Mid-October 1932. The nation's attention is on the election campaign between incumbent president Herbert Hoover and his opponent Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is crippled by polio. With Prohibition still the law of the land, the government is looking for ways to denature alcohol, which legitimate manufactures need for industrial purposes (making perfumes, etc). Should the alcohol fall into the wrong hands, if it was denatured, it would be useless to bootleggers.
Eliot Ness and his Untouchables, along with top Federal agents from all over the country, attend an important meeting in Washington, DC. The Speaker says that since the beginning of Prohibition, all alcohol produced under government license has had one of various denaturants added to it: pyridine, methanol, etc. But the Underworld has always found a way to renature the alcohol. The Speaker is happy to announce that the government chemists in his Department have finally come up with a denaturant for which there is no Antidote. This is good news for Eliot Ness and his men.
It's bad news for the king of illegal alcohol in Chicago: Wally Baltzer. Right now, he's putting pressure on his partner and head chemist, Max Frimmel, to find the Antidote. Baltzer had been buying millions of dollars of legal, denatured alcohol for his phony front, a so-called asbestos factory in Chicago; renaturing the alcohol had been easy. But this month,since Baltzer supplies booze to Nitti's speakeasies, Baltzer will have to smuggle in the legitimate, costly stuff from Canada-- which will cost him a fortune. Baltzer grouses to Frimmel, "And we can't charge Nitti any more for the real stuff than we do for the rotgut!" If this keeps up, he'll go bankrupt in a hurry.
Max Frimmel talks to Russell Shield, his top chemist (who is crippled and walks with the aid of crutches), and his 2 assistant chemists. Nitti's speaks stay open. Ness and his men continue their raids for 2 weeks; they keep looking for the source of the booze. Finally, a raid on a joint by Lake Michigan tips them off: amid the packing material in the crates of shipped whiskey, someone had accidentally left a Toronto newspaper. Later, Ness confiscates a $1-million whiskey shipment that Baltzer was having sent in by railroad from Canada.
October 20. Baltzer gets the bad news about the raid, while watching his moll, nightclub singer Lorna Willis, do her act. Meanwhile, chemist Villon discovers the Antidote; Russell Shield goes to his apartment. Villon gives him the formula; Russell gives him a broken bottle in the throat. Later, Villon's body is discovered by the landlady; she phones the cops, and Capt. Dorset calls Ness. The landlady says Villon was a friend of Russell, who lives in an apartment just down the hall; Ness questions him, and Russell gives him some false info.
At the Montmartre club, Nitti's plenty sore. He snaps at Baltzer, "I'd offer you a drink, Wally-- only there's nothin' to drink," shaking an empty bottle upside-down. Nitti goes on, "You know the story about the shoemaker's kids not havin' any shoes? But my speaks not havin' any whiskey-- THAT bothers me!" Baltzer says nobody has whiskey. Nitti snaps, "Now, what'd you say for, that to make me feel better? Cause that don't make me feel better! I don't feel better until I stop losing $200,000 every week. I want booze, Wally." Baltzer makes excuses and says Nitti doesn't understand. Nitti: "You BET I don't understand. And when I don't understand, I get mad. And when I get mad, things happen to people I get mad AT. Understand? I want booze. You're my supply, I want booze."
Ness and Lee Hobson go to Russell's apartment and find out he's flown the coop. Baltzer goes to the lab; Russell announces he has the Antidote-- he also announces that from now on, his is a full partner; Baltzer, desperate to get renatured booze, agrees. Next day, Russell goes to Ness and tells him his friend Villon was a chemist working for some hoods (Russell doesn't say that he is, too; he acts innocent). Russell gives Ness the renaturant. Ness contacts the Department in Washington, DC, to take added measures.
October 23. Baltzer takes his new partner Russell and his old partner Frimmel, along with 3 of his boys, to his nightclub. Baltzer's moll Lorna, the voluptuous nightclub singer, is doing her number. Ambitious Russell ogles Lorna, who was out of his league until now. After the club is closed, Russell talks to Lorna alone. Russell pours vodka and vinegar into a large brandy glass, and heats the concoction over a candle-- he hands it to her, and she is amazed when she smells it, saying "It's perfume."
Russell asks Lorna to marry him; she is unimpressed until he tells her he will be a millionaire in a few weeks. Later, Baltzer, Frimmel and a lackey named Freddie ambush Russell; they think he has a bottle of the renaturant on him, but it's just tap water. Russell tells Baltzer he can't trust him; he won't renature the alcohol unless he kills Frimmel. As Frimmel runs, Russell sarcastically yells, "Run, Max, Run! You've got 2 good legs-- use them!" Freddie sticks a shiv into Frimmel.
November 7, 1932. The Department in Washington, DC, orders another chemical added to all their alcohol; the Underworld already had a renaturant for this chemical, but its addition at this time would confuse and delay them. That same night, Capt. Dorset has Ness look at a body they fished out of Lake Michigan: Max Frimmel, weighted down with chains. Ness knows Frimmel worked for Baltzer. Ness also finds out that Russell Shield is a chemist. Baltzer gets nervous, and offers to sell his business to Nitti; Nitti, seeing how he could make even more money by being his own supplier, sets up a meet.
Next night, at the Montmartre club, Baltzer tells Nitti he settled with Russell for $500,000. Baltzer gives Nitti the names of companies who will sell him the alcohol, the names of people to contact, and the deed to the factory; Nitti gives him a leather case with $750,000. But then Russell shows up and tells Nitti the formula isn't worth anything, the government added another denaturant. Nitti sneers at Baltzer, "What kind of a double-cross is this?" A phone call verifies this. Nitti tells his boys to get rid of Baltzer. Nitti smiles at Russell, and says, "We'll make good partners. I like a boy who looks after my interests." Nitti, in a generous mood, lets Russell keep the money he was gonna give Baltzer too.
Russell goes to Lorna; he gives her a huge diamond ring. Ness and his men show up to arrest Russell-- for the murder of Villon, and complicity in the murders of Frimmel and Baltzer. Ness says he'll get the electric chair. Russell pleads that he's handicapped; he became a criminal, but asks, "What else could I be?" Ness says, "I'll tell you what you could have been." He holds up a newspaper; the headline: "Roosevelt by Landslide!" Ness says, "For one thing-- you could have been elected president of the United States."