Name a famous TV series about organized crime, one where each episode gives details and insights into how crime is woven into the fabric of society, into business and government, and how it touches on lives high and low such that ordinary people make choices with ambiguous consequences. It’s a show with a level of violence previously unknown on TV, one that aroused controversy among Italian-American groups for mafia stereotypes.
That’s right, it’s The Untouchables, now almost 50 years old and still packing a punch.
The only obvious difference from The Sopranos is that The Untouchables pretends to focus on the heroic efforts of law enforcement. But as Blake said of Milton, it’s really of the devil’s party without knowing it.
In theory, the central characters are real-life Treasury Agent Eliot Ness (played by Robert Stack) and his hand-picked band of Untouchables, though they might as well be called the Interchangeables, if not the Expendables. These are vague figures that don’t have much to do and leave little impression on the viewer. They’re identified by factoids from Walter Winchell, whose narration is one of the show’s most identifiable devices. Most Ness scenes are purely expository, as he tells his men who the bad guys are and how they’re going to catch them. In other words, what just happened and what’s going to happen. These scenes are doubly redundant, since Winchell also goes over the same territory.
If Winchell bridges every transition, every scene ends with the same portentous chords from Nelson Riddle on the soundtrack. If the bad guys are plotting nefariously, they’ll typically end the scene by erupting into loud cackles of laughter.
That may sound like the makings of bad drama, but don’t you believe it. Even with all the ritualized elements, the show is gripping because the writing, acting and direction is lavished on the bad buys, who get all the best lines. This is a world where a broken-down underling, an ex-prizefighter with no function in the plot but to get killed, may come out with “Boss, I don’t sleep. I dream, but I don’t sleep.”
This is where the show’s strengths come out, where the pulpy, B-movie storytelling, punctuated by the punch of a tommy-gun, opens vistas of complexity and tragedy, especially as the series develops. Often the people involved in crime are grotesque, but sometimes they’re magnetic and even likeable, and just as often they’re ordinary little people whose loves and fears betray them.
The anti-heroes, who have a wider range of possibility for behavior than the straightforward heroes, are fleshed out and made interesting while Ness and his unmerry men are stiffs who are allowed the occasional insight into their stiffness and the weariness of their endless battle.
Take episode #12, “The Underground Railway”. Cliff Robertson plays a vicious hothead who’s also physically repulsive, like a baby-faced wolfman. He’s dominated by anger at how the world’s treated him, and when he becomes handsome through a series of operations, he takes advantage of his newfound looks at the expense of the ordinary woman (Virginia Vincent) who comes to sympathize with him and love him. Her love doesn’t redeem him, though he might have some sense of the life he’s missed, and their mutually tangled motives of fear, hunger and rage drive this memorable tragedy. This is one of many episodes from Walter Grauman, a prolific TV director who produced at least two notable features, 633 Squadron (1963, starring Robertson) and the brilliant cult picture Lady in a Cage (1964) with Olivia de Havilland.
This show is famous for two big controversies that erupted right away. One is that the show was too violent. The other was about Italian mafia stereotypes. On the latter, this was the first show to face protests from Italian-American groups. Even Frank Sinatra met with Desi Arnaz (of Desilu Productions) to discuss the matter. It was resolved that the show would also stress non-Italian criminals and beef up the Italian side of law enforcement. Ironically, these issues were already addressed in the earliest episodes. In the first season, most of the villains are already non-Italian, though Italians obviously aren’t overlooked, and the show also has Italian victims and Federal agents. This implies that the controversy was more about perception than reality.
As for the violence, hoo-boy, there’s plenty. It’s loud, brazen, sometimes surprising, probably gratuitous (as if the whole show isn’t), and still remarkable. Every episode has more than one brutal death. Of course it’s no slasher movie and a lot of gruesomeness is implied off-camera, but we still see head-on depictions of people riddled with bullets, bleeding and dying with their eyes open. The show triggered a wave of similar crime-busting shows (M Squad, The Roaring Twenties, Target: The Corruptors) whose violence caused more critical outcry.
The two-part “The Scarface Mob”, which was the pilot aired on Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, focuses on Al Capone, a lampoonishly outsized performance by Neville Brand. It includes the archetypal scene where his mercurial temper dominates the table as his cronies alternately cower under his glare or join in his fulsome laughter. This is a scene parodied in countless sketch comedies, and it already seems like a self-parody here. Ness’ Untouchables include a heroic Italian who dies in a hail of machine-gun fire, and who is played by that noted Italian, Keenan Wynn. (He’s the rough equivalent of the Sean Connery character in the big-screen remake by writer David Mamet and director Brian DePalma.)
This episode, later released theatrically in some countries, won Emmies for its excellent photography and art direction, two qualities that carried over into the series. It was directed by Phil Karlson, whose impressive credentials in film noir include the feature Kansas City Confidential. One of that film’s writers, Harry Essex, also wrote for The Untouchables.
The premiere proper introduces a new Italian Untouchable, Enrico Rossi (played by Nick Georgiade), a barber who gets recruited because he has the moxy to dispatch a killer with a razor. He and William Youngfellow, more than once identified as a “full-blooded Cherokee” (Abel Fernandez, whose career has included many Indian roles), are the two young, handsome lads who get the most facetime among Ness’ largely faceless cohorts.
Another is LaMarr Kane (Chuck Hicks), a character so obscure he’s not listed in the standard reference books. He’s killed in the ninth episode, though he’s still seen in a later one because the stories skip non-chronologically through the early ‘30s (the real reason is probably that the later episode was filmed earlier). In episode #16, Agent Martin Flaherty (future sitcom director Jerry Paris) is promoted out of the series and replaced by Cameron Allison (Anthony George), whom the reference books insist on calling “Cam”. He brings a touch of rugged young star power and provides a big scene for the season finale, his last episode. There’s also a Jack Rossman (Steve London) and Federal D.A. Beecher Asbury (Frank Wilcox ), the latter also unlisted in references.
But as mentioned, these characters leave little or no impact on the viewer and are hard to keep track of, which reminds us that an important link between this series and The Sopranos is Michael Mann’s Crime Story (1986-88). That was also a period piece (the ‘50s) that supposedly centered on a tough gangbuster (Dennis Farina) whose regular colleagues were barely visible hovering in the background while the drama was completely driven by a soap-opera array of colorful gangsters. Mann was so clearly influenced by The Untouchables that’s it great to have the original template finally available.
The Untouchables premiere is dominated by the riveting tension between Capone’s would-be successor Frank Nitti (Bruce Gordon) and the Polish accountant Jake Guzik, played brilliantly by Nehemiah Persoff as a man who goes from quiet, resolute assertions to increasingly loud, self-important behavior. The outcome in this episode and others depends less on Ness’ intervention (which is as liable to be unfortunate as felicitous) than on the labyrinthine motives within the bad guys’ families and colleagues. Nitti later became a recurring, Moriarty-esque nemesis in the series; even his death didn’t prevent him from returning, thanks to the non-chronological nature of the episodes.
The next episode focuses on “Ma Barker and Her Boys”. As the massive shoot-out commences, we trace their careers in flashback as monstrous offsprings of the Bible Belt. Oscar-winner Claire Trevor embodies all the Freudian shorthand shoveled into this breathless tale and radiates friction with future Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher as the floozy who woos one of the sons away from her. “I don’t like her, she’s cheap,” barks Ma. This story would soon be retold in the feature Ma Barker’s Killer Brood (1960) and later in Roger Corman’s brilliant Bloody Mama (1970) with Shelley Winters. All these episodes exploit the notion of a hard-bitten mother firing rounds of machine-guns at the Feds, which was basically an FBI cover story to justify her murder, but it appeals to us for reasons that seems subversive and misogynistic at the same time.
The FBI evidently didn’t complain about this inaccuracy, but they carped that the Barker case had been an FBI job that didn’t involve Ness’ T-Men. So much for the series’ commitment to the historical record. Ness, by the way, is usually shown just this side of upright enforcement of the law, though he’s not averse to veiled threats and his men are mighty quick on the trigger. For further study on this matter, there’s a book by Kenneth Tucker called Eliot Ness and the Untouchables: The Historical Reality and the Film and Television Depictions (2000). There’s also a critical study of the series, Tise Vahimagi’s The Untouchables, published by the British Film Institute in 1999.
The next episode focuses on Irish immigrant “Bugs” Moran, played smoothly by Lloyd Nolan. It’s about his takeover of a truckers’ union led by Jack Warden (who returns later in the season in a different role, as do the aforementioned Persoff and Vincent). The downbeat and rather open-ended resolution doesn’t have Moran caught nor mob control of the union broken. This is an early signal of a distinguishing feature in this series: sometimes justice doesn’t triumph, or at a bitter price. When Ness wins a round, there’s little joy, only a sense of respite before heading back into No Man’s Land.
Three first-season episodes are directed by Tay Garnett, a Hollywood vet most famous for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and who moved into a prolific TV career. One of these focuses on a mob accountant (Jim Backus) who explains frankly that he’s never minded working for organized crime because it was a good job and he liked his boss. Now he finds himself turning state’s evidence not because he wants to but because Ness and others have maneuvered him into it through their endless, deadly counter-games. These are the kind of disarming, ambiguous insights that abound in the series.
Three particularly nice episodes are directed with flourish by Roger Kay. “Ain’t We Got Fun” focuses on a rising stand-up comic (Cameron Mitchell) whose ambition leads him almost innocently into bad choices and heartbreak; an uncredited Timothy Carey is a memorably menacing pyromaniac. “The Artichoke King” features a complex villain in Jack Weston, a pudgy, seemingly lifeless figure who boils with passive-aggressive rage at his hoity-toity neighbors. “The Big Squeeze” is co-written by prolific TV crime scripter Robert C. Dennis and a star of hardboiled fiction: W.R. Burnett, the seminal Chicago novelist of Little Caesar and The Asphalt Jungle. This episode stars Dan O’Herlihy as an ingenious bank robber who makes a “withdrawal” by negotiating with an embezzler.
The closing credits are often careless about listing an episode’s players. Indeed, early episodes don’t always bother to list all the regular Untouchables who have a line or two, and many prominent supporting roles are omitted. Among the uncredited is Harry Dean Stanton’s vivid role as a “blind” newspaper seller in the excellent, melancholy and well-characterized “The Noise of Death”. This is one of two episodes written by Ben Maddow, an interesting figure whose credentials include the screenplay of The Asphalt Jungle (1950), based on Burnett’s novel. Both Maddow scripts were directed by Grauman.
This first season is addictive and almost uniformly excellent, more because of its frequent lack of subtlety than in spite of it. The production values are high, the visual sense often delicious, and the murders consistently startling. Occasionally footage is recycled for montages of still-busting and speakeasy-raiding. Despite the controversies among various critics, this first season was recognized with an Emmy for editing, and Robert Stack won Best Actor for his granite-headed underplaying.
Different producers work on different episodes, but the important name is executive producer Quinn Martin. As in his later series, which usually weren’t so stylish, an announcer booms out the episode’s title and guest stars as we look at their faces. In an irritating tic, typical of the era, each episode opens with a teaser from later in the story; these can be skipped with your remote.
Also appearing in the gallery of prominent guests: Lawrence Dobkin (two episodes as Dutch Schultz), Raymond Bailey (two episodes as Federal D.A. John Carvell), Jack Lord, Clu Gulager, Martin Landau, William Bendix, Alan Hale Jr., Gavin MacLeod, Darryl Hickman, Whit Bissell, J. Carrol Naish, Henry Silva, Harry Guardino, Phyllis Coates, Robert Middleton, Claude Akins, Lee Van Cleef, Sterling Holloway, Dick York, Marion Ross, Percy Helton, Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis, Henry Jones, Charles McGraw, Thomas Mitchell, Peter Falk, and Patsy Kelly.
The first season was initially released by Paramount in two separate boxes, but there’s also a combo box. These prints are pristine. The lack of extras isn’t a problem for this viewer, although an overview of the series and its controversies would be nice. The first part of the second season is due out in March; it begins with guest star Elizabeth Montgomery in an Emmy-nominated role. Bring it on.