six months of 1931 raiding Capone’s hidden breweries.” They later got to work on a 5,000-count bootlegging indictment against Capone. However, Johnson, the U.S. Attorney, who “loved Ness’ work,” opted for a different approach.
Jurors, Johnson reasoned, loved to drink. But they hated people who cheated on their taxes. And so, rather than try Ness’ bootlegging approach, he went after Capone for tax evasion. It worked — the jury convicted Capone on five counts, and the judge sentenced him to 11 years in prison.
The End of Capone & Ness
The Post notes that despite Ness’ earlier claim about Capone calling for his death, “by all accounts, the pair never saw one another in person until his court appearance.”
Capone spent much of his sentence in Alcatraz. While at the famous penitentiary in San Francisco, he suffered from syphilis and mental deterioration. He received parole due to his poor health in 1939 and died in January 1947.
A few years after the end of Prohibition in 1933, Ness went on to oversee public safety in Cleveland, where he became an innovator in modern police work. In 1947, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor. He died a decade later at the age of 54. Of his legacy, his biographer Douglas Perry told NPR:
Ness, he helped invent the modern police force. He was a huge proponent of what was then called scientific policing — if you’re a fan of CSI, Ness was into that stuff before there was even an FBI lab.