You wanna know how you write a Motion History? Here's how -- someone suggests a movie, you agree. You watch the movie, you hit the library. When the library fails, you yell at your keyboard and go to Google. And then you're glad the Motion History deadline moved. That's the
All corny quoting aside, that's exactly what happened. I fully expected to be able to find The Untouchables (the original book actually penned by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley) at the library. I thought it would have Kevin Costner on the front. I thought this topic would be as slick to pin down as getting Al Capone on tax evasion. I was wrong, and I'm surprised and saddened to be wrong. Eliot Ness is an American legend. So much of his life and career has become embedded in pop culture that I thought his autobiography (as fluffy as it may or may not be) would be readily available at my local library. It's on Amazon of course, but it couldn't get here fast enough, and that's not really the point. I like libraries. It saddens me so many are becoming glorified Blockbusters -- especially in this digital and streaming age -- instead of places you can learn about Prohibition.
So, I apologize. This might be a rather thin column, and a topic that Cinematical readers can school me on. Nevertheless, I'm happy to say I went into this a blank slate and came out with a vaguely less one. Perhaps a few will read this and say the same. Perhaps it will even restore our libraries.
It's the height of Prohibition, the height of bootlegging, and the glamorous heyday of organized crime. Al Capone (Robert De Niro) rules Chicago, and is a popular celebrity in his own right. There's no corner of the city he doesn't have a hand in, and this includes the Chicago Police Department. Bureau of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness is assigned the task of bringing down Capone and his liquor empire -- one he finds absolutely impossible since all the cops working with him are on Capone's payroll.
By chance, he meets Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), an Irish cop who is eager to see Capone brought down, and advises him to recruit a team from rookie cops. Ness builds up a team of incorruptible and "untouchable" cops and one accountant named Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith). Wallace is convinced they can get Capone on his failure to file taxes. Ness' team begins needling Capone through liquor raids, gaining attention and enthusiasm in the press, and Capone tries to pay them off. Their families are threatened by Capone's henchman Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) who eventually guns down three members of the team, including Malone. After an epic shootout at Union Station, Ness captures Capone's accountant alive, and takes him to court where he testifies about the practices of the Capone organization. Capone is perfectly calm, however. After all, he has his pal Netti with him -- who has a suspiciously large bulge under his jacket. Ness identifies Nitti as Malone's murderer, causing the gangster to panic, and flee to the courthouse roof. After the usual hero-villain exchange, Ness throws Netti off the roof. Back inside the courthouse, Ness bluffs the judge, claiming he's on Capone's payoff list. The judge, his pockets lined with Mafia cash, allows the trial to proceed and Capone is subsequently sentenced to 11 years for tax evasion. Ness promises to celebrate with a drink once Prohibition was revoked.
The Historical Background
Man, Prohibition. What a crazy, crazy time. To quote my favorite Girl Friday, Rachel Maddow "[It] was so massively consequential and stupid that we've ever since set about pretending we never did it." So true! And we shouldn't, because it is one of the most amazing examples of single-minded and obsessive issue-pushing in our nation's history. (Beware! They did it with alcohol. Tomorrow, it could be pizza. Beware the fringe movements!) The temperance movement began with some of America's first colonies, and Massachusetts had banned liquor as early as 1657. This is really kind of bizarre when you know the pre-Industrial world was chugging booze largely because the water quality was so poor. Henry VIII was a lusty drinker, as was his entire court and kingdom, but no one got up in arms about it. But as soon as the Puritans landed here, they sought to ban all hard drink. I'm no expert on bacterial infections, but part of me wonders if the temperance movement began because this is the first time we had water that lacked deadly amounts of sewage. The Puritans finally had options. Also, they left all that great beer behind!
The movement sputtered out in the 18th century. Our Founding Fathers had a country to form, and they liked their booze. With a new century came a new morality, spawned by new church branches, and the temperance movement gained steam. It was derailed by the Civil War, but once that pesky problem was over, it was Prohibition Party all the time. Women were at the forefront of the movement, campaigning on the tragic notion that they suffered the most by men's excessive drinking. American culture has traditionally leaned on women to provide morality, culture, and civilization, especially out in the frontier. (It's probably no accident the first state to go dry was the "wild west" of Kansas in 1881). Movements like this gained support by banking on that romantic idealism.
But then men took over. The Anti-Saloon League began as a blip on America's radar in 1893, then gained power in the rural North and the stricter parts of the South. It played every political angle and issue it could with one goal in mind -- banning alcohol. They linked it to everything. They finally succeeded and the National Prohibition Act (also called the Volstead Act) was passed on October 28, 1919. It had an incredible effect on American culture. We have a whole mythology built from this period thanks to the speakeasies, the jazz that flourished in them, and the gangsters that ran them. Because something as massively popular as alcohol is illegal, but a lot of people still want it, someone will figure out how much money they can make supplying it. Organized crime wasn't invented during the 1920s, but it became a massive force to reckon with. Chicago -- already a hotbed of crime families became the epicenter of bootlegging thanks to Bugs Moran and Al Capone. Capone eventually emerged triumphant from their gang war, controlling all 10,000 speakeasies in the city and controlled the bootlegging trade from Canada to Florida. The United States couldn't allow that to continue -- not only did it flout the laws, it did so with an amazing profit margin. They formed the Bureau of Prohibition (it would soon merge with other agencies and become the FBI) and put their agents on the hunt. The one assigned to Chicago was a young man named Eliot Ness.
Ness was a Chicago native, who attended the University of Chicago where he studied commerce, law, and political science. He was one of the top students of his class, and initially worked for the Retail Credit Company (now Equifax) before becoming an agent with the U.S. Treasury Department in 1927. He was transferred into the Justice Department and put to work with the Prohibition Bureau the following year. They handed this promising agent a daunting task -- bring down Al Capone. Easier said than done.
Is It Accurate?
As always -- yes and no. Ness and Capone are both real, and essentially how they're portrayed in the film. Capone was a flamboyant lawbreaker, and enormously popular in the Chicago press. He really did shrug off his criminal activities as simply giving the people what they wanted. "I'm just a businessman." A businessman was behind some of the most violent and vicious gang attacks in Chicago history, but only the St. Valentine's Day Massacre (which he was never quite linked to) hurt his reputation in the public eye. Every story about him reads stranger than fiction, such as the famous one (seen in the film) where he invited three Sicilian gangsters to a rich dinner, and then beat them to death with baseball bats. Asking one man to bring down Capone was a pretty shocking request, especially when anyone who could help him was on Capone's payroll.
Ness was forced to recruit a special force. He painstakingly went through the records of all Prohibition agents, narrowing it down to 50, 15, and then 9. According to Ness, "I ticked off the general qualities I desired: single, no older than thirty, both the mental and physical stamina to work long hours and the courage and ability to use fist or gun and special investigative techniques. I needed a good telephone man, one who could tap a wire with speed and precision. I needed men who were excellent drivers, for much of our success would depend upon how expertly they could trail the mob's cars and trucks ... and fresh faces -from other divisions-who were not known to the Chicago mobsters." The list, according to Marilyn Bardsley, was as follows:
Marty Lahart, an Irish sports and fitness enthusiast
Sam Seager, a former Sing Sing death row guard
Lyle Chapman, a brilliant problem solver and investigator, and a former Colgate University football player
Tom Friel, a former state trooper from Pennsylvania
Joe Leeson, genius when it came to tailing someone in an automobile
Paul Robsky, a telephone expert
Bill Gardner, a former professional football player of Native American descent.
It's true -- no Jimmy Malone, no George Stone, not even an Oscar Wallace. But some of them are Irish. You can see where the inspiration came from.
His force conducted raids on Capone's breweries, stills, and speakeasies thanks to well placed wire-tapping. Ness claimed that in 6 months, he had seized over one million dollars worth of breweries. Capone thought Ness would be easy to combat, and attempted to bribe one of the agents. The agent, true to form, refused. Ness knew the power of publicity, and made a huge deal of the incident to the press. "Possibly it wasn't too important for the world to know that we couldn't be bought, but I did want Al Capone and every gangster in the city to realize that there were still a few law enforcement agents who couldn't be swerved from their duty." The papers promptly dubbed the team "The Untouchables." When bribery failed, Capone tried to have Ness killed. There were a number of murder attempts ranging from shootings to bomb plantings, and one of Ness' close friends, Frank Basile, was brutally killed. There was never a big shootout in Union Station, but Ness supposedly did talk to Capone twice -- once when Ness called Capone and told him to look outside at a parade of the gangster's confiscated cars, and once at Capone's sentencing. Supposedly, the gangster had a cheery "Oh well, we all get caught sometime!" attitude about prison which clashes with the DeNiro portrayal, yet fits with Capone's general cockiness.
While Ness compiled a lot of evidence against Capone, it was a combined effort of Treasury and Justice Department officials that nailed Capone on tax evasion. It wasn't one accountant who worked with Ness, and it's unclear whether the stalwart agent really had much to do with that part. But one thing he definitely didn't do was kill Frank Nitti by throwing him off a roof. Nitti was sentenced along with Capone, but only did 18 months. When he was released in 1932, he took over Capone's crime ring, though he seems to have simply been the face of the family. He branched out into labor unions, and extorting the Hollywood film industry. In 1943, he was indicted. Fearing another stint in prison -- he was terribly claustrophobic and possibly suffering from cancer -- he shot himself.
Ness enjoyed several promotions -- including one to Chief Investigator of Chicago's Prohibitions Bureau -- and built upon his reputation in Chicago and Cleveland. He rooted out corruption and fixed traffic laws and courts. But his personal life came under scrutiny. He enjoyed socializing, drank heavily, and was involved in a drunk driving incident. He married three times. Perhaps none of this would have mattered, except that he failed to solve the grisly Torso Murders of Cleveland, and the media blamed it on his personal issues. He came under fire for his tough tactics, such as burning down homeless people's settlements because he suspected the murderer was among them. Ness went to work for the federal government instead, then left for the private sector in 1944. He tried to run for Mayor of Cleveland in 1947, but lost. He went to work for an industrial corporation, but had limited funds, and was no longer the celebrity he had been. He tried to recapture both by pairing with Oscar Fraley to write his book, The Untouchables. Fraley did most of the writing and highly exaggerated the war with Capone, though Ness did sign off on it. He died a month prior to its publication.
The book didn't sell very well initially. However, it immediately captured the attention of Hollywood, and became a bestseller after ABC turned it into a tv series starring Robert Stack. In 1987 came the DePalma movie. Both took enormous liberties and threw in lots of action packed sequences, helping Ness to become a byword for "tough cop" the same way Dirty Harry has. He's been namedropped on The Simpsons. A young Ness was on The Indiana Jones Chronicles. Brian Michael Bendis wrote a graphic novel about his Torso Murder investigation. Even WWE wrestlers use his name to invoke how powerful their smackdowns are. Ness has become a figure like Billy the Kid or Jesse James -- a real life figure who has become a pop culture legend, so far removed from history that he can comfortably be woven into fiction. I'm tempted to say that he may be the first real cop / agent to become adored (by way of fiction) by the public, who had previously been worshipping John Dillinger and James Cagney's gangsters. One might even draw the conclusion that the nation had decided -- and in those famously stodgy 1950s, no less -- that becoming starry-eyed over bank robbers and chicken-leg chomping gangsters wasn't a good idea. Or maybe it's just that Ness' time had come around again, and Americans had a new appreciation for a man who had survived bullets, bootleggers, and Al Capone. Who can't drink to that?