Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wants to see Jack Bauer try to make it in Cleveland.
"You remind me of the guy in the funnies—Dick Tracy. You're sharp like him."
When you think of Eliot Ness, you think about The Untouchables. Whether Robert Stack, Kevin Costner, or Tom Amandes comes to mind, you think of a tough, honest copper. You also think of a lone wolf—but he was the leader of a dedicated team of law enforcement officers.
Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is a one-man show, but it strives to put that untouchable life into context, to make the G-man a human instead of an icon. The stage play was written by Max Allan Collins, whose graphic novel Road To Perdition became a big-screen hit.
Collins, who wrote the Dick Tracy comic strip for a spell a few years back, says his interest in Eliot Ness came after learning that Chester Gould, the original creator of Dick Tracy, took inspiration for his comic character from the real-life Untouchables. Collins went to Cleveland to track down Ness's scrapbook, thick with clippings and pictures that told the story of the Untouchable's life, and has used Ness as a character in several of his novels.
Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life was launched simultaneously as a stage play and a film production at the Des Moines Playhouse in Iowa.
Facts of the Case
It's May 16, 1957. Eliot Ness (Michael Cornelison, The Final Season) is on the phone with Oscar Fraley, co-author of The Untouchables. He's about to become a legend—and he's not entirely happy about it.
"This makes me look like some kind of a self-aggrandizing, grandstanding…"
He reminds Fraley of the title. "Chicago was a team effort. One man did not put Al Capone away," Ness says.
When the phone call's done, Ness takes a drink and begins to tell his story: "It's a stupid law, Prohibition. I mean, really, when that much of the public is against the law or thinks it's just for the other fella, enforcement is a joke. I never had anything against a glass of beer or a mixed drink or a shot of whiskey. Hell, I was a frat boy. The Volstead Act tried to take booze away from the common man. What it really accomplished was handing the power of wealth to the underworld…"
His story takes audiences where they'd expect—to Prohibition-era Chicago. It also takes audiences where they wouldn't expect, to Cleveland, where he served as safety manager.
When the camera pulls back at the end of Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life to show the stage as Michael Cornelison takes a bow, you'll see how small a space he was working in. During the course of the play, however, the set—which represents the Ness kitchen in Coudersport, Pa., his Chicago office, and a gloomy alleyway—seems a lot larger, thanks to deft camera work and a variety of angles. It doesn't quite make you forget it's a play, but it makes for a lively recreation of the theatrical experience.
While he looks like the middle-aged father that he was in the opening scenes, Cornelison becomes a G-man as soon as he puts on a trenchcoat and fedora. Cornelison has a few traces of Robert Stack in his Eliot Ness, but he provides a better sense of the personal toll the war on crime took as he relates his experiences, such as the time he had to put a guard on his family and break off with a girlfriend. The dialogue gives Ness a few of the snappy lines from the TV show, but Max Allan Collins's writing goes for the man behind the image.
The stories of gangland Chicago echo the TV series—particularly the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse pilot. I noticed that the account here of the death of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak differed a good deal from the TV version of the incident, and that Ness seemed to have more regard for Frank Nitti than his TV counterpart did.
The story continues, though, to show Ness in a less successful venue—Cleveland, where he failed to bring a notorious serial killer to trial. The play suggests that Ness may have become an alcoholic by the time he passed away. Cornelison takes on a less sure and more questioning tone as he reflects on Ness's actions in Cleveland.
The production was shot with a Panasonic Vericam, which gives the filmed version a nice, crisp look. The lighting's full of noirish touches, and the jazzy score comes through loud and clear, along with sound effects of shootings and other noises that augment Ness's story.
The most interesting features in the extras are excerpts from the live performance that show how Cornelison's acting looked on stage and a short film, "An Inconsequential Matter," in which adultery proves to be more consequential than previously suspected.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It may be a well-done stage play, but Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is still a stage play. Skip it if you're not into listening to storytelling.
If you ever get a chance to see Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life on stage, take it. It's a good play, and even a good film record can't beat the electricity of a live performance.
That said, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is a well-done filming of a good play. While there's always a little bit of dramatizing—that's why they call it acting—it makes an effort to make the icon real, and it's appreciated. Max Allan Collins calls it "the absolutely most accurate portrayal of Eliot Ness." While he acknowledges that it's hard to get a perfect picture of the man, Collins's meticulousness shows (even afterwards, as photos from Ness's career appear during the credits).
Certainly those who've followed Eliot Ness's career on the big or small screen will want to see it.
Not guilty. Even when striving for historical accuracy, Eliot Ness had A Watchable Life.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• "Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life" Short Film
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