The choppers are silenced. After a long, long three year absence, CBS DVD and Paramount have released The Untouchables: Season 4, Volume 1, a 4-disc, 14-episode collection of the iconic Desilu/ABC thriller's first half of its final 1962-1963 season (I'll be reviewing Volume 2 later this week). With ratings continuing their freefall from season three, someone behind the scenes at The Untouchables decided that the series' woes could be cured by a dose of humanity...and boy was that a mistake. No extras for these good-looking black-and-white transfers.
For those who have never seen the show, The Untouchables' set-up couldn't be more elemental. Impossibly upright, inhumanly ruthless Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (Robert Stack), operating through the Bureau of Prohibition, scans the pulsating, violent skyline of Depression-era Chicago, tirelessly battling the forces of absolute Evil embodied by the rackets and mobs that control Chi-town's turbulent, brutal underworld. Unable to be bought off by the morally corrupt gangsters that have monikered him and his team, "The Untouchables," Ness and Agents Lee Hobson (Paul Picerni), "Rico" Rossi (Nick Georgiade), William Youngfellow (Abel Fernandez), and Jack Rossman (Steve London) wage total war against the thieves, mobsters, and two-bit chiselers with ambitions whose illegal activity―harsh brutality for hard times―fuels the continued degradation of the city's moral fiber.
You never know what's going to pop up on DVD. I wrote three and four years ago about seasons 2 and (part of) 3 of The Untouchables (read here), but when season four didn't show up after a year or so, I just assumed it was yet another series dumped by the studios due either to low sales or rights issues (a particularly cruel drop for fans, too, with only one season left to go). I had forgotten all about it. Now, you can question Paramount still splitting up the seasons for more expensive two volume releases (a practice that seems so...2008), but you have to give them credit for doing the decent thing and releasing the final episodes of this important milestone in television history.
It's just too bad that by this fourth season of The Untouchables, that historically important milestone of the series―the absolutely unhinged, cartoon violence that startled complacent viewers and defined the show, particularly in seasons one and two―had largely been jettisoned in favor of more "even-steven" character development (for the villains) and a noticeably reduced role for cold-blooded killer Eliot Ness and his trigger-happy "Untouchables" team. Now, if you've read any of my other vintage TV reviews (five in the fan club and counting!), particularly of other dramatic series from the 1960s like Route 66 or The Fugitive, you may be scratching your head at my "complaint" concerning The Untouchables' move towards more fully-rounded, character-driven plotting and scripting. After all, isn't that aesthetic the supposed "ideal" of scripted network television? Well...yes, for those shows. But not for The Untouchables.
As I wrote in my previous Untouchables reviews, the main bone of contention with newer reviewers and audiences watching the earlier seasons of The Untouchables seems to be the portrayal of Eliot Ness, as essayed by resolute, emotionless, faintly inhuman Robert Stack. One-note in his performance to the point of almost kabuki-like stillness and gravity, Stack's Ness character is designed not so much as a living, breathing, emotionally layered person who engages in an epic battle with the mob, but as black-and-white enforcer of an ideal―justice―with no room for feelings or conflicts. The world exists; corruption and murder and moral depravity are rampant; and Ness is a machine to bring that corruption to a halt. Of course, that kind of character construction can be viewed as distressingly flat and cardboard, taken out of context. After decades of increasingly morally compromised "heroes" in our popular culture, Eliot Ness as played by Robert Stack must look faintly ridiculous to viewers who want their heroes as divided and flawed as the times we live in today. But precisely because of that throw-back nature of the Eliot Ness character, The Untouchables was exhilarating in its absolute refusal to bend to such shadings and gray-areas of characterizations. Earlier seasons of The Untouchables illustrated a comic book vision of a world ruled by overwhelming violence and retribution, so the colorless, saintly Eliot Ness worked perfectly as a relentless agent of destruction against the irredeemable foes of a civilized society.
The primitive allure of the show's violence, along with the publicized controversy that cropped up as a result (some Italian-American groups claimed the first season slandered them, while various do-gooder groups decried the potential influence on young viewers), no doubt helped catapult The Untouchables to the eighth most-watched show on network television during its second season. Just as quickly, however, it fell again, with several factors probably contributing―faddish violence that quickly sated the viewers' bloodlust; effective counter-programming on a rival network (Sing Along with Mitch!); and that primitive, almost fairy tale-like sameness of the show's structure week in and week out eventually wearing down the audience. The Untouchables' production company, Desilu, as well as the show's sponsors and ABC, all bent over at the waist the minute people started squealing, so a gradual softening of The Untouchables' violent tone had already started by the second season.
Here, in this fourth and final outing, that softening seems complete (...or at least for these first 14 episodes of the season). Although it's hard to find a more perverse affirmation of violence-for-sick-kicks'-sake than the sight of Santa Claus getting ventilated and falling face-first through a plate glass window in the season opener, The Night They Shot Santa Clause, such wicked fun, which was a eagerly-anticipated weekly occurrence in earlier seasons, is increasingly rare by this juncture. After all, what are we to make of Ness admitting that he actually liked this particular "Santa's helper," despite the fact that the corpse was a front for the mob? The Eliot Ness of earlier seasons wouldn't have blinked at such a rub-out, and he sure as hell wouldn't have cut the guy any slack morality-wise. A few examples of the old-school Untouchables still crop up occasionally, like the tense Come and Kill Me, where Dan Dailey runs a super-sweet school for assassins down in his underground Bondian lair, or The Speculator, where a completely free and easy Telly Savalas plays an unrepentant crook among crooks who decides he's going to take boss Frank Nitti (Bruce Gordon) for every dime he has ( ...even though the script asks you to actually feel sorry for "loyal" Nitti, for chrissakes, when he's double-crossed by Savalas).
That trend to humanize the villains of The Untouchables this season may sound good if the series was a genuine drama anthology, where shading the characters is a basic element of proper drama, and were The Untouchables not previously a violent, at times wonderfully psychotic comic book come to life. Unfortunately, such amelioration only weakens the series' crude pull. According to this fourth season of The Untouchables, criminals do bad things not because they're morally bankrupt evil incarnate...but because bad things happened to them! A whole slew of dewy-eyed schnooks are on display during this first half-season, including "boob" Milton Selzer in The Cooker in the Sky (who even gets to "win" at the end of the episode), Frank Gorshin in The Pea (whom we're supposed to feel sorry for because he's picked on by gangster Albert Paulsen, and because he can't get a girl), and poor schlub Herschel Bernardi, in Bird in the Hand, getting deadly bird flu from his parakeets and blowing a mob money drop―a drop insisted upon by his loving sister who doesn't want him to be a "nobody." Critically, all these guys want to help Ness when the chips are down, which beggars the question: where's the intractable war of good versus evil here in these equivocating exercises in "empathy gangsterism?" Even the tougher cases like Richard Conte in The Chess Game (we're supposedly to admire this criminal because he's blind and intelligent and donates his ill-gotten gains to charities), or Mike "Touch" Connors in The Eddie O'Gara Story (a "loser" who organizes a mob of losers to "be somebody" and impress his Irish Ma and uptight brother), or Lee Marvin in A Fist of Five (a righteous cop turned criminal because the higher-ups were all corrupt and made him turn bad), all ask us to "forgive" them based on circumstances beyond their control, when two seasons earlier, Ness would have curled his lip in the faintest sneer and gritted out, "Tough," before pumping them full of lead.
Everything feels spongy and squishy in this first half of the season. The writing is still quite good, and the guest actors actually have more to work with since their characters are a bit more fleshed out...but this ain't The Untouchables of old. Either in an effort to further tone down the violence, or because of Desilu's search for suitable spin-offs since the writing was on the wall for The Untouchables' future, four of the 14 episodes here don't even focus on Ness and his team. Scott Brady barges in as a two-fisted journalist in The Floyd Gibbons Story, sans gun, to fight gangster Joe Campanella. Dane Clark and John Gabriel, sans guns, play Department of Health medico detectives in Bird in the Hand, and none other than Barbara Stanwyck, sans gun and a sense of humor, makes not one but two appearances as Bureau of Missing Persons Lieutenant Agatha Stewart in Elegy and Search for a Dead Man. None of these seem spin-off-worthy in the slightest (can you imagine how dull that Department of Health one would have been?), while they at the same time serve to push the viewer farther away from the rat-a-tat-tat energy of older Untouchables entries, to an increasingly "safe" drama anthology feel.
And when Ness does show up...he's hardly his former self: that grim, ghastly, beautiful avenging Angel of Death, wiping his feet on the punks who soil the morality of Depression-era Chicago. We get a couple of tentative, ineffectual stabs at making Ness a "rebel" with his D.C. superior, Frank Wilcox, but absolutely nothing comes of these hints. Traces of the cruelly impassive Eliot Ness still remain, but only traces. In Come and Kill Me, Ness coolly watches a mother crumple up when he shows her her dead son's corpse (Stack is beautiful, man...), or in A Fist of Five, when he calmly tells a hood offering him a piece of melon, "I don't eat with pigs." (Stack is hilarious when he's dead inside). However, a creeping sense of empathy in Ness is clearly evident by this point, taking away much of the earlier relentless, even frightening primal power of the character, giving us instead...just another lawman with a conflicted conscience. When the producers actually show Ness getting angry with himself for having to do his duty―putting away "good guy" blind gangster Richard Conte, who donates his money to charity (awwwww)―what once was brutal, exhilarating fantasy...is now just so much soft soap.
And the public wasn't fooled, either. Desperate to stem the ratings' bleeding, ABC moved The Untouchables from its disastrous Thursday 10:00pm slot to Tuesdays at 9:30pm...where it was crushed to death by CBS's powerhouse line-up. The Untouchables had no direct competition from NBC's anthology series, The Dick Powell Show (particularly when halfway through the 1962-1963 season, Powell died), but even Eliot Ness' Tommy guns couldn't mow down the juggernaut of CBS's line-up: repeats of Gunsmoke retitled Marshal Dillon, drama anthology The Lloyd Bridges Show (lone failure in the bunch), The Red Skelton Hour at 8:30pm (tied for second most-watched show of the season) and direct competition The Jack Benny Show (tied for 11th overall) and The Garry Moore Show (19th). What had electrified audiences with a seemingly unending parade of gruesome, gory deaths to the accompaniment of those Tommies' rat-a-tat-tats two years prior, now was drowned out for good by the laughter over on CBS.
Here are the 14 episodes of The Untouchables: Season 4, Volume 1, as described on the inside DVD cover:
The Night They Shot Santa ClausWhen an old friend who was playing Santa at an orphanage is killed in cold blood, Ness assembles the team on Christmas Eve to find the murderer.
The Cooker In The Sky
The Chess Game
The Chess Game
Bird In The Hand
The Eddie O'Gara Story
Come And Kill Me
A Fist Of Five
The Floyd Gibbons Story
Search For A Dead Man
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.