Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, honest and intrepid federal agent
Chicago, September 1930
Film: The Untouchables
Release Date: June 3, 1987
Director: Brian De Palma
Costume Designer: Marilyn Vance
This blog has been focusing on a lot of bad guys lately, so let’s take a look at a good guy… at least according to the film about him.
Despite what Robert Stack and Kevin Costner’s portrayals may have you believe, Eliot Ness didn’t single-handedly stop Al Capone’s reign of terror over the city of Chicago. Even Ness’ own account paints himself as a crime-fighting pariah who overcame the odds with a tight-knit group of rogue lawmen and brought down a monster.
In real life, Ness was indeed a Bureau of Prohibition agent in Chicago. The legend of Ness’ career is told straightforward enough; he was an honest cop in a city full of the opposite, and he did put together a band of “untouchables” after refusing a mob lawyer’s bribe to look the other way. He even suffered the loss of a close friend at the hands of the gangsters, although the man killed in action was reformed former convict Frank Basile rather than a U.S. Treasury agent as shown in the film.
The film shows Ness and his band of three men (in real life, there were eleven men, all Prohibition agents) going on successful raids of breweries and stills, simultaneously discovering that Capone could be nabbed for income tax evasion. After killing about 1,200 people from the Canadian border to a Chicago train station, Ness and the last remaining “Untouchable” take Capone to court, where Ness also manages to exact revenge on brutal hitman Frank Nitti by throwing him off of a roof. Furthermore, they manage to do all of this in about one week’s time.
The only truth to the last paragraph is that Capone did indeed go to court, where he was convicted on October 17, 1931 on 5 out of 22 tax evasion charges and was sentenced to eleven years in prison. Despite being charged with 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act, all of the Volstead Act charges were dropped, making Ness’ contribution to Capone’s downfall minimal. The federal government, specifically Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, had chosen two tactics for nailing Capone: income tax evasion and Prohibition violation. Ness was given the second task while the IRS, led by Frank J. Wilson, managed to make the income tax charges stick.
Still, there’s no doubt that Ness was a successful raider. An extensive wire-tapping operation, rather than a wisdom-brewing Sean Connery, was the source, however. Ness’ honesty was rewarded after the Capone conviction when Ness was made Chief Investigator for the Chicago Prohibition Bureau. Of course, the position would only be valid for two more years as Prohibition was on its way out, but it is still a neat gig for the resume.
What’d He Wear?
Costner’s Ness wears both a Badass Longcoat and a Nice Hat throughout most of the film, making him look even more legendary as he fights crime around the city. He wears three suits in various shades of gray, but his main suit is a medium gray flannel wool three-piece suit, one of many beautiful costumes supplied to the film by Giorgio Armani. The film’s costumes, designed by Marilyn Vance, were nominated for an Academy Award.
Although the suit shares some stylistic touches with the 1980s, the fit and overall look are appropriate for 1930. The mid-section is pulled in, emphasizing the shoulders and legs to lend Ness a more athletic profile, the male equivalent of the female hourglass.
The jacket is the most ’80s part of the ensemble, with the notch lapels rolling down to the low 2-button stance, which Ness consistently wears unfastened. The shoulders are padded and the front darts help pull in Ness’s waist to contribute to the desired athletic profile of the era. The ventless rear keeps the jacket clung to Costner as well. The jacket also has a welted breast pocket and flapped hip pockets.
Ness’ vest has five buttons down the front and four welted pockets – two on the top and two on the bottom. The rear is covered in gray silk to match the lining of the jacket, and a strap across the rear adjusts the fit. The vest has notches on the bottom of both the bottom and the front.
Ness’ trousers are pleated with an era-correct high rise above his natural waist. There are no rear pockets, but the trousers have side pockets along the seams, in which Ness often places his hands. They have a generous fit through the gently flaring legs to the plain-hemmed bottoms, which have a medium break over his black leather shoes. Ness appears to be wearing black dress socks with his shoes, rather than gray socks to continue the legline into his shoes.
Ness wears two different dress shirts with his suit. The first and last times we see the suit, he wears it with a plain white button-down dress shirt with a widely-spread collar and French cuffs. He prefers to pair this shirt with a dark red silk necktie that has a beige square motif with blue squares enclosed.
The suit’s second appearance, on the climatic day of Wallace’s murder and the train station gunfight, is paired with a striped shirt. The shirt is white with thin dark blue double stripes, a moderately-spread collar, and double (French) cuffs. His tie has a dark green silk ground and a light blue and gray “splotch” pattern.
Ness wears the same cufflinks throughout the film, a pair of round gold and silver clusters. Al of his shirts have double cuffs, inferring that he may be a bit more careful about his appearance than his “working man’s” attitude might suggest. In real life, Eliot Ness was a fussy dresser without the subdued sophistication of Costner’s portrayal.
Ness, the consummate professional, is rarely seen out of his vest, so we only get a glimpse or two of the dark suspenders he wears with his suits, but when he removes his jacket, he shows off a black leather shoulder holster under his left arm with a snapped strap holding his M1911 pistol in place.
His other accessories are utilitaria, simple, and attractive, including a plain gold wedding band on his left ring finger and a classic gold rectangular watch on his left wrist. The watch has a white face with a 12:00 sub-dial and a crystallized case. It is fastened to his wrist with a black leather strap that buckles with a gold clasp.
Finally, we get to his outerwear, the aforementioned hat and coats. His hat stays the same from start to finish, a gray fedora with a thin black ribbon. This band is thinner than we’re used to seeing in period films, but photographs prove that it was indeed a fashionable to own a fedora with either a wide or a thin ribbon.
Ness’ first coat, worn on the “umbrella raid” with the corrupt Chicago cops, is a long and large light brown waterproof coat with large lapels and a 4×2-button double-breasted front. It has jetted hip pockets and raglan sleeves with tab cuffs that extend halfway around his wrists and fasten with a single button.
Ness’ second coat, his medium gray raincoat for the train station gunfight, has an even larger fit, making the concealed carry of a shotgun possible. Although it has large lapels and a 4×2-button double-breasted front like the other coat, they have very different features.
This jacket hangs from his shoulders with slightly padded shoulders down a large rain flap over his back to a long single rear vent. A half-belt in the rear fastens with a button on each side. Unlike the brown coat, this one has set-in sleeves.
The gray raincoat’s cuffs are very large, almost like the sleeve of a wizard’s robe, despite a buckle-fastening strap. This is best seen during the train station gunfight as Ness raises his shotgun to fire it one-handed, which is insanely badass.
Go Big or Go Home
Despite resisting vices like graft and drinking, he does so more because they are against the law. He even answers a reporter’s question about the end of Prohibition with a smirk, saying that he would probably have a drink to toast the end of the era.
His only real vice in the film, and a realistic one given the time period, is constant smoking. His preferred brand while going after Capone is Camel, but he mysteriously – and prominently – has a pack of Lucky Strikes in front of him when he is reading his headlines at the end.
Costner’s Ness isn’t vain, but he is important to protect his image as one of the few honest crimefighters in a vice-ridden city. Thus, it is more pride than narcissism that drives the protection of his image.
Of course, his main goal in the film is to protect good people from the forces of evil. After the first day of his new job working in tandem with the Chicago Police Department, he recognizes that he’s got some shitty bosses and co-workers and immediately sets out to do the job better himself. This sort of drive should be implemented into any man’s work, whether he’s a gun-toting federal agent or a desk-bound IT guy. The next time you complain about your boss and don’t do anything about it, remember the example that Eliot Ness set. Just don’t shoot anyone. (Unless they’re murderous gangsters.)
How to Get the Look
Just because he’s on the right side of the law doesn’t mean Ness can’t still dress fashionably. As opposed to the more colorful characters of the ’20s on this blog (like Nucky Thompson or Jay Gatsby), Ness shows off a fine example of a Prohibition-era business suit:
- Medium gray flannel wool three-piece suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted jacket with a low 2-button front, notch lapels, welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, padded shoulders, and a ventless rear
- Single-breasted vest with 5-button front, chest and hip pockets, and notched bottom
- High-waisted pleated trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms and slightly flared legs
- White long-sleeve dress shirt with large spread collars and French cuffs
- Ness also wears a similar white shirt with thin dark blue double stripes.
- Dark red silk necktie with a beige square motif (with blue enclosed squares)
- Ness’ other tie with this suit has a dark green ground and blue and gray “splotch” patterns
- Round gold and silver cluster cufflinks
- Black leather laced dress shoes
- Black dress socks
- Black leather RHD shoulder holster for a M1911-style pistol
- Gold rectangular wristwatch with a white crystal-covered face and black leather strap
- Plain gold wedding band, worn on left ring finger
- Gray felt fedora with a thin black ribbon
- Light brown long raincoat with large lapels, natural shoulders, 4×2-button double-breasted front, button-tab cuffs, and jetted pockets
- Gray long raincoat with large lapels, padded shoulders, 4×2-button double-breasted front, strap-adjusted cuffs, half-belted rear, and long single vent
Ness’ main sidearm is a 9 millimeter Star Model B in one of the last films to substitute the Spanish pistol for an actual M1911. This practice was very common during the 1960s and 1970s in films such as The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, Dillinger, and Three Days of the Condor when .45-caliber blanks were less reliable. By 1987, the Hollywood firearm industry had perfected the use of .45-caliber ammunition but The Untouchables still armed Ness with a Star Model B in the firing scenes.
IMFDB, the Internet Movie Firearms Database, has tracked down the exact Model B handled by Costner in the film.
His buddy and fellow “Untouchable” George Stone – played by Andy Garcia – also tosses Ness his backup, a nickel-plated Colt Detective Special, for the end of the train station sequence.
The Detective Special was a six-shot snubnose revolver introduced by Colt in 1927 and designed for concealed use by plainclothes police officers, most often chambered in the .38 Special police cartridge. It eventually found favor among both police and gangsters as an easily-hidden “belly gun”.
When he’s in assault mode (Ness Smash!), he carries a classic Winchester 12-gauge pump shotgun, even managing to conceal one under his large gray raincoat in the train station.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!