Reviewer's note: Since stylistically, very little is different between the first and second half of The Untouchables' fourth and final season, I've reworked my review of The Untouchables: Season 4, Volume 1, including in it additional thoughts on the episodes found in The Untouchables: Season 4, Volume 2.
No difference: in the end, the choppers are silenced. After a long, long three year absence, CBS DVD and Paramount have released The Untouchables: Season 4, Volume 2, a 4-disc, 16-episode collection of the iconic Desilu/ABC thriller's second half of its final 1962-1963 season (the season's first 14 episodes are available on Volume 1). 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 smidgen 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 (now six 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 when 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 (while helping to kick-start moribund third-placed ABC with its programming emphasis on "action/adventure"-themed shows). Just as quickly, however, The Untouchables fell again, with several factors probably contributing―faddish violence that quickly sated the viewers' bloodlust; effective (and equally faddish) 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 (even Winchell's narration made it all seem unreal), which eventually wore down the audience. The Untouchables' production company, Desilu, as well as the show's sponsors and ABC, all bent over and grabbed their ankles the minute people started squealing about the violence and so-called cultural insensitivities, 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. The particularly spectacular, gory deaths which were such an eagerly-anticipated weekly occurrence in earlier seasons are increasingly rare by this juncture. A few examples of the old-school Untouchables do still crop up occasionally here. The excellent The Snowball, where a perfectly-cast Robert Redford (a cold, slick, calculating bastard, Redford should never have become a superstar "hero" in movies) plays a amoral college-educated bootlegger who's willing to blind kids with wood alcohol to set the wheels in motion for his rise in the Frank Nitti (Bruce Gordon) mob, is a good example. And Globe of Death, another pulpy thriller from scripter John Mantley (and directed with verve by Walter E. Grauman) sports this season's best cast (Bruce Gordon, Barry Morse, Dabbs Greer, Cliff Osmond, Malachi Throne, Harold Gould, Phillip Pine, Wolfe Barzell, Robert Carricart), keeps the tension high as Ness races against the clock to stop a bank heist of pure China heroin.
Those kinds of hard-hitting episodes, however, are not the norm this fourth season. The trend to humanize the villains of The Untouchables this season may sound good if the series was received as a genuine drama anthology, where shading the characters is a basic, necessary element of so-called "proper" drama, and were The Untouchables not previously a violent, at times wonderfully psychotic, comic book come to life. Unfortunately, such thematic amelioration only weakens the series' original 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. Wimpy horn player Robert Duvall in Blues for a Gone Goose can't decide whether to kill the gangster (always slimy Marc Lawrence) who murdered his friend, or cry on said mobster's girlfriend's shoulder, Kathleen Nolan. J.D. Cannon, in The Man in the Cooler, acts tough when he's boosted out of the joint to help Ness nab Cannon's old boss Peter Whitney (seriously...how far had The Untouchables fallen when Ness is shown giving a criminal a gun for protection?), but he crumples whenever wife Salome Jens starts wringing her hands. The Charlie Argos Story has Robert Vaughn blanching at the sight of blood when he naively agrees to help sexy Patricia Owens pull a fast one with her dead gangster husband's estate (I seriously don't need a love story when I'm watching The Untouchables). And worst crybaby killer of them all this season, Line of Fire's psychotic sniper Sherwood Price blubbers to scheming rat-fink brother, pimp Ed Nelson, that he needs help...only to have Ness (!) fercrissakes offer a kindly hand at the fade-out. As the episode ends, we hear narrator Walter Winchell state cold-blooded serial killer Price got eight years in the nut house and is now a "valued member of his community" This touchy-feely garbage is The Untouchables??? Where's the intractable war of good versus evil here in these equivocating exercises in "empathy gangsterism?"
Even the tougher hardcases like Edward Binns in Junk Man (we're supposedly to feel sorry for him because he truly cares about his junkie girlfriend Rosie), or Karl Lukas in The Giant Killer (a Of Mice and Men Lenny-like enforcer―he even gets his mind existentially blown by uncharacteristically poor Peggy Ann Garner―who loves his "honorable" boss Torin Thatcher...who's also tugging our heartstrings by dying slowly from a bullet wound), or noir legend Charles McGraw in The Torpedo (a murderous henchman gets old and loses his nerve and literally starts sobbing and weeping on his girlfriend Gail Kobe's shoulder...until she quite understandably pushes him away in disgust)―all of them 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 at their psycho-babbling palaver and gritted out, "Tough,"...before pumping them full of lead.Everything feels spongy and squishy in this fourth season. The writing, for all its equivocation in motivation, 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 apparently was on the wall for The Untouchables' future (check those Nielsens out), potential series spin-off episodes pop in and out, among them Scott Brady's two-fisted investigative journalist and Barbara Stanwyck's crusading Missing Persons Bureau copper in the first half of the season, and yet another appearance in this volume of the spectacularly boring pairing of Dane Clark and John Gabriel as Department of Health medico detectives in Jake Dance (cripes is this concept handled badly by the writers and these miscast performers). None of these seem spin-off-worthy in the slightest, while they at the same time serve to push the viewer farther away from the rat-a-tat-tat energy of older Untouchables entries, and towards an increasingly "safe" drama anthology feel.
When Ness does show up (let's face it: the rest of the gang are little more than furniture in the back of the office set)...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. I don't know if Stack knew by the time they were filming these episodes that The Untouchables would be closing up shop, but you can tell he's completely out to lunch in terms of engagement with the material. Even an episode like The Jazz Men, which should have given Stack a chance to loosen up a bit playing Ness as an undercover bass fiddler in New Orleans, comes off hilariously wrong as Ness-as-hop-head-jazz-musician spits out terse commands and questions like nothing else other than a G-man with a Tommy gun up his ass (as I wrote before in my other reviews, I love Stack's zombie-like take on Ness...but this is going too far even for me). The series' final entry, A Taste for Pineapple, probably sums up the series' aesthetic bankruptcy better than any other episode this season. Ness, because he's scared (jesus) of psycho assassin Jeremy Slate, gets a fun TV disease―hysterical blindness―and proceeds to make a spectacle of himself, bumping around into things while the viewer wonders if the next time he tries to answer the phone he's going to blow his head off. Soon Ness is jumping through windows he can't see (no cuts, off course), and rolling around in the mud with his tormentor in some Bizarro-world version of The Miracle Worker...before he lets the punk live (he's got the shiv right in his hand...and then he chokes). What any of this has to do with earlier, primal, even frighteningly violent episodes of The Untouchables is anybody's guess, but it's clear by now that what was once 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 16 episodes of The Untouchables: Season 4, Volume 2, as described on the inside DVD cover:
Here are the 16 episodes of The Untouchables: Season 4, Volume 2, as described on the inside DVD cover:
The SnowballA young bootlegger launches a bottle-by-bottle hustle selling to college kids, hoping to gain Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti's attention and partner up with the mob.
Blues For A Gone Goose
Globe Of Death
An Eye For An Eye
The Man In The Cooler
The Butcher's Boy
One Last Killing
The Giant Killer
The Charlie Argos Story
The Jazz Man
Line Of Fire
A Taste For Pineapple
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.