The Making of The Untouchables

jboyl5av on Nov 10th 2008

The Untouchables Movie Poster

In the summer of 1987, Paramount Pictures released The Untouchables, a $25 million picture.[1] The film, directed by Brian De Palma, stars Kevin Costner as the incorruptible Eliot Ness, determined to “dry up” the streets of Chicago. Sean Connery, an experienced Irish Beat Cop, Andy Garcia, a rookie fresh from the Police Academy, and Charles Martin Smith, a tax attorney from the Treasury Department, are brought together by Ness to form “The Untouchables,” an elite organization determined to bring down Al Capone, the notorious Kingpin of Chicago, elegantly portrayed by Robert De Niro.

In the featurettes included in The Untouchables Special Edition DVD, Director Brian De Palma discussed his motivations for making the film. After a few box office flops, De Palma was determined to achieve a commercial success, so he could go on to make other more appealing projects.[2] When a director’s ambition is “to achieve commercial success,” a film is bound to be full of Hollywood cinematic moments in an attempt to capture the public’s interest, an explanation for The Untouchables more sensational moments. Scriptwriter, David Mamet found his inspiration for the screenplay, The Untouchables in a book of the same name written by Oscar Fraley and Eliot Ness. Mamet, however, took some liberties in his adaptation, turning an already sensationalized account of Eliot Ness into a dramatic work of historical fiction. One example of this is the dramatic scene where Eliot Ness throws Frank Netti off of a rooftop into a row of cars. This scene not only fails to encompass Ness’s personality, but the real Netti committed suicide not long after learning that he would be serving a second prison term for tax evasion and had been betrayed by surviving members of Capone’s organization.[3] For more information on the historical inaccuracies of the 1987 film, see Issues of Historical Accuracy.

When the movie came to theatres in 1987, critics gave it mixed reviews. Vincent Canby of the New York Times appreciated the movie for its cinematic value, even though the bloodshed and violence were at times excessive. Canby acknowledges, however, that in an attempt to create an original story in a Prohibition-era Chicago De Palma overlooked historical accuracy. The result was a “jazzed-up version of the old-fashioned cops-and-robbers movie,” with a little more character development and complexity, evidenced by the dissipated naïveté of Eliot Ness by the end of the film. Canby accuses De Palma of going too far at times, such as the Canadian border raid conducted on horseback, transforming the film into a Western placed in 1870, rather than 1930. De Palma and his crew did take painstaking efforts to shoot at location in Chicago, using historic buildings unique to the city.[4]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago-Sun Times also acknowledged the impressive aspects of production, such as the period cars, costumes, guns and sets, like the insides of Capone’s Lexington hotel headquarters and the courtroom where his trial was held. Ebert, however, criticized De Palma for making the movie more about the Prohibition Era, than about the gangland warfare that encompassed the city. Ebert also criticized David Mamet for writing a two-dimensional script, depicting bad guys versus good guys. Ebert argued that when Capone appears in the film, it is as if he was cut off from the rest of the story, without any nod to the complexities behind his character.[5]

David Mamet was not the first to adapt Fraley’s and Ness’ s book The Untouchables. In 1959, The Untouchables was made into a black and white television series for ABC that ran on a weekly basis. Each show consisted of several gun battles where Ness and his “G-Men” fought the evil-doers of Chicago’s crime-ridden streets. As the show continued to run, the writer’s became more sensational in their plot lines, eventually taking the TV series into pure fantasy. The show was known for its frequent and graphic demonstrations of violence and bloodshed; many Americans believed that the show was an accurate representation of the prohibition era. Not everyone was happy with the show: several former “Untouchables,” as well as relatives of Al Capone and the Italian population at large, criticized the series for its blatant exaggerations and fallacies. Despite the show’s relative popularity with the masses, the backlash from its critics eventually ended the shows run after only four seasons/ Featuring 114 episodes, starring Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, his portrayal of Ness was Intelligent, Courageous, Honest, Incorruptible, and always Victorious…“Untouchable.” The Untouchables depiction of good versus evil, sufficiently established the myth of Eliot Ness into American popular culture.[6]

The 1987 film version of The Untouchablesfurther perpetuated the myth of Eliot Ness. The film depicts Ness as single-handedly taking down Al Capone, with the help of his elite fighting squad. In reality, the attack on Al Capone was two pronged: an attack on Capone’s bootlegging industry, headed by Ness, in an attempt to break him financially, and an attack by Internal Revenue Service agents to send Capone to prison for federal tax evasion.[7] The distortion of Ness and his “Untouchables” has become so vast that the true story of Al Capone’s downfall is unknown to most Americans.


[1] Paul W. Heimel, Elliot Ness: The Real Story (Nashville: Cumberland House Publishing, Inc., 2000), 283.

[2] The Untouchables: Special Collector’s Edition DVD (Paramount Pictures, 1987).

[3] Heimel, 283.

[4] Vincent Canby, “The Untouchables,” New York Times, June 3, 1987, under “Movies,” (accessed November 11, 2008).

[5] Roger Ebert, “The Untouchables,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 3, 1987, under “Movie Reviews,” November 11, 2008).

[6] Heimel, 279-86.

[7] Dennis E. Hoffman, Scarface Al and the Crime Crusaders: Chicago’s Private War Against Capone (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), 3-5.

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