I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!
Eliot Ness, The Untouchables (1987)
Hard to believe it is 30 years since The Untouchables (1987) movie was released. My bride and I saw it in Joliet that year and we both loved it. A year or two later and I was sitting next to one of the last of the surviving members of Al Capone’s gang. A truckdriver for Capone, he had invested in Central Illinois farmland and by the time I knew him he was a grey headed and kindly great grandfather. I never worked up the courage to ask him if Capone had asked him to bury some gangland slaying victims in the ground he purchased, as local rumor indicated.
The film was magnificent with the screenplay by David Mamet and the haunting, and period appropriate, musical score by Henry Mancini. De Niro gave the performance of his career as Capone and Sean Connery, who won a best supporting Oscar for his performance, was completely believable as honest cop Jimmy Malone, joining Ness in his crusade against the corruption that sickened Malone. Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness was superb as an innocent who learns the terrible cost that is sometimes demanded when evil is confronted.
The movie is a traditional morality tale where a company is gathered to, against the odds, take down a monster. Mamet adds the twist that in the process, inevitably, a bit of the monster rubs off on the men who subdue it. It is interesting that at the end of the film Ness walks away from law enforcement. The crusade against Capone has been won, but Ness wants no more part of the violence that such a fight, even in a good cause, entails. It is a grand film, but it has nothing to do with the actual historical events.
Eliot Ness was a native of Chicago. At the age of 25 he graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in Economics. He would go on to earn a master’s degree in Criminology. In 1927 he joined the Treasury Department and became a member of the 1000 man Bureau of Prohibition in Chicago. After the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre Al Capone, the bootlegging King of Chicago, became a major target of Federal law enforcement. The Feds conducted two separate and simultaneous drives against Capone: building a case of income tax evasion and targeting for raids his booze empire. Ness was placed in charge of the raids, and assembled an elite force, first 50, then 15 and eventually 11, of young and unmarried men to engage in this potentially dangerous task. (Contrary to the film none of The Untouchables were murdered, but an informant for Ness did die, after being shot in the face four times.)
He operated outside of normal law enforcement channels, the film not exaggerating the corruption endemic in Chicago law enforcement. Ness specialized in raids against Capone-owned breweries and quickly began to inflict major damage on the Capone gang’s finances. Capone attempted to bribe Ness, offering him $2,000.00 a week, about $29,000.00 a week in today’s currency. Ness publicized this attempt at bribery and scored a major publicity coup, his team becoming known as The Untouchables because they couldn’t be bought.
Ness passed along captured Capone bookkeeping records to the agents handling the tax evasion case, but was otherwise not involved in that aspect of the anti-Capone campaign. Ness and Capone never met until they were both present at Capone’s trial for income tax evasion. As in the film the jury pools in that trial were switched with another case that was beginning. However, the idea of switching the jury pools was that of James Herbert Wilkerson, the Federal district judge presiding over the case. Contrary to his depiction in the film, Wilkerson was a judge of enormous probity and a tough sentencer who effectively ended Capone’s criminal career by sending him away for eleven years.
Ness went on to an initially successful law enforcement career in Cleveland. However, his life after his early fame in the fight against Capone was in many ways a mess. He burned through two marriages, ironically developed a drinking problem and by age 54 was nearly broke. Prior to his death of a massive heart attack in 1957 he wrote a book on his exploits, The Untouchables, with ghost writer Oscar Fraley. A 20 page manuscript that Ness wrote out during the writing of the book was strictly factual, but Fraley jazzed up the book with fictional accounts of daring do and witty dialogue. The book sold an amazing 1.5 million copies. The Ness family fortunes were restored. In 1959 television cemented the legend of Eliot Ness and The Untouchables, with the entirely fictional The Untouchables starring Robert Stack. Ness made a solid contribution in the fight against Capone, but he is remembered now for a fictional construct that bears little relationship to either the man Ness or his times. Bad history but good drama.