In real life, Al Capone, knowing that killing a Prohibition agent would only lead to more trouble than he or his outfit could handle, actually had a non-violence order to his men concerning the Untouchables. While Capone did repeatedly attempt to buy them off, he never once attempted to kill Ness, nor any of his men.
An envelope is dropped on the desk of Eliot Ness in one scene. It is assumed to be a bribe, but the amount inside is never revealed. In real life, Al Capone promised Eliot Ness that two $1,000 bills would be on his desk every Monday morning if he turned a blind eye to his bootlegging activities (an enormous amount of money then; more than $30,000 today). Ness refused the bribe, and in later years struggled with money. He died almost broke at the age of fifty-four.
Robert De Niro insisted on wearing the same style of silk underwear that Al Capone wore, even though it would never be seen on-camera. The producers, knowing De Niro's reputation as a method actor, gave in.
Brian De Palma met Bob Hoskins over a drink in Los Angeles to discuss playing Al Capone if De Palma's first choice of Robert De Niro were to pass on the role. Since De Niro had not yet said yes, Hoskins told De Palma he would do it, if he were available. When De Niro finally took the role, De Palma sent Hoskins a thank you note, and the studio paid Hoskins, who had a "pay or play" deal, twenty thousand pounds sterling. Hoskins called De Palma and asked if there were any more movies he did not want him to be in.
In the original script, the final gunfight had Eliot Ness and George Stone battling Capone gunmen on a stopped train. Brian De Palma conceived the gunfight on the steps in Chicago's Union Station when Paramount Pictures decided that staging the scene, and finding a 1930s period train would be too expensive.
According to director Brian De Palma and producer Art Linson in the DVD documentary, it was Sir Sean Connery's idea to film the "blood oath" scene between Ness and Malone in a Catholic church. Originally, it was going to take place on the street (in the same scene that follows the church scene). Connery felt that a church would be the only "safe" place in Chicago where the two characters would make such a commitment to fight Capone.
Eliot Ness and his role in bringing down Al Capone had been completely forgotten at the time of his death in 1957. No Chicago newspaper carried news of his passing. His heroic reputation only began with the posthumous publication of the Untouchables book he had co-written with Oscar Fraley, and the television series adapted from it.
This movie portrays Eliot Ness as being happily married, and his wife having a daughter and a baby son. In real life, Eliot Ness had been married three times (he was married to his first wife Edna Staley during the time frame where he was pursuing Al Capone), and the only child he ever had was an adopted son.
There was originally a different ending for the movie. It was to have been a scene with the camera shooting a close-up of Robert De Niro's face as it is being warmed up for a shave. Then, the camera would have pulled up while still focused on Capone to show the audience that he has reporters around him, much like the opening scene of the movie, but this time, he is in his jail cell.
The character of Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) was loosely based on Frank Wilson, the IRS agent who worked to indict Capone for income tax evasion. Wilson had been working on this project since 1928, and had next to nothing to do with Ness and the Untouchables in real life. Wilson was not killed by Capone, though Capone reportedly placed a contract on his life, which was never carried out.
One point about Capone's trial that never showed up in the movie. He attempted to plea bargain before the trial, but the judge wouldn't hear of it. He did attempt to bribe the jury, and when the judge found out, he promptly switched the juries.
Brian De Palma took the idea of the train station scene from the Russian movie Battleship Potemkin (1925). The sailors who get caught in the crossfire in this movie are a tribute to Potemkin. So is the baby carriage rolling down the steps, which was parodied in other movies, including Woody Allen's Bananas (1971) and Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), which also featured Robert De Niro.
Sir Sean Connery turned up to the shoot in his golf clothes. They did a close open, and Sean was dismissed for the day. He came back after a full day of golf, acted for five minutes then went to go home. Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith grabbed him after the scene and said that was "very clever of you, you just got back from golf, turn up for five minutes and do your scene, and that's it." Connery turned to them and said, "this is not my first barbecue."
Fashion icon Giorgio Armani, who provided the costumes for this movie, told Brian De Palma that he should cast Don Johnson as Eliot Ness. Johnson wore Armani on television every week on Miami Vice (1984), and Armani called Johnson his "male muse".
DIRECTOR TRADEMARK (Brian De Palma): (filming technique): The close-up of Malone and Ness in the blood oath scene was shot using a split focus diopter. This is a half convex glass in front of the actual lens to make one half nearsighted and the other farsighted. The result is foreground and background (here both actors) are in focus. The effect can only be achieved when there is nearly no actors nor camera movement, and is often used to create more mystery. Brian De Palma has used this in many of his movies.
When Ness and the bailiff remove Frank Nitti from the courtroom, on account of Nitti wearing a concealed firearm, Nitti produces a "permit" in the form of a "carte blanche" ("please extend to the holder of this card, Frank Nitti, all courtesies", et cetera) signed by Chicago Mayor William Thompson, this is a reference to the real relationship, described by Wikipedia.com as a "mutually profitable" one (amongst other things, Capone supported Thompson's election campaigns), that existed between Capone and the Mayor.
When Agent George Stone is introduced, Malone finds out that his real name is Giuseppe Petri, and he was born in Italy. In Italian, Giuseppe Petri can be literally translated as "Joseph Stone". Only the filmmakers know why "George" was chosen, because it translates into "Giorgio" in Italian.
Paramount Pictures made this movie because they still held the filming rights to Eliot Ness' autobiography, which they used to produce the television series The Untouchables (1959). Originally, Paramount Pictures intended to make this, like so many other movies since, as a big-screen adaptation of a television series. However, director Brian De Palma, producer Art Linson, and screenwriter David Mamet all felt that they didn't want to adapt the series, so they took their own dramatic license with the story, and the true events that inspired it, in order to make what they felt would be a good big screen epic. (This is according to Brian De Palma and Art Linson in the DVD "Making of" documentary).
When Capone's men are trying to smuggle the bookkeeper (Jack Kehoe) out of town, they are going to put him on board a train to Miami. In real life, Al Capone owned a luxurious mansion in Miami. Presumably, in the movie, the mob was going to have the bookkeeper hide in Capone's mansion.
Don Johnson was offered the role of Eliot Ness, but declined. Kevin Costner, a good friend of Johnson, later accepted the part. Johnson said he congratulated Costner on getting the role, never telling him he was offered the part first until several years later, in order to not offend Costner, nor steal any thunder away from his acclaim. Costner and Johnson co-starred in Tin Cup (1996).
When early trailers began screening in theaters prior to release, they used the music from Ennio Morricone's Academy Award nominated score for The Mission (1986), as Morricone's score for this movie was not ready yet. Robert De Niro starred in both movies.
The radio show listened to by Eliot Ness and his wife early in the movie is an actual episode of Amos and Andy. In the episode, they have just bought a clunker for their new cab company from their friend George "Kingfish" Stevens.
Although he has appeared in well over sixty movies (eventually becoming one of the world's most famous movie stars), and has won numerous movie awards (including three Golden Globes) during a highly successful career that spanned more than fifty years, his role in this movie resulted in Sir Sean Connery's only Academy Award win (for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, bestowed on him during the 1988 ceremony). It was also his only Academy Award nomination. As Sir Sean Connery officially retired from acting in 2006, his Oscar for this movie is likely to be his only one awarded for a specific acting role.
The point-of-view scene where the camera enters the hotel, takes the elevator up to Capone's penthouse and enters his bedroom was meant to be symbolic of the F.B.I.'s attempts to bring Capone to justice. All of the exterior shots are crimson red until you enter Capone's bedroom, where, by contrast, everything is very bright and colorful, symbolizing that Capone is surrounded by blood, but none of it actually touches him.
Valentino Cimo, who plays Capone's bodyguard Frank Rio (the one Ness punches in the nose and shoots at the beginning of the rail station shoot out) later went on to reprise the role of Rio in the syndicated series The Untouchables (1993).
Another point that the movie didn't cover. Before Capone's trial, he had sent hitmen to kill the prosecutor on his case. When he realized the trouble this would cause, he called them off. The prosecutor had constant police and federal protection before and after the trial.
According to Brian De Palma in the "Making of" documentary, Mel Gibson was interested in playing Eliot Ness, but couldn't commit to the role, because he was already signed to a Warner Brothers project that was scheduled at the same time as this movie. The Warner Brothers project was Lethal Weapon (1987).
The train station scene was parodied in Woody Allen's Bananas (1971), Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994). It was done in this movie as an homage to Battleship Potemkin (1925).
The first liquor raid was shot on LaSalle Street with period cars and extras. Ness and his men exit the Rookery Building (between Adams and Quincy) and enter the City National Bank and Trust at 208 S. LaSalle. The building in the background (with the clock) is the Chicago Board of Trade, located at LaSalle and Jackson.
Mission: Impossible (1996) and this movie are not only Brian De Palma's highest grossing movies, but both are adaptations of television series distributed by Paramount Pictures. Furthermore, Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to the source series of both movies from Desilu Productions.
In the scene at the bridge on the Canadian border, Elliot Ness is seen watching the arrival of Capone's men through a window inside a log cabin with binoculars. The capital letters "EN" can be seen carved into the wall on the outside of the cabin.
After enjoying a successful collaboration on this movie, David Mamet and Art Linson, as writer and producer, respectively, decided to reunite to make a film noir-caper movie. The result was Heist (2001), a smart, complex ensemble about a masterfully-minded gold robbery.
At the end of the film, reporter Scoop asks Ness what he'll do if they repeal prohibition, to which he replies, "I think I'll have a drink." Eliot Ness later did become a heavy drinker and even got involved in a alcohol-related traffic accident.
Director Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro previously collaborated on the De Palma directed movies Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), and the De Palma co-directed movie The Wedding Party (1969), all being made during De Palma's early career. Both also had contributed to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), where De Palma received a special thanks credit. De Niro appeared in all of these movies.
The railway station scene near the end of the movie was famously parodied in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994). Leslie Nielsen, playing the Ness-type character, is having a nightmare about impotence, symbolized by his inability to stop the various bad guys entering the station, since he has retired from being a cop. O.J. Simpson, playing the Stone-type character, rather than sliding and stopping the baby carriage from hitting the ground floor, catches the baby after it pops out of the carriage, and breaks out into a touchdown dance, including nearly spiking the baby until the mother rushes in and grabs him.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The scene where Al Capone (Robert De Niro) pulls out a baseball bat at a dinner party and suddenly beats to death one of his men is based on a true incident which happened on May 7, 1929. Two of Capone's most feared hitmen, Albert Anselmi and John Scalise, had hatched a plot to kill Capone and take over his gang. Capone got wind of it and invited all of his associates to a dinner party, including Anselmi and Scalise. In the middle of the party, Capone pulled out a baseball bat and battered both men to death, then shot them both in the head. A conflicting version of the story has Tony "Joe Batters" Accardo, one of Capone's hitmen, as the man who bludgeoned the traitors to death.
For the scene in which Malone is killed, Sir Sean Connery did not expect the squibs to be as explosive as they were. After the first take, Connery was taken to the hospital with dust and fake blood in his eyes.
The real Frank Nitti did not die in the manner and at the time depicted in this movie. He took over Capone's empire when Capone was sent to prison. In 1943, Nitti and other Chicago mob members were indicted for extortion. The mob leader blamed Nitti for the indictments, and told him to take responsibility for all of the charges. Fearing a lengthy prison sentence, due to his claustrophobia, Nitti drunkenly wandered to a railroad track five blocks from his house and shot himself, after missing with the first shot, in the head with a .38 caliber revolver. His real-life death was portrayed in Frank Nitti: The Enforcer (1988), which starred Anthony LaPaglia as Nitti.