Appellate Judge James A. Stewart thinks Robert Stack had to be a real tough guy to match wits with Lucille Ball.
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 1, Volume 1 (published June 13th, 2007), The Untouchables: Season 4, Volume 1 (published August 2nd, 2012), 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.
"Eliot Ness! I've had it up to here with Ness. What am I supposed to do? Roll over and play dead because he's asking questions?"
"I seem to remember Al Capone saying almost the same thing."
-- Frank Nitti asking a question, and getting an answer he really didn't want to hear
Before Jack Bauer, Eliot Ness was the toughest fed on the tube. As played by Robert Stack, he was always ready for action, whether with a gun or a sharp remark.
The Untouchables was based on a book by real-life agent Eliot Ness, the man who took down Al Capone. The series drawn from that book has a lot of Hollywood hokum—there's a car full of hoodlums with machine guns lurking around every corner, and they couldn't hit Ness to save their lives—but it's also full of dramatic stories about people making tough choices as they face gangsters—and the Great Depression.
The Untouchables: Season 1 Volume 2 has 14 episodes on four discs.
Facts of the Case
"The St. Louis Story"—Dink Conway (David Brian, No Place to Hide) may own a swanky restaurant now, but he used to be a thug. That's why he's concerned that a gang war could be bad for business.
"One-Armed Bandits"—Frank Odine (Harry Guardino, Hell is for Heroes) doesn't want any part of Angie Vialle's slot machine operation, but mob headhunters are even worse than telemarketers.
"Little Egypt"—A suspicious gang member fixes undercover agent Cam Allison up with a date (Susan Cummings, Swamp Women) to find out how he's getting word out about the gang's operations.
"The Unhired Assassin: Part 1"—Mob assassins have targeted Chicago's mayor (Robert Middleton, Love Me Tender). Meanwhile, a Miami derelict has his eye on a gun in a pawn shop window—and a chance to assassinate President Roosevelt.
"The Unhired Assassin: Part 2"—The mayor plans to meet with Roosevelt at a public event in Miami. The assassins, both hired and unhired, are making their plans as well.
"The White Slavers"—Ernie Torrance (Dick York, Bewitched) has doubts about his brother's prostitution ring, thanks to the death of his drug-addicted fiancee and the machine-gun slaughter of some would-be working girls.
"The Doreen Maney Story"—Bank robber Doreen Maney (Anne Francis, Forbidden Planet) believes her partner-in-crime will spring her from Ness's custody. So does Ness, who's setting a trap.
"Portrait of a Thief"—A major food manufacturer—manipulating a loophole that allows perfumers to buy alcohol—is responsible for a "river" of grain alcohol coming into Chicago.
"The Underworld Bank"—Underworld "bankers" put the squeeze on their criminal clientele, including Duke Mullen (Peter Falk, Columbo), who sees a way to get revenge.
"The Frank Nitti Story"—Frank Nitti (Bruce Gordon, Key Witness) decides he oughta be in pictures. When he shakes down a chain with his protection racket ("Think of it as a form of insurance"), Ness proves Nitti's not ready for the big time.
As with the first half of the season, The Untouchables: Season 1 Volume 2 presents a stylish action drama with noir touches, dominated by the presence of Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, the tough, singleminded federal agent. He's fond of one-on-one battles with mobsters, and doesn't hesitate to get in the face of potential witnesses. It also boasts some great guest star turns.
While the agents don't get nearly as much screen time as Ness, Anthony George gets introduced in "The St. Louis Story" as new agent Cam Allison, a hotheaded young guy who might not be ready for undercover work. Late in the season, there's also a memorable cast departure that'll prove that Ness's Untouchables aren't as interchangable as you'd think.
As with the first half of the season, strong guest stars are what makes the standout episodes: Jim Backus gives a touching performance as a meek witness who's more concerned for his family's safety in "Star Witness"; Harry Guardino's reluctant gangster in "One-Armed Bandits" shows how hard it is to avoid recidivism; Dan O'Herlihy's over-the-top robber in "The Big Squeeze" adds an unusual dose of humor; Robert Middleton gets a heartfelt speech on living in fear during "The Unhired Assassin"; Leslie Nielsen reluctantly goes undercover in "Three Thousand Suspects"; Anne Francis makes a sweet-but-deadly criminal "lovebird" in "The Doreen Maney Story"; Peter Falk makes an early appearance as a cocky tough guy in "The Underworld Bank"; and Jack Warden, who played heroic in the last volume, gets to show his bad side in "Head of Fire, Feet of Clay."
Sometimes The Untouchables can get a little over the top. Take the opening for "The Unhired Assassin," for example. President Hoover concedes, making the repeal of prohibition imminent. "At 2:15 AM Chicago time, the Untouchables, led by their chief Eliot Ness, celebrated the end of Prohibition by destroying the last of the breweries operated by Al Capone and company," Walter Winchell says in the narration. As his not-so-merry men wonder if they'll be out of work, Ness points to a poster for the Chicago World's Fair and explains how they'll be busy cleaning up the city before the big event. This scene is an unintentional pointer to the excesses of Ness's work, since their way to "celebrate" leaves one man—albeit a bad one—dead. The episode redeems itself with a strong second half and a dramatic ending, though.
The Untouchables looks good nearly fifty years later, with occasional grain in night or stock sequences. The sound's mono, but the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and the rat-a-tat-tat shooting are both handled well.
The bonus feature here is a TV oddity from The Lucy Show: Robert Stack plays a federal agent who mistakes Lucy Carmichael for a bank robber's girlfriend, and then asks her to help him trap the robber, played by Bruce Gordon (better known as Frank Nitti). It's corny malaprop dialogue ("There will be no nuptials till after the wedding") and general hamminess, with a few belly laughs. It looks like Lucille Ball called in a few favors (The Untouchables was made by Desilu, the production company run by Ball and ex-husband Desi Arnaz).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sometimes Eliot Ness's methods can be questionable. I noticed a tendency for his actions to cause death or injury to innocent people. When a bad guy shouts "You got no damned heart" while begging Ness to call an ambulance, I suspected the gangster might have a point, since Ness seems callous at times. Small touches, though, such as the dialogue between Stack and Nielsen in "Three Thousand Suspects," suggest an awareness of the risks he puts innocents through.
If you haven't picked it up already, the first half of this season is probably the best one to start with, since it includes The Scarface Mob, detailing Ness's famous battle with Al Capone.
The dramatic stories of The Untouchables: Season 1 Volume 2 pack the same sort of punch as the modern 24, while avoiding Jack Bauer's more graphic excesses. While viewers who still remember The Untouchables will probably be the main audience, fans of gritty modern fare like 24 will want to check this classic out as well.
Not guilty. Now that they've repealed The Untouchables' lack of availability, there's plenty of work left for Eliot Ness and his men to do.
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• The Lucy Show: "Lucy the Gun Moll"
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