Chicago had a gangster-driven underworld economy fueled by the prohibition period when alcohol consumption was illegal. The mob took advantage of Prohibition by illegally importing liquor from outside the country’s borders and selling the illicit booze at highly inflated prices to satisfy the thirsty public.
As head of the newly formed federal crime unit, Ness arrives in Chicago with the charge of bringing Capone to trial. On the day he opens his office, he is practically snubbed by the police, but gets his charge and purpose from the mother of a little girl killed in a mob bombing.
His first raid is a bust as the mob has been tipped off that it’s coming. Realizing that he can’t count on the police (who most assuredly are being bought off by the mob), he puts together his own team – an honest cop he meets after the failed attempt (Malone); an up-and-coming rookie cop, George Stone (Andy Garcia), who changed his name from Guiseppi Petri because he was ashamed of the Italian-American mobsters; and D.C. office accountant, Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).
Next thing you know, he is approached by a mob representative offering his a bribe to lay off. When he kicks him out of the office, his group is given the nickname, “the untouchables.”
De Niro is terrific as Al Capone – mean, hulking, threatening, explosive – and wields a mean baseball bat.
The team’s successes grow and begin to wear on Capone’s nerves, particularly when the head off a huge liquor sale at the U.S.-Canada border. Their sole prisoner (a Capone bookkeeper) is set to testify against Capone, who is brought up on income tax evasion charges.
But the witness and Oscar are gunned down, and the trial is in jeopardy unless they can find another key witness. Malone gets the necessary information and relays it to Ness despite being machine-gunned in his apartment. Ness and Stone now are the only remaining original members of the unit.
The bookkeeper is captured in a tense, slow-motion shootout at Union Station. The cinematography style is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock – tension-filled, conflicting decisions, a woman and her child at risk.
Finally, Capone is tried, and despite attempts to buy the jury and the judge, is sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.
The only thing missing from 1987’s The Untouchables is a montage of liquor busts, a cliché familiar in gangster-era films. It isn’t missed as it isn’t needed.
Patricia Clarkson has a small role as Ness’ wife, Catherine.
The Untouchables was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one of the biggies – Best Supporting Actor, Sean Connery.