Paramount // 1959 // 805 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // June 13th, 2007
"It was becoming clear to Eliot Ness that the fight against the organized underworld was never going to be won in a single decisive battle. It could only be won by accepting the fact of a deadly and never-ending war."
Chicagoans learned back in 1929 what many a starry-eyed romantic has found out since: St. Valentine's Day can be a real Massacre. The teacher was Al Capone, who sent his men into rival Bugs Moran's headquarters disguised as cops and gave his men the gift of lead.
As you probably know, Capone "is America's best known gangster and the single greatest symbol of the collapse of law and order in the United States during the 1920s Prohibition era," according to the Chicago Historical Society's site.
While auditors ultimately led to Capone's downfall, his nemesis in the trenches was lawman Eliot Ness. This detail might have been forgotten, except that Ness co-wrote a book about his experience, The Untouchables. Published after Ness's death, the book was adapted into a popular segment of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse in 1959. It was followed by The Untouchables, which ran four seasons on ABC. While the series dealt with a variety of other criminals, it made Capone a household name for a new generation.
How popular was The Untouchables? So much so that its pilot was recut for theatrical release as The Scarface Mob. Even before DVDs, people were willing to pay to see a TV show -- at least once in a while.
How true was the series to real life? In Court TV's Crime Library, Marilyn Bardsley notes that "there was simply not enough action and adventure" in Ness's book for a weekly series; in fact, the battle against Capone was dispatched in the pilot. She also notes a lot of liberties taken with the character of Eliot Ness. "Never mind that hard-boiled, grim character that Stack played was quite different than polished and energetic real Eliot Ness: the gangbuster hero was forever formed in American folklore," Marilyn Bardsley writes.
The Untouchables: Season 1 Volume 1 shows the genesis of that iconic character.
The Untouchables: Season 1 Volume 1 includes 14 episodes on four discs, plus the initial pilot:
"The Scarface Mob"
"Chicago 1929. By law the country was dry. By connivance with Al Capone, Chicago was wet," Walter Winchell explains in his narration. Of course, you know the rest: Eliot Ness wants to hang Chicago and Al Capone out to dry, and he assembles a team of incorruptible "Untouchables" to do it. Of course, he needs the help of a nebbish trying to impress his gorgeous, mob-connected wife.
This pilot ran as a two-part episode of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse in Spring 1959, then was released in theaters. The edit here is the theatrical version, although the TV intros by Desi Arnaz and Walter Winchell, sitting behind a typewriter, are included, as is the "Westinghouse: First With The Future" intro in classic 1950s style.
"The Empty Chair"
Barber Enrico Rossi (Nicholas Georgiade) finds a new career as an Untouchable after stopping a hit man permanently. Meanwhile, Frank Nitti and Jake Guzik spar to take over Al Capone's seat at the head of the mob table.
"Ma Barker and Her Boys"
As the Untouchables surround the Florida hideout of Ma Barker (Claire Trevor, Marjorie Morningstar), flashbacks tell how the churchgoing mother became a notorious outlaw.
"The George 'Bugs' Moran Story"
Bugs Moran (Lloyd Nolan, The Man Who Wouldn't Die) uses kidnapping and coercion to join a truckers' union and force the companies to sign.
"The Jake Lingle Killing"
When a reporter is gunned down, an amoral bounty hunter (Jack Lord, Hawaii Five-O) works both Ness and the mob to catch the killer and snag the reward.
"Ain't We Got Fun?"
When Big Jim Harrington hires a comic for his clubs, it doesn't sit well with the comic's buddy (Joseph Buloff, Silk Stockings), who was forced out of business by Harrington's shakedowns.
"Vincent 'Mad Dog' Coll"
Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll (Clu Gallager, The Killers) wants $100,000 from ex-boss Dutch Schultz. When he can't get it by kidnapping Lefty, Schultz's right-hand man, Coll tries a more audacious scheme to manipulate the Kentucky Derby.
Jerry Fanning (Martin Landau, Mission: Impossible) is a nervous hitman with a lot of problems. His first target is scared off by another faction -- and his second assignment is Eliot Ness.
"The Artichoke King"
Racketeeer Ciro Terranova (Jack Weston, The Four Seasons) doesn't like Frankie Yale, an underling who shows too much initiative by killing a produce seller during a shakedown. Despite his dislike of violence, he orders a hit on Yale.
"The Tri-State Gang"
Wally Legenza (William Bendix, Lifeboat) is getting desperate as Ness closes in. But his need for cash drives him to kidnapping and murder. This one's an accidental piece of stunt casting as Bendix, by then known to viewers as Chester A. Riley, is joined by future sitcom fixtures Florence Halop (Night Court), Alan Hale Jr. (Gilligan's Island), and Gavin MacLeod (The Mary Tyler Moore Show). And let's not forget future Dick Van Dyke Show neighbor Jerry Paris as Ness's right-hand man, Martin Flaherty.
"The Dutch Schultz Story"
Dutch Schultz (Lawrence Dobkin, Patton) is pulling out all the stops to beat a tax evasion rap, but Lucky Luciano's rivalry and Fiorello La Guardia's pressure might be harder to beat.
"You Can't Pick The Number"
When an old man stabs a numbers collector who welches on a payoff, it puts his boss (Jay C. Flippen, Oklahoma!) in trouble with the head of the racket.
"The Underground Railway"
It's not the fact that Frank Halloway killed the man who helped him break jail that makes Mona (Virginia Vincent, Tony Rome) reluctant to escort him across the country; it's the fact that he's just plain ugly. A little plastic surgery could change everything.
When a judge has a too-convenient accident just before an election, Ness goes poking around Calum City in search of a syndicate base of operations. That's easy, but getting past corrupt cops could be tougher.
"The Noise of Death"
Ness finds a dead body in the cooler when he raids a restaurant. The Mafia boss (J. Carroll Naish, Dracula vs. Frankenstein) he questions about it really is surprised and is due for another shock when he learns that he's been targeted for retirement -- the hard way, if necessary.
"The Scarface Mob," America's first glimpse of The Untouchables, was a slickly produced action drama about Eliot Ness's famous battle to bring down mobster Al Capone.
It may be predictable -- as Frank Nitti tries to bribe the incorruptible Ness and the mob lackeys tell Ness he'll be dead when Capone gets out -- but it moves swiftly and begins to give audiences a picture of Eliot Ness at work. While incorruptible, Ness works with a ruthless singlemindedness and is a skilled manipulator. When he calls up a mobster and says, "You stinking little rat. I'm going to get you and tear you from limb to limb," you know the mobster's getting at least a little nervous. His basic tactic is to keep the pressure up on his targets by keeping the attacks on their stills and speakeasies constant.
The pilot also gives nods to The Naked City with its ever-present narration, courtesy of columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell, and little details of city life such as the crowd that gathers around a body dumped in the street. The cinematography's up there with the best of noir, as when the shadows of the bars loom over a man in a cell, although the plot and characterizations would be too straightforward for noir purists. The show itself appears to have been churned out at a faster pace, but still has plenty of style.
The first regular episode, "The Empty Chair," adds a new dimension to The Untouchables in the form of strong guest performances. I wasn't impressed by the cardboard Capone in the pilot, but the weekly guest turns in the series hint at what was great about "The Golden Age of Television." They also elevate The Untouchables beyond what may well be your impression of the almost-forgotten series: the iconic scene of mobsters unloading their machine guns at Ness and his men from a fast-moving black sedan. Yeah, you'll see that almost every week -- but there's more to the show than that.
While Ness remains a presence in each episode, the stories turn on the moral choices made by the guest stars. In "The Empty Chair," Barbara Nichols (Who Was That Lady?) expands on the burlesque queen she played in the pilot, showing her transition from unfaithful wife to mourner to avenger. Subsequent episodes showcase Claire Trevor's descent into criminality with comic nods that link her to the day's suburban mothers, Jack Lord's struggle with a chance to go bad and make big bucks, Jack Warden's fear and ultimate strength as a labor leader going up against Bugs Moran, and Cameron Mitchell's belated moral awakening as a pawn of Big Jim Harrington.
There's always going to be a scene of Eliot Ness busting up a still with a ax, but these guest turns add drama and heart, making The Untouchables more than just a slam-bang action show. At their best, they add the complex characterization that will make a noir fan want to check the show out. Even when the story's not as compelling, there's always a strong performance by someone like William Bendix or a Martin Landau to grab viewers' attention. The action isn't totally out of the picture; "Syndicate Sanctuary," which finds Ness trying to get out of a corrupt small town alive, replaces the character study with life-or-death tension, although Ness acknowledges to a frightened witness that his men always arrive in time.
Robert Stack's Ness is a character who's always interesting if not always likeable. He's got a violent temper -- he's always doing something like smashing fruit against a wall in frustration after a witness clams up at a produce market or punching out a mob type who gives him grief in a busy restaurant -- and he plays his mind games with witnesses as much as he does with the mob. The question of whether Ness's battle is a moral one (raised by his fiancee) comes up most clearly in the pilot, but Stack gives his incorruptible Ness hints of something less pure and more complex. You might think otherwise if you've seen Leslie Nielsen as a Ness type on Police Squad, but Stack's a match for the excellent guest cast.
Ness's men may seem interchangeable to an occasional viewer, but as the season progresses, they start to show personalities in small roles. Nicholas Georgiade as Rossi and Jerry Paris as Flaherty start to rise to the top of the storylines first. Rossi's big moment comes in "The Empty Chair," as he makes the decision to join up with Ness after seeing an innocent woman gunned down, while Flaherty shines in "You Can't Pick The Number," in which he has to lean on the man who saved his life in order to bust a numbers racket.
The film holds up excellently, though you'll see occasional grain or other problems with stock footage. The hints of noir and The Naked City give The Untouchables a stylized look that'll get your attention. The rat-a-tat-tat of the sounds, both gunfire and Walter Winchell's naration, isn't quite as perfect in Dolby mono, but gets the job done.
Some of you might want to wait and see if there's a "best of" collection down the line, so you can home in on the most famous of the guest stars.
And yes, The Untouchables has its cliches, such as mob bosses knocking around their own underlings and the way the actors always stagger and fall when shot. The show tries to keep the bad accents to a minimum, but be warned that there are a few.
There's also a tendency to keep reminding viewers of Al Capone, the character who met his ultimate fate in the pilot. He's still in jail, folks.
There's a lot of Eliot Ness in Kiefer Sutherland's modern-day ruthless hero, Jack Bauer. Since 24 is one of my favorite current shows, I was stunned to see that The Untouchables delivers the same brand of excitement within the strict standards of 1950s and early 1960s network television. Moreover, Eliot Ness gets the job done in just one hour. If you're looking for something to tide you over until 24 returns, The Untouchables fits the bill.
Like 24, The Untouchables has an underlying theme of finding morality in an amoral, violent world. Since it turned up between the postwar boom and the swinging Sixties, the crime yarns taking place at the intersection of the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression may well have had a metaphorical appeal for the original audience. When you notice that the same issues crop up on 24, you might find a metaphorical appeal in The Untouchables as well.
Not guilty. If Eliot Ness had recruited Chloe O'Brien as one of his Untouchables, he'd have Jack Bauer beat on all counts.
Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 805 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "The Scarface Mob" Movie
* IMDb for The Untouchables
* IMDb on The Scarface Mob
* Court TV's Crime Library on Eliot Ness
* Chicago Historical Society on Al Capone