jboyl5av on Nov 10th 2008
In terms of entertainment, The Untouchables is a cinematic achievement. The cinematography and the details of physical production, such as the sets, costumes, cars and guns used in the film create a dramatic image of Prohibition-era Chicago. The Untouchables also achieved substantial commercial success, launching the careers several of the film’s young actors, including Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia. Made in 1987, the film also serves as a decent primary source for the time period in which it was made. The film serves to contribute to the legend of Eliot Ness, the ultimate “untouchable.” The importance of legend in American culture can be seen in depictions of other historical figures, such as Wyatt Earp, George Washington and Davey Crockett. Americans love the story of larger than life heroes, and sometimes, like in the case of Eliot Ness, the legend of the man is so prolific that it becomes difficult for historians to separate the man from the myth.
The Untouchables also serves as a mirror for similar gang related violence, over the illegal trafficking of drugs that was taking place during the 1980s. After Prohibition many leaders of organized crime turned to the distribution of illegal drugs as a new income source. This line did not really pick-up until the late 1970s and 1980s, finding that newfound wealth and prosperity gave people extra money to spend. It had become socially acceptable for young affluent people to partake in drugs while having parties on their yachts or at their large house parties. Although the Italian mobster of the 1920s and 1930s were all but extinct, Latino mobsters took their place, their violence no less destructive with the aid of modern weaponry. Towards the end of the 1980s, the “Christian Right” came into power and President Reagan wanted to crackdown on the drugs in America’s cities. These attempts to instill family values and morals hearken back to the Temperance and Prohibition movement earlier in the century. Drugs were seen as deteriorating the moral fiber of America, much like Alcohol had been seen in previous decades.
As a secondary source, however, The Untouchables faces some problems. Screenwriter David Mamet based his work on the sensational novel, The Untouchables, written by Oscar Fraley and Eliot Ness, which glorified Ness’s character, simplifying the complex personalities of both the mobsters and the elite squad of men, nicknamed “The Untouchables.” Mamet also looked to the 1959 television series by the same name, a series know for its cops and robbers -esque gun battles, between the evil gangster forces and the white incorruptible “Untouchables.” Needless to say that such sensational influence affected the historical accuracy of the 1987 film version, directed by Brian De Palma. Eager to distinguish his work from Prohibition-era mobster movies, Mamet added fictional Hollywood moments, most likely added for pure cinematic effect and entertainment. Perhaps the most appalling aspects of the picture, in respect to the film’s historical accuracy, are the brutal murders of two main “untouchables.” Those events were fictitious, written by Mamet, and the gore and violence employed to deliver such scenes proved a bit too much. The murder of Frank Nettie in the film, by the hand of Eliot Ness, also proved a bit ludicrous and took away from the presentation of Ness’s character. Despite an inventive storyline, De Palma did succeed in painting a picture of the lawless, violent, gangland Chicago, ruled by Al Capone, even though the real story of Eliot Ness and his “untouchables” was misrepresented. Overall, I would look to The Untouchables for entertainment value, rather than as a strong secondary source about history.