The Untouchables: Billy Drago’s White Suit as Frank Nitti
Billy Drago as Frank Nitti, ruthless Chicago Outfit enforcer
Chicago, Fall 1930 to Spring 1931
Film: The Untouchables
Release Date: June 3, 1987
Director: Brian De Palma
Costume Designer: Marilyn Vance
Wardrobe: Giorgio Armani
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Eighty years ago today on the morning of March 19, 1943, 57-year-old Chicago resident Frank Nitti enjoyed breakfast with Toni, his third wife whom he had married the previous May. He began drinking heavily and, after Toni left for church, Nitti walked five blocks to a local railroad yard in North Riverside, where he attempted to shoot himself in the head. The first shot merely perforated his hat and the second wounded him in the jaw, but the third shot hit its mark as the inebriated mob boss slumped to his death.
Loosely based on the end of Al Capone’s infamous reign of the Chicago underworld (and more directly based on the 1950s TV show of the same name), Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables retains a few basic details of Capone’s fall from power, including real figures on both sides of the law like self-aggrandizing Prohibition agent Eliot Ness and the vicious mobster who would ultimately succeed Capone as leader of the Chicago Outfit: Frank Nitti, chillingly portrayed by the late, great Billy Drago.
Nitti’s ascension to power isn’t depicted in The Untouchables, which instead fictionalizes his quick descent from the top of a building thanks to the long arm of justice… or at least Kevin Costner’s long baseball-pitching arm as Mr. Ness. Unlike the cinematic Nitti who meets his cathartic end several flights below, the real Nitti lived to see his former boss Capone behind bars before he assumed his leadership of the Outfit, consolidating power as Prohibition ended in 1933.
However, not all was well for the new boss, who was now facing another prison stretch as the result of an indictment indicating the Outfit’s role extorting major Hollywood movie studios. Still mourning his second wife’s death and possibly diagnosed with terminal cancer, the depressed Nitti despaired at the idea of spending yet another claustrophobic stretch in prison, leading to his fateful march to the railroad tracks eighty years ago today.
The Untouchables capitalizes on Nitti’s real-life nickname as “The Enforcer” by depicting him as Capone’s chief hitman—a killer called in to remove high-stakes enemies like Ness’ “Untouchable” officers. There’s some basis in reality here as the real Nitti had started as one of Capone’s bodyguards and “button men”. However, Nitti’s business acumen made him more valuable to the operational side of the Outfit’s hierarchy, and he was elevated from “dirty work” to running Capone’s liquor smuggling and distribution network that pipelined whisky from Canada into Chicago speakeasies.
(For a more accurate depiction of Nitti’s duties and demeanor, watch Stanley Tucci’s brief but charismatic performance in Road to Perdition. Coincidentally, Road to Perdition also featured a cut scene featuring Al Capone played by Anthony LaPaglia… who also portrayed Nitti in a less-than-great 1988 made-for-TV biopic.)
The Untouchables still depicts Nitti as Capone’s ostensible second-in-command by the time of Capone’s trial, though it’s still in more of an enforcement capacity, as signaled by the gun that Ness spots under Nitti’s jacket in court. The offense results in Ness and the bailiff escorting Nitti outside, where Ness borrows Nitti’s matchbook and sees a scribbled address that informs our hero that the white-suited psychopath had killed his friends. In the ensuing chase, Ness pursuits Nitti to the rooftop, where Nitti finds out that there’s a limit to how much our stalwart Mr. Ness will enforce to the letter of the law.
What’d He Wear?
We know the movie begins in mid-September 1930, which should give you an immediate reason to distrust Frank Nitti… who can you trust that would wear so much white after labor day? (You may also be dissuaded from trusting him as he knowingly plants a bomb that kills a little girl.)
I doubt that the real Frank Nitti—with all of his bookish business sense—would have outfitted himself in such flashy tailoring, but I appreciate that The Untouchables‘ prolific costume designer Marilyn Vance dressed him in accordance with the movie’s reimagining of his character, his bleached linen suit recalling the pale horse of Revelation (who personified death) as hell follows Nitti through Chicago.
“I wore a white suit in the movie because we thought of him as the angel of death,” Billy Drago explained in a 2013 interview with Owen Williams, also sharing this interesting anecdote from his first day of filming: “The first scene we shot was where the little kid gets blown up. So I’m outside waiting on the street where they’re lighting, and some older woman comes up with a little boy and asks for a picture, so I put my arm around the little boy and all that. And the next day in the newspaper I found that the picture was there! And the little boy was like Nitti’s great great grandson.”
Though Armani’s involvement in The Untouchables has often been exaggerated, three lead characters—Frank Nitti, Eliot Ness, and Oscar Wallace—were regularly dressed in Armani suits, while most of the rest of Armani’s donated suits were issued to extras or worn in the scene featuring Capone’s tuxedoed mooks. (You can read more about the costume and wardrobe credit clarifications in this contemporary article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.)
Nitti’s ivory linen three-piece suit follows a conventional design for the 1930s, when even summer suits were often designed with double-breasted jackets that closed over waistcoats, a configuration that may seem stifling to modern dressers but remained a standard through the “golden age” of menswear across the first half of the 20th century, helped by the quality of fabric during the era.
Nitti’s suit boasts a roomy cut, contemporary both to early 1930s gangsterdom as well as the late ’80s when The Untouchables was released, though even this fullness isn’t enough to keep his holstered pistol from showing under the left side of his double-breasted jacket when buttoned.
The jacket features the traditional double-breasted 6×2-button arrangement, though its lower stance shows a concession to ’80s styling that likely reflects the involvement of Giorgio Armani, who understandably would have cared more about designing for contemporary fashionability over historical integrity. The wide shoulders are padded and roped at the sleeveheads—all consistent with ’30s tailoring—and the sleeves are finished with three vestigial buttons on each cuff. Full through the chest, the jacket is shaped with front darts to slightly taper at the waist and through the long, ventless skirt.
Nitti dresses the left peak lapel with a squared pin, framed in ornate gold with a gold shield-shaped center, connected to a long gold chain that hangs low and may connect to something tucked into his welted breast pocket—possibly a key, a permanent match, or a watch as we don’t see Nitti wearing any other timepiece. The jacket also has flapped hip pockets aligned with the lowest row of buttons.
The suit’s matching waistcoat (vest) has five cream-colored buttons matching those on the jacket, fastening appropriately high over the chest and with a notched bottom. The waistcoat has four welted pockets and an adjustable strap across the lower back.
With his jacket removed, we also see Nitti’s shoulder rig, a self-suspended system made of stiff black leather with the holster under his left armpit (for a right-handed draw) while a support strap loops around his right shoulder to keep it in place, without any of the lower fastening straps often seen on shoulder holsters for full-sized pistols.
The double reverse-pleated trousers rise appropriately high to Billy Drago’s natural waistline, concealing the top of the trousers under the closed waistcoat though the action of the scene shows that the trousers are rigged with belt loops that go unused. Instead, Nitti wears a set of ivory knitted suspenders (braces) with gold-finished adjusters. Suspenders are often considered preferable to belts when wearing three-piece suits as they keep the trousers in place without the telltale bulge that a belt buckle can create under a waistcoat.
The trousers have vertical jetted side pockets positioned between the rearward pleat and the side seams, and the set-in back pockets are covered with scalloped flaps. The fit remains full and roomy through the legs, down to the plain-hemmed bottoms.
For Capone’s court appearance, Nitti breaks up the monotony of his all-white suit with a white cotton shirt patterned in double sets of blue stripes. Consistent with Nitti’s fussy sartorialism, the shirt has a pinned point collar and double (French) cuffs, all with gold hardware—a gold safety-style collar pin and polished gold rectangular cuff links with narrow bronze bars in the center.
Nitti’s off-white ties often echoed his suit, including the cream-colored grenadine woven silk tie for the opening bar-bombing scene, best seen in the image at the top of this post. During the courtroom-to-rooftop sequence, he wears an ivory silk tie with a tonal paisley weave.
Even as the action stretches into the fall, Nitti continues primarily wearing the summer-friendly Panama hat, a contextually appropriate pairing with an off-white linen suit. Made from a light natural straw, Nitti’s hat features the uniquely shaped “optimo crown”, a classic Panama hat style recognizable for its raised ridge from front to back across the otherwise flat top. The hat also has a narrow black grosgrain band around the base.
Nitti almost always wears his Panama hat, except for the fateful night he stakes out 1634 Racine. For this, he wears an ivory felt fedora with a matching grosgrain band.
Nitti also wears a topcoat made from—you guessed it—off-white linen, in a cream color just a shade warmer than his suit. A lightweight linen coat isn’t going to do much to keep its wearer warm in the Windy City, though it would presumably conceal a Tommy gun when spiriting away from a crime scene… as well as granting Nitti a “badass longcoat”.
The knee-length coat follows the same roomy design as his suit jacket, configured with a 6×2-button double-breasted front and broad peak lapels. The voluminous set-in sleeves are plain at the cuff, sans any buttons or straps, and there is a large patch-style pocket over each hip.
Rather than wearing all-white shoes, Nitti opts for sporty spectator shoes in black-and-white calf leather. These cap-toe oxfords have white vamps while the toe-caps, lace panels, heel counters, and outsoles are all black. This snappy shoe style had a rakish reputation during the era, also known as “co-respondent shoes” for their association with the third-party co-respondents in English divorce cases.
Though the full break of his trouser bottoms often cover the tops of his shoes, we do ultimately see that he wears cream-colored socks that tonally continue the leg line of his trousers into his shoes.
Most of the cops and crooks in The Untouchables are armed with 1911-style pistols. However, rather than the historically accurate .45-caliber Colt M1911 and M1911A1 series, The Untouchables joins that wide fraternity of films made from the 1960s through the ’80s that used the Star Model B pistol, a Spanish-made clone of the 1911 chambered for 9x19mm Parabellum ammunition.
The Basque small arms manufacturer Star Bonifacio Echeverria, S.A. introduced its Modelo B pistol in the late 1920s, shortly after John Browning had updated the M1911A1 design to shorten the trigger, arch the mainspring housing, widen the front sight, and lengthen the grip safety spur while shortening the hammer spur.
Visually distinguished by an external extractor on the right side of the slide as well as the lack of the 1911’s traditional grip safety, the Star Model B is otherwise a serviceable substitute for the M1911A1 from an era when Hollywood armorers encountered difficulty in converting 1911s to effectively cycle blank .45 ACP ammunition. The replacement can be prominently seen in scores of movies including The Wild Bunch (1969), The Getaway (1972), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and even Pulp Fiction (1994), though the latter allows the Model B to portray itself (rather than a .45-caliber 1911) when Samuel L. Jackson refers to it as “Mr. Nine-millimeter.”
While the conservative-suited “Untouchables” are all armed with blued Model B pistols, the white-suited Nitti carries a bright nickel-plated Star Model B that extends his sartorial flashiness to his choice of firearms. He carries the Model B in a shoulder holster under his suit jacket—though not concealed enough to evade Eliot Ness’ eye—and he keeps a spare magazine in his trouser pocket.
For high-priority hits, like a legendary Untouchable, Nitti arms himself with a Thompson submachine gun. This distinctive firearm has been immortalized as “the gun that made the ’20s roar” and the “Chicago typewriter”, the latter specifically regarding its use in the Windy City beer wars waged by Capone and his enemies.
Nitti specifically uses the classic “gangster” configuration of the Thompson, either the M1921AC or the M1928, distinguished by an angled wooden foregrip with finger-shaped cutouts, Cutts compensator on the muzzle, knurled bolt handle atop the receiver, and the adjustable Lyman Model 55B rear sight, as well as the round drum magazines that could carry—depending on size—either 50 or 100 rounds of powerful .45 ACP ammunition, fired at a rate of up to 800 rounds per minute.
As the Thompson became more widely adopted by the U.S. military leading up to and during World War II, the design was simplified from the iconic M1921AC and M1928 configurations, resulting in the dressed-down M1 and M1A1 Thompson variants that were considered easier (and less expensive) to produce and more ultimately functional for combat.
How to Get the Look
You’ve got to hand it to Frank Nitti* for being such an unapologetic sartorial individualist, wearing all white all year, regardless of seasonality. Representing Al Capone’s “angel of death” in Chicago, he wreaks havoc while layered in ivory linen three-piece suit and matching coat, topped by a Panama hat and detailed in gold accents from his collar pin and lapel chain to his shining cuff links.
- Ivory-white linen suit:
- Double-breasted 6×2-button jacket with peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 5-button waistcoat with four welted pockets, notched bottom, and adjustable back strap
- Double reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, straight jetted side pockets, flapped back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White (with blue double stripes) cotton shirt with gold-pinned collar and squared double/French cuffs
- Gold rectangular cuff links with bronzed center bars
- Ivory tonal-paisley silk tie
- Ivory knitted silk suspenders with gold-toned adjusters
- Black-and-white calf leather cap-toe spectator oxfords
- Cream socks
- White straw “optimo crown” Panama hat with black grosgrain band
- Cream linen knee-length topcoat with peak lapels, 6×2-button double-breasted front, large patch-style hip pockets, and plain cuffs
- Black leather shoulder holster
- Gold-framed lapel pin with gold chain
*Speaking only for Drago’s Nitti, of course. Regarding the real-life mobster Frank Nitti, you do not, under any circumstances, “gotta hand it to him”.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Come on, Mr. Treasury Man… arrest me!
Great article regarding one of my favorite films!
Your comment “who can you trust that would wear so much white after labor day?” reminds me of another of my favorite movies, Chinatown. Set in September 1937 – as evidenced by the calendar behind Duffy in the scene with the Mrs. Mulwray impostor as well as the newspaper Jake reads in the barber shop – it seems that the costume designer, Anthea Sylbert, may have been sending a subtle sartorial signal with Jake’s choice of a cream suit after Labor Day.
The choice of costume as character introduction foreshadows Lt Escobar’s remark later in the film, “You’re a little behind the times, Jake.” In fact, Jake is just a little behind throughout the entire movie.
Your top image brings something into sharp focus that’s always jumped out at me: the collar is HUGE compared to Drago’s slender neck, and it reminds me of periods in my life when I was between shirts while losing large amounts of weight. Considering how much attention was paid to detail in other characters I wonder if Drago similarly dropped a few pounds immediately prior to/while filming or if he asked for a bigger shirt to increase his ease of movement?
A very sharp but dangerous hombre, in both real life and on screen. A book I read some time ago claimed that Nitti and Sam Giancana were the real power figures of the Capone mob. It also mentioned that his empire boomed after Capone was jailed as Nitti and Giancana didn’t have to cope with their boss’s paranoia and insanity. I’d let this man wear whatever he wanted – he had a special permit from the Mayor, after all. Thanks, LuckyStrike.