Prohibition-Era Chicago and the Cultivation of Organized Crime

‘The Untouchables’ began as a phrase to that Eliot Ness used to describe his prohibition task force. He claimed that his team was moral, composed, and upstanding public servants and refused to take bribes from bootleggers like Capone.[1] Therefore, they were ‘untouchable’ and, according to Ness and Fraley, feared by the bootlegging industry.[2] However, Ness only had a secondary role as a Prohibition officer and merely was on the ground busting speakeasies and breweries. No one—including Capon—paid attention to what he was doing. However, once the government found out about Capon’s neglect of tax returns, that’s when Capon began to sweat.

While The Untouchables in print and on film is an exciting tale, but historically, the movie’s plot and writing of the characters is wildly inaccurate. Since Eliot Ness’s name is on the cover of the book The Untouchables, he is often blamed for the misconceptions. While Ness was not quite the square and stand-up cop that the movie, TV show, and book lead viewers to believe, his role in the writing of the novel was limited and in fact, he died before it published. Oskar Fraley, Ness’s hired ghostwriter is the man who misconstrued Ness’s story and with the story, conjured up a legend that many still believe to this day. David De Palma’s 1987 production is based on Fraley’s heavily flawed book and therefore displays a narrative that is not based in fact. Despite the immense lack of historical accuracy, The Untouchables makes great attempts in making up for its shortcomings due to its attention details like the set design and character wardrobe. However, the movie still falls flat as a historical film in its representation of Al Capone, his trial against the government, and the underground crime organization that he fostered in Prohibition-era Chicago.

[1] Paul W. Heimal, Eliot Ness: the Real Story, (Nashville, TN: Columbia House Publishing Inc., 2000), 103.

[2] Elliot Ness and Oscar Fraley, The Untouchables, (New York, NY: Julian Messer Inc.), 1957.