Over the years many films have been made about the legendary gangster Al Capone such as Scarface (1932), Al Capone (1959), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and Capone (1975). Although Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables (1987) isn’t focused solely on Capone it is one of the best films featuring the mobster ever made. The screenplay was written by David Mamet and based on accounts in Eliot Ness’ autobiography about his time in law enforcement trying to bring Capone to justice.
This fictionalized version follows the adventures of young U.S. Treasury agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) the fresh faced All American boy who has been brought to Chicago to help bust up the liquor rackets organized by Capone. Method actor extraordinaire Robert DeNiro gained some weight to take on the role of “Scarface” Al Capone (much like he did for Raging Bull) and had his hairline changed to make him appear bald. He also had Capone’s real life tailors create the suits he wore to bring even more authenticity to his performance. Capone’s introduction at the beginning of the film clues us into how he presented himself in public as a businessman who deplored violence. In the scene following it, one of his thugs tries to extort a local bar owner to sell illegal liquor. When the man relents his establishment is swiftly blown up with an innocent young girl along with it.
Eliot Ness is introduced to the police officers and gives them the rundown on what they will be doing to enforce the Prohibition laws. He jumps directly into the fray by getting tips about secret liquor warehouses in the city. Although he is highly enthusiastic about “doing some good” the first raid he sets up is a total failure and he is humilitated in the newspapers afterwards. He then knows that he can’t do his job successfully without someone who is familiar with the underworld Capone operates in. He seeks help from a tough old Irish beat cop that he runs into one night, Officer Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) who has the kind of street knowledge he needs. Ness’ first meeting to get Malone to join him isn’t successful due to the dangerous nature of the job. After a change of heart Malone shows up at Ness’ office explaining they’ve got to do things a certain way if they want to make a difference and stay alive as well.
Since much of the police force and basically the entire city has been corrupted by Capone, Malone suggests to Ness that he go directly to the police academy where he can find a rookie that hasn’t been bought off yet to join his elite team. It’s there they discover a young hotshot marksman named George Stone (Andy Garcia). Malone has a doubt that Stone is his real name and uses some cruel racist remarks to get the truth. In a humorous moment it turns out Stone is in fact an Italian whose real name is Giuseppi Petri. Stone almost kills Malone for his insult, not knowing his true intention, but both see right away he’s the kind of cop who shoots first and asks questions later and they hire him on. Soon after a brainy IRS agent named Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) appears at Ness’ office informing him Capone can be brought down on tax evasion charges. Oscar suddenly finds himself initiated into the squad when they need an extra member during a raid. Wallace, like Ness clearly isn’t a natural tough guy but is committed to bringing Capone down and after his first experience in a liquor bust he gains more confidence.
One night, Capone hosts a dinner for the mafia members who work for him. During the festive event he proceeds to give a speech about his favorite pasttime: baseball. This monologue about how the players must work as a team ends with him beating one of his soldiers to death with a bat for being busted by Ness’ squad. It’s a very shocking moment that conveys just how ruthless and brutal Capone can be.
When Ness learns that there will be a large liquor transaction on the US/Canada border and he teams up with the Royal Canadian mounties to intervene. They proceed to bushwhack Capone’s men during the outdoor meeting on a bridge. In the action packed shootout with the gangsters they luckily get their hands on a ledger and grab one of Capone’s main bookkeepers, George, who relents at giving up any info. Malone then gets an idea to act as if he’s interrogating a Capone soldier (who’s already dead) then shoot him to show how far they’ll go to get answers. This shocking scene causes George to talk and they learn the ledger contains names including Capone and his many upper crust contacts in the city. The only trouble is, they need to find Capone’s other bookkeeper to break the codes used.
Capone’s main enforcer, the smarmy, deadly greaseball Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) acts as a spy, keeping tabs on Ness and the others as they begin busting the various liquor operations. To get revenge and take the energy out of the squad’s efforts, Capone has Nitti take out two of the Untouchables members in particularly gruesome ways. This leads to one of the films most thrilling sequences which takes place at a train station in the city. The last survivors of the cause, Ness and Stone, wait for the bookkeeper Walter Payne (Jack Kehoe) who is being guarded by Capone’s thugs. Unfortunately an innocent woman pulling a baby carriage up the station steps gets caught in the middle of an unexpected gunfight and her baby creates the main point of distress. Director Brian DePalma originally was going to film the confrontational shootout on an authentic train from the 30s but due to budget constraints he decided to ditch that. Inspired by The Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s cinema classic Battleship Potempkin he used the idea of a barrage of action and rapid edits to create one of the most exciting set pieces he’s ever done.
Brian DePalma’s direction in this film showcases his brilliance for inventing elaborate suspense and action sequences. The visual techniques he utilizes range from point of view shots to deep focus to elaborate tracking shots. The cinematography by Stephen H. Burum is beautifully done and the much of the look of the film recalls the works of Sergio Leone with its mixture of closeups and expansive wide shots. 25 years later The Untouchables remains one of DePalma’s best efforts and a crime genre classic.
FURIOUS FILM TRIVIA
- Albert H. Wolff, the last survivor of the real-life Untouchables, was a consultant to the film and helped Kevin Costner with his portrayal of Eliot Ness.
- Despite the final courtroom scene in this movie, the real Al Capone and Eliot Ness never came face to face during their battles.
- In real life, Eliot Ness brought the only non-tax-related charges against Al Capone which resulted in 5,000 separate Volstead Act indictments.
- Robert De Niro tracked down Al Capone’s original tailors and had them make him some identical clothing for the movie.
- The scene where Al Capone (Robert De Niro) pulls out a baseball bat at a dinner party and suddenly beats to death one of his men is based on a true incident which happened on May 7, 1929. Two of Capone’s most feared hit men, Albert Anselmi and John Scalise, had hatched a plot to kill Capone and take over his gang. Capone got wind of it and invited all his associates to a dinner party, including Anselmi and Scalise. In the middle of the party, Capone pulled out a baseball bat and battered both men to death, then shot them both in the head. A conflicting version of the story has Tony “Joe Batters” Accardo, one of Capone’s hit men, as the man who bludgeoned the traitors to death.
- The character of Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) was loosely based on Frank Wilson, the IRS agent who worked to indict Capone for income tax evasion. Wilson had been working on this project since 1928, and had next to nothing to do with Ness and the Untouchables in real-life. Wilson was not killed by Capone, though Capone reportedly placed a contract on his life which was never carried out.
- Brian De Palma later modified the battle-on-the-train sequence he planned for this film and used it in Carlito’s Way.