VCI Entertainment has released Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life, a filmed version of a stage play written and directed by famed mystery writer Max Allan Collins. Recounting the highlights of the legendary Prohibition agent, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life takes place on three small theatrical sets, with star Michael Cornelison as Ness addressing the viewer. While the true-life biographical events recounted here are indeed fascinating, the presentation is deadening, resulting in a dreaded "filmed play" that lacks even a modicum of cinematic appeal - or even dramatic appeal, for that matter.
The play (I'm not even going to call it a film anymore) immediately establishes that Eliot Ness' life, while fascinating in true detail, was constant fodder for newspapers, and frequently hyped up and embellished, particularly in his re-worked autobiography, The Untouchables (which the play suggests directly led to stress and his subsequent fatal heart attack). Opening with Ness in his small kitchen set, the play recounts Ness' phone call to his editor after seeing the galleys of The Untouchables, and then begins a long, long recitation as actor Michael Cornelison stares straight into the camera and delivers reams and reams of facts from Ness' life.
Filmed in an empty theater where the play was performed, the play consists of three small mock-ups: Ness' kitchen, his office, and a tiny little brick alleyway. Cornelison either sits or stands in the middle of these small sets, while director Collins switches back and forth between the three. Now I'm aware of Collins' career as a graphic novelist (his graphic novel, Road to Perdition, served as the basis for the feature film), so I was somewhat taken aback at the incredibly stilted and stifled visual design of Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life. Endlessly cutting back and forth between these three tiny sets, with Cornelison's big frame and head invariably dead center in a medium or close-up shot, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life is utterly lifeless as a cinematic experience. Shouldn't Collins' experience with his graphic novels produced even a pittance of varied visual interest?
While you certainly can't call Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life a movie, you shouldn't even call it a filmed play, for that matter, because none of the positives associated with experiencing a play (which are largely eliminated anyway when you film one) are present here. This is a filmed performance, and even that isn't all that special. Cornelison, despite his physical presence, achieves no weight as the flawed hero Ness. I never felt Cornelison was doing anything but reading off pages and pages of biographical detail. No semblance of a fully dimensional character emerged from his performance. Sure, what Cornelison was reading off is sometimes dramatic and effecting, but none of that was conveyed in his actual performance. When Cornelison has to deliver dialogue like, "She was a dark, petite girl with laughing eyes," the viewer wonders who the hell talks like that? Is the problem the contrived dialogue, or the unimaginative performance? But then again, it's tough to blame Cornelison for this fiasco, because really, what does he have to work with? It's obvious his role in Collins' schematic is to stand in front of the camera and recite (one of the behind-the-scenes photos shows a Teleprompter being utilized behind the camera). How is any actor supposed to breathe life into such a restrictive, artistically dead-end design?
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.