Film Study Guide


In January of 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect, culminating a nearly century-long effort to rid the United States of alcohol. It forbade the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within...the United States." By the time of the amendment's ratification, 26 states had already passed their own anti-liquor laws.

To enforce Prohibition, Congress passed the Volstead Act. Within a very short time, it became quite clear that the "noble experiment," as Prohibition came to be called, was not working well. Though it did substantially reduce drinking in most parts of the country, it also produced countless law offenders. Suddenly, any person who manufactured, sold, bartered, transported, imported, exported, delivered, furnished, or possessed alcoholic beverages was a common criminal! No measure in American history, before or after the 1920s, was more unpopular—or more violated—than Prohibition.

Because an enormously profitable industry was now barred to legitimate businessmen, organized crime figures assumed leadership. Crime statistics skyrocketed as mobsters hijacked one another's liquor shipments, fought bloody skirmishes for control of territory, extorted protection money, and brutalized uncooperative retailers. Gangsters gunned down their enemies in broad daylight and bombed rival distilleries and warehouses without regard for innocent passersby. The Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act became relatively minor obstacles for crime bosses, who placed countless policemen and elected officials on their payrolls.

The most notorious crime syndicate warlord was Chicago's Alphonse "Scarface" Capone, a one-time Brooklyn street thug. At his peak of success, Capone controlled a network of some 10,000 bars and their sources of supply as far as Canada and Florida; his gangland army numbered over a thousand hoodlums and gunmen (organized crime appealed to many ghetto youths as the quickest route to wealth and prominence). So lucrative was his business that in 1927 Capone's income reached a staggering $105 million, an all-time high for an American citizen of any profession. Capone became almost legendary; tourists to Chicago kept their necks craned and their eyes peeled, hoping for a glimpse of the mob kingpin patrolling his territory in his $30,000 armor-plated Cadillac equipped with bulletproof glass and a special cache behind the seat for firearms.

Shortly after taking office in 1929, President Herbert Hoover assigned Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon to spearhead the government's battle against Capone's regime of organized crime. Mellon conceived a two-pronged approach. Evidence would be sought to convict Capone on income tax evasion as well as the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol. For the first task, Mellon appointed Elmer Irey of the Internal Revenue Service. To pursue the Prohibition violations, Mellon chose Eliot Ness, a Prohibition Bureau agent who, though only 26 years old, had already earned a reputation for reliability and honesty. In turn, to help accomplish his mission, Ness methodically assembled, after extensive screening, a small army of nine crack agents. By August of 1929, the selection process was complete.

Ness wanted to open his war against Capone with a decisive hit. His goal was to shut down several of Capone's stills located in Chicago Heights—all in a single night! With carefully coordinated plans, and additional agents in tow, 18 stills were raided and 52 people jailed. With this initial success, Ness took aim at his next target, Capone's breweries, which provided the lifeblood income of Capone's entire crime syndicate. For this campaign, Ness commandeered a 10-ton flat-bed truck and had it modified to fit his attack plans. A snowplow was affixed to the truck's front bumper to ram barricaded doors; the bed was outfitted with ladders to afford Ness's men quick access to the brewery roofs to chase down fleeing brewers. Ness's assault vehicle was first used to blast through the front door of Capone's brewery on South Wabash Avenue. Over the coming months, emboldened by this frontier sheriff approach, Ness and his team raided brewery after brewery, each time confiscating expensive equipment and making numerous arrests. Whenever a raid took place, Ness made sure at least one newspaper reporter was present to document and report the event.

Within the first six months of assuming his new post, Ness had succeeded in closing down numerous distilleries and breweries worth an estimated $1 million. Capone, through his operatives, offered Ness $2,000 a week to back off. Ness refused. The same bribe was extended to a couple of Ness's men sitting in their car when an envelope full of cash was tossed from a passing automobile onto the agents' laps. The agents caught up to the gangster and threw the money back at him. For agents making barely more as an annual salary what Capone was offering as a weekly payoff represented deep integrity and commitment. Ness called a press conference; newspapers across the country carried the story. One reporter dubbed Ness's squad the "Untouchables."

To punctuate his mission to bring Capone to justice, Ness brazenly paraded some 45 trucks, captured in various raids, past Capone's headquarters at the Lexington Hotel on Michigan Avenue. Ness even telephoned Capone to let him know when to look out his office window to see the surprise motorcade! The defiant move humiliated and enraged Capone; at that moment, he became obsessed with Ness's elimination. Ness narrowly survived two attempted ambushes by armed Capone henchmen, and foiled a third attempt on his life when he discovered, by sheer luck, dynamite planted under the hood of his car. Dauntless, Ness continued his onslaught against Capone with renewed vigor and determination, relying on tips from rival mobs, keenly placed wiretaps, and an undercover agent. But unbeknownst to Ness, his time was running out.

In the spring of 1931, the government, facing a six-year statute of limitations on some of its existing evidence, was forced to proceed with legal action. A grand jury handed down several indictments against Capone of tax evasion and violation of the Volstead Act. After a plea bargain was rejected and an attempt to bribe jurors fell through, Capone was found guilty of some of the tax evasion counts. The government decided not to prosecute Capone on any of the Prohibition violations Ness had worked so tirelessly to document. Capone's appeal denied, he received an 11-year sentence. In May of 1932, the Untouchables escorted the broken mobster from the Cook County jail to the train that would transport him to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Ness bid his archenemy an irreverent farewell.

Capone was later transferred to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in California. He spent the last year of his sentence, reduced owing to good behavior and work credits, in the hospital section receiving treatment for the syphilis he had contracted as a young man. Released from prison in 1939, Capone's health continued to deteriorate during his final years. He died of cardiac arrest in 1947.

His crusade against Capone over, Ness took on several different jobs before eventually being lured to Cleveland with the new challenge of cleaning up the city's rampant police corruption. There his diligent work resulted in 12 indictments and scores of resignations. But Ness soon fell from favor due to his inability to solve a major case involving a serial killer. Ironically, the one-time Prohibition Bureau agent had developed a drinking problem. Driving intoxicated one evening, Ness struck another car, left the scene, and later tried to persuade officials to bury the incident. He resigned three weeks later.

Ness emerged again in 1947 to campaign for mayor of Cleveland, but was soundly defeated. He died, depressed and in debt, in 1957. Though it was agent Irey of the IRS Special Intelligence Unit, not Ness, who finally gathered enough evidence to incarcerate Capone, the perseverance Ness demonstrated in harassing Capone nevertheless assured him of a place among the legends of organized crime and the law enforcement agents who fought underworld figures.


The Untouchables features Kevin Costner as federal agent Eliot Ness, Robert De Niro as Chicago mob leader Al Capone, and Sean Connery as seasoned cop and Ness mentor Jim Malone. Andy Garcia (as George Stone) and Charles Martin Smith (as Oscar Wallace) play key agents under Ness. Connery's performance earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The Untouchables made the New York Times "Ten Best Films" list in 1987. Its R rating is due to violence and language.

Presumably, actors Connery, Garcia, and Smith represent composites of the nine true-life Untouchables. Connery/Malone seems to be a combination of Tom Friel, a former Pennsylvania state trooper, and Barney Cloonan, a muscular Irishman. The Connery/Malone character also resembles Frank Basile, Ness's friend and sometime assistant who was brutally murdered by Capone's men. Basile was not, however, one of the Untouchables. Garcia/Stone doesn't really match well with any of the actual Untouchables. None were Italian, as is Garcia/Stone; he demonstrates no particularly notable skills besides his marksmanship and courage, attributes which all or at least several of the real Untouchables probably possessed. Smith/Wallace, a frail accountant with no previous law enforcement experience, appears to fit the description of a man once dispatched by the Chicago Prohibition Bureau to assist Ness in a Capone brewery raid. Prior to working as a Prohibition agent, he had been a department store clerk. As it turned out, the action was more than he could stomach; he quickly resigned after his one and only raid. In the movie version, Smith/Wallace is one of the Untouchables, and rather than call it quits after his first encounter with Capone's gangsters, he takes a liking to the job.

According to its producers, the movie was "suggested by the television series" (also entitled The Untouchables) which aired weekly on ABC from 1959 to 1963. Robert Stack starred as Ness. The show was considered one of the most violent of the time, though by today's standards it would be within the norm. Whereas the real Untouchables team disbanded in 1932, the TV program extended its episodes into the 1940s, with Ness and his boys battling it out with mobsters and villains the real Untouchables never encountered—like Bugsy Seigel, Ma Barker, even Nazi spies and would-be presidential assassins!

Unfortunately, the film takes similar wide latitude with historical facts. Listed as sources of authenticity are Oscar Fraley (a veteran New York City sportswriter who wrote an embellished biography of Ness using information provided by Ness himself) and Paul Robsky (one of the real Untouchables). Why the movie producers would provide a statement implying a credible degree of attention to actual history when The Untouchables is so factually perverse makes no sense. Ironically, twisting the Ness-Capone story wasn't necessary; had The Untouchables traced the true course of events detail-by-detail, the finished product would not only have been historically faithful, but every bit as startling and brutal—and appealing to the general viewer—as the fabricated version!

During the final moments of The Untouchables, a reporter rushes to ask Ness what his plans might be now that the Capone file was closed. With a wry smile, Ness quips, "I think I'll have a drink," then coolly strolls off amidst the closing credits. (History? Doubtful. Hollywood? Absolutely.) While the writers probably intended the line to be a clever wink at all the danger and suspense the hero had selflessly endured in the name of justice, the reply of the movie-character Ness is oddly prophetic to what actually lay ahead for the real-life Ness after the Capone affair.

Select the best response for each item according to information learned by viewing The Untouchables, as well as through lecture and assigned reading.
  1. All of the following were Presidents during the 1920s except:
    1. Woodrow Wilson
    2. Warren G. Harding
    3. Calvin Coolidge
    4. Herbert Hoover

  2. Throughout the decade of the Roaring Twenties, America experienced:
    1. sharply increased immigration
    2. strong pro-business spirit
    3. world war
    4. relapse in the feminist movement

  3. Prohibition was provided for by the:
    1. Eighteenth Amendment
    2. Lever Act
    3. Twenty-first Amendment
    4. Volstead Act

  4. Prohibition was generally supported by all of the following groups except:
    1. urban businessmen
    2. nativists
    3. religious fundamentalists
    4. rural inhabitants, especially in the South and West

  5. The first state to implement alcohol prohibition was:
    1. Colorado
    2. Indiana
    3. Maine
    4. Rhode Island

  6. Clubs and bars where alcoholic drinks were "secretly" served during the era of Prohibition were called:
    1. hoovervilles
    2. cotton gins
    3. honky-tonks
    4. speakeasies

  7. All of the following factors made enforcement of Prohibition difficult except:
    1. reluctance on the part of the general populace to fully embrace the idea of no alcoholic consumption
    2. dishonest policemen and Prohibition Bureau agents
    3. the 1926 Supreme Court case of Anheuser-Busch Company v. United States Department of Treasury which determined that beer did not fall under the federal government's "scientific definition of the alcoholic content of an intoxicating beverage"
    4. popular politicians who openly ignored alcohol sanctions

  8. The term applied to any person who engaged in the illegal manufacture, transport, or sale of liquor is:
    1. barfly
    2. bootlegger
    3. flapper
    4. southpaw

  9. Eliot Ness's special team of agents was called the "Untouchables" because:
    1. time and time again they miraculously survived feverish machine gun battles with Al Capone's gangsters
    2. since they were handpicked by Ness to pursue Al Capone, they were considered unavailable for any other law enforcement duties until Capone was behind bars
    3. even though they were working on the side of law and order, most of them were former gangsters and convicts
    4. they steadfastly refused to turn soft in the face of bribes offered by Al Capone

  10. Al Capone was eventually imprisoned on charges of:
    1. fraud
    2. manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol
    3. racketeering
    4. income tax evasion

  11. Of the following lines spoken by Eliot Ness/Kevin Costner in The Untouchables, the statement the real Ness most certainly did not make was:
    1. "I'll tell you exactly how I feel about Prohibition: it is the law of the land" (to a group of newspaper reporters)
    2. "Mrs. Ness, I think your husband just became the man who got Al Capone" (to his wife)
    3. "If you want to take your picture, take it now" (to a newspaper photographer)
    4. "Federal agents—you're under arrest for violations of the Volstead Act" (to some warehouse workers during a raid)

  12. The man responsible for compiling most of the evidence that led to Al Capone's conviction was:
    1. Smedley Butler
    2. Elmer Irey
    3. Andrew Mellon
    4. Eliot Ness

  13. All of the following were effects of Prohibition in America except:
    1. growth of organized crime
    2. per capita reduction in alcohol consumption
    3. increased lawlessness and general disrespect for the law
    4. rise in divorce rates among middle class couples

  14. In retrospect, Prohibition can be evaluated as a/an:
    1. moderately successful venture that was well-planned, adequately funded, and administered effectively
    2. failed attempt to legislate morality and values
    3. overall success because it significantly cut alcohol use
    4. grievous miscalculation on the part of the federal government that a general ban on liquor would be wholeheartedly supported and self-regulated by a large majority of the populace

  15. The person who referred to Prohibition as a "noble experiment" was:
    1. Ernest Hemingway
    2. Calvin Coolidge
    3. Herbert Hoover
    4. Eliot Ness

  16. According to Al Capone's business card, he was employable as a/an:
    1. used furniture salesman
    2. interior decorator
    3. accountant
    4. private detective

  17. Of the following 1920s events, the one that happened first was:
    1. Gutzon Borglum was commissioned by South Dakota officials to design and supervise a massive carving of American heroes atop Mount Rushmore
    2. the first Miss America Pageant was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey
    3. the construction of Yankee Stadium, the most grandiose sports arena since the Colosseum in Rome
    4. Pittsburgh's KDKA, the first commercial radio station, went on the air

  18. Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Bob Meusel, and Babe Ruth comprised the so-called:
    1. "Cotton Club"
    2. "Murderers' Row"
    3. "Untouchables"
    4. "Ohio Gang"

  19. The female suffragist who advocated the use of birth control methods to curb poverty and distress in poor communities, which she attributed to large families, was:
    1. Edna Staley
    2. Carrie Chapman Catt
    3. Jeanette Rankin
    4. Margaret Sanger

  20. The rise of xenophobia during the 1920s was most evident in the:
    1. Sacco-Vanzetti trial
    2. Valentine's Day massacre
    3. Scopes case
    4. Harlem Renaissance

  21. F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel that portrays wealthy people leading hopelessly empty lives amidst gilded surroundings is:
    1. The Age of Innocence
    2. An American Tragedy
    3. Main Street
    4. The Great Gatsby

  22. Jazz, the most popular form of dancing music during the 1920s, originated in:
    1. New York City
    2. Chicago
    3. Kansas City
    4. New Orleans

  23. All of the following situations are portrayed accurately in The Untouchables except:
    1. the extreme caution Eliot Ness and his men were forced to exercise as they operated in the midst of Chicago's corrupt police force
    2. Eliot Ness's unwavering dedication to his mission of bringing Al Capone to justice
    3. the federal government's lack of manpower commitment to properly enforce Prohibition
    4. Eliot Ness's thorough compilation of evidence proving income tax evasion as well as Prohibition violations against Al Capone

  24. In a word, the importance of Eliot Ness with respect to American history can most correctly be categorized as:
    1. mythical
    2. instrumental
    3. legendary
    4. inspirational

  25. The film The Untouchables is best described as a/an:
    1. poorly-researched story based on actual people and events
    2. entirely fictional "cops and robbers" tale as far removed from the truth as Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
    3. biographical sketch of Eliot Ness's career as a federal law enforcement agent
    4. fairly accurate account of the Al Capone and Eliot Ness saga

Choose one of the following. Your response should be 3-5 typed, double-spaced pages and include a list of sources used (minimum of two required).
  1. Explain what President Warren G. Harding meant by "normalcy." To what extent did Harding's administration and that of Calvin Coolidge approximate this ideal?

  2. The 1920s was a period of tension between new and changing attitudes on the one hand and traditional values and nostalgia on the other. What factors led to the tension between old and new and in what ways was the tension manifested?

  3. Examine the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, nativists, and religious fundamentalists during the 1920s and discuss their impact on American society during that time.

"[Prohibition is] a great social and economic experiment,
noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose."

Click here to learn more about Prohibition during the 1920s.