As a prepubescent, I was loyal to the dopey sitcoms that everyone of my generation watched in syndication -- The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island and the like - but I reserved a special place in my heart for black-and-white reruns of The Untouchables. For an 11-year-old boy with a wholly inordinate and somewhat disturbing fascination for organized crime, the cops-and-gangsters drama of The Untouchables was enthralling.
Based on the 1957 book by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley, the series crafted a moral universe as black and white as the film stock on which it was shot. Robert Stack portrayed the unflappable Ness, a Treasury Department agent who established an incorruptible unit, dubbed "The Untouchables," in the late 1920s to help him take on Chicago mobster Al Capone.
In real life, Ness disbanded his Untouchables shortly after "Scarface" Al's 1931 conviction for tax evasion. In television land, however, Ness and his mirthless band of agents continued chasing down the most vicious organized crime figures of their day. Each week brought a new yarn of justice meted out by square-jawed Ness and his cohorts.
The show's genesis, "The Scarface Mob," aired on Westinghouse's Desilu Playhouse in April of 1959. Boasting introductions from Arnaz and Walter Winchell (who would later narrate the series), "Scarface Mob," which is included in this four-disc set, is a somewhat flat affair. It suffers from bland storytelling and a surprisingly lethargic pace, alleviated only when Neville Brand enters as a scenery-chewing Al Capone prone to bursts of diabolical laughter. Keenan Wynn also gives a bit of emotional heft to the proceedings as one of Ness' top agents.
Regardless, the program's "shoot 'em up" ethos proved irresistible for TV. Aired on ABC and produced by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's Desilu Productions, the series launched that October with "The Empty Chair," in which Chicago gangsters Frank "the Enforcer" Nitti (Bruce Gordon) and Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik (Nehemiah Persoff) vie to inherit Capone's underworld empire.
Even for a TV era dominated by Western gunslingers, the new series spawned controversy for its unprecedented level of violence. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows 1946-Present called The Untouchables "perhaps the most mindlessly violent program ever seen on TV up to that time. Critics railed and public officials were incensed, but apparently many viewers enjoyed the weekly bloodbath."
That reaction might seem quaint in the wake of such blood-spattered fare as The Sopranos and The Shield, but there is no disputing that The Untouchables is most compelling when it's awash in the iconic images of film noir: machinegun fire mowing down mobsters in a barbershop, a poor dupe taking a beating in a darkened alleyway, fedora-clad hoods clambering out a black sedan on a rain-swept street. Invariably such images are accompanied by the staccato stylings of Winchell, whose weirdly detached narration ("The appointment was at three in the afternoon ...") lent the show a quasi-documentary feel.
Produced by Quinn Martin (who went on to such TV successes as The Fugitive and Barnaby Jones), The Untouchables is not one for subtlety. Its best moments come when it is most over the top. "Ma Barker and Her Boys" is great pulpy fun, with Claire Trevor as the gun-toting mama with not-so-vaguely Oedipal issues regarding her eldest son, Doc. Clu Gulager does his best crazed shtick in "Vincent 'Mad Dog' Coll" (a performance more campy than convincing) while William Bendix is in a decidedly non-Life of Riley mode as a cold-blooded killer in "The Tri-State Gang." Other standout episodes include "The Jake Lingle Killing" "You Can't Pick the Number" and "The Dutch Schultz Story."
Unfortunately, The Untouchables also featured plenty of sluggish drama punctuated by flat writing, cardboard characterization and Stack's defiantly wooden acting. The show's occasional forays into complexity are lead-footed; one particularly sorry example is "The George 'Bugs' Moran Story," in which Jack Warden plays a labor union president who must capitulate to mob pressure.
The Untouchables' popularity peaked in 1960, when it reached eighth in the ratings, but criticisms continued to mount against it. Italian-Americans groused about its preponderance of Italian villains, while FBI officials were irked to see many of their real-life victories attributed to the fictionalized Untouchables. Even the Capone estate filed a $1 million lawsuit against Desilu Productions for profiting from the gangster's "likeness." By September of 1963, the show had run its course. ABC ended The Untouchables after 114 episodes.
The two-part pilot and 14 initial episodes are included in this set. The package provides descriptions of the episodes:
The Scarface Mob
Special agent Eliot Ness (Robert Stack) forms The Untouchables, an elite squad of incorruptible lawmen, in order to bring down underworld kingpin Al Capone.
The Empty Chair
With Capone in prison, Frank Nitti tries to grab the open top spot in the empire, but Capone's bookkeeper is giving him a run for his money.
Ma Barker and Her Boys
Ness has tracked down the notorious bank robber Ma Barker, a woman who turned her back on religion in order to lead a life of crime with her sons.
The George "Bugs" Moran Story
Ness tries to get the influential president of a truckers union to stop mobster "Bugs" Moran and his crime syndicate from infiltrating the labor unions.
The Jake Lingle Killing
A newspaperman is murdered for doublecrossing some mobsters, so a reward-seeking ex-con decides to work with Ness and find the killer.
Ain't We Got Fun
A successful bootlegger seizes control of a nightclub and takes its brash young comic under his wing, promising to make him a star.
Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll
A deranged gangster kidnaps the right-hand man of mobster Dutch Schultz, then steals the horse Schultz was planning to bet on in the Kentucky Derby.
Ness is lured south of the border to retrieve a witness who will help his case -- only it's a setup. Once there, the mobster on trial plans to have Ness killed.
The Artichoke King
Gangster Ciro Terranova, who controls the New York produce market, has a colleague bumped off. But when the hit man he hired gets greedy, Terranova has to get rid of him, too.
The Tri-State Gang
A notorious gang that hijacks trucks is unstoppable, until one of its members falls for a young French woman who can identify their leader.
The Dutch Schultz Story
After Dutch Schultz gets his income-tax evasion trial moved to a quiet town, he starts to have a positive effect on the citizens and eventually sways the jury.
You Can't Pick the Number
In order to crack the illegal numbers racket, Ness orders agent Martin Flaherty to secure the help of a numbers collector -- a man who once saved Flaherty's life.
The Underground Railway
A disfigured ex-con has multiple plastic surgeries in order to travel across country and retrieve stolen loot. But then he falls for the woman who was paid to pose as his wife.
The mob has turned a small Illinois town into their narcotics headquarters, but the daughter of a murdered mayoral candidate hopes to drive them out.
The Noise of Death
While searching for a killer within the world of the Italian Mafia, Ness develops a relationship with a mob boss who's been told to retire, but refuses.
The four discs come in a plastic keepcase with a swinging two-sided tray inside. An insert provides synopses of the featured episodes.
Presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the black-and-white picture has some grain and a few specks here and there, but overall the quality is surprisingly strong and consistent for a 48-year-old television series.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is generally clear and crisp, a solid showing for vintage TV.
The lack of even a shred of bonus material is a serious miscalculation. While a retrospective would have been nice -- especially given how influential the series would prove to be for future crime dramas -- at least the DVD creators could have included a mini-documentary or two about the real-life Eliot Ness or Prohibition-era organized crime. Even the Brian De Palm film inspired by the TV show is 20 years old. Seems like a refresher course in Untouchables lore would have been warranted.
Revisiting The Untouchables after so many years, it's difficult to overlook the series' dramatic deficiencies and repetitiveness. Was it classic television? Probably not. Robert Stack's Eliot Ness is humorless and passionless; among his agents, only Jerry Paris gets much chance to shine as Martin Flaherty. The weekly parade of gangsters tends to be cut from the same dime-store cloth, characters only as compelling as the actors who happened to be on that week.
And yet The Untouchables still delivers the goods, a no-frills, hard-edged return to one of the most impossibly romanticized eras of 20th century America. From Jimmy Cagney smashing a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face in Public Enemy to the early Fifties' televised Kefauver hearings on organized crime to the monumental achievement of The Godfather films, it has always been the same: Americans just love gangsters. The Untouchables doesn't begin to examine why, nor does it really put forth the effort to get inside their particular world. For the most part, Quinn Martin's upstart crime drama simply excelled at exploiting our collective fascination with the Mob. And that was good enough.
This DVD set helps illustrate just how well that exploitation was done.