Eliot Ness and The Untouchables must be some of the most well-known figures related to Chicago’s prohibition era and possibly to the city itself regardless of any age. A large part of it is due to the film by Brian De Palma, which spiced up the real story with some fictitious devices and character buildups. It is safe to presume that the city’s law-enforcement agents were largely corrupt regarding the big bootlegging business under Al Capone, prior to Ness’s arrival in Chicago. And the real-life Eliot Ness did make up a team of reliable men, starting with 50 of them then reducing them until he was ultimately left with just nine. These men were called The Untouchables by the media, after Ness exposed an attempt by Capone at bribing one of his agents. James Malone played by Sean Connery in the film was killed by Capone’s agent for revenge, and the real-life Ness had a friend killed too; there were also attempts at his own life by assassins.
Connery’s character Malone was the one who told Ness that the problem was not in finding where the illegal distilleries were, because everyone knew where; it was rather to do with the determination to fight the syndicate, able to kill or reward them in return for no hassle. The actual situation must have been something like that because Ness had succeeded in seizing and bringing to justice illegal stills and breweries worth more than a million dollars in about six months. The overall action involved may have been less spectacular (though perhaps no less intriguing) than the film, however, because wire-tapping was a big part of the actual operation. In 1931 Al Capone was tried and jailed for 11 years for tax evasion, a charge that Eliot Ness led the IRS to bring against Capone, just like it is told in the film.
The real Ness in later years was frequently seen telling exaggerated versions of his deeds as a law-enforcement officer. He was not very successful at business, lost an election as mayor of Cleveland and at one time was in debt that drove him to go through jobs as a small time salesman and clerk. He is said to have been a heavy drinker around this time, not surprising because his cause with Prohibition was only a legal one. His greatest achievement was during Prohibition, which did not (and could not) last; this meant that his footsteps, however significant, would never be followed up specifically by others.
Eliot Ness and his Untouchables can be seen as victims of Prohibition, which, if not imposed in the first place, would never have festered organized crime around bootlegging, which was the most lucrative business for criminals. The loss of his friend by Capone, the energy and time spent to eliminate his activities would have been well spent on other, lasting menaces of urban areas. In today’s world, with rights to distill your own alcohol if you have the license, and all the best copper stills you could wish for readily available, you may agree that the talents of Eliot Ness and the Untouchables may have been put to better usage, not just for a film but affecting their actual lives in a much more positive way.