Appellate Judge James A. Stewart spent the first couple of weeks of his summer vacation from 24 looking back on an earlier special squad of top agents.
Our reviews of Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Contemporary (Blu-ray) (published May 31st, 2013), The Untouchables (published March 2nd, 2001), The Untouchables: Special Edition (published October 18th, 2004), The Untouchables: Season 4, Volume 1 (published August 2nd, 2012), The Untouchables: Season 1, Volume 2 (published October 17th, 2007), The Untouchables: Season 2, Volume 2 (published August 26th, 2008), The Untouchables: Season 4, Volume 2 (published August 2nd, 2012), and The Untouchables (HD DVD) (published September 13th, 2007) are also available.
"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.
Facts of the Case
The Untouchables: Season 1 Volume 1 includes 14 episodes on four discs, plus the initial pilot:
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"
"Ma Barker and Her Boys"
"The Jake Lingle Killing"
"Ain't We Got Fun?"
"Vincent 'Mad Dog' Coll"
"The Artichoke King"
"The Tri-State Gang"
"The Dutch Schultz Story"
"The Underground Railway"
"The Noise of Death"
"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.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
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• "The Scarface Mob" Movie
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