Robert Stack….Eliot Ness
Jerry Paris….Agent Martin Flaherty
Able Fernandez….Agent William Youngfellow
Nicholas Georgiade….Agent Enrico Rossi
Neville Brand….Al Capone
Paramount Home Video presents The Untouchable: Season 1 Volume 1. The pilot movie and 14 episodes on 4 DVDs. Episodes aired from April 20, 1959 to Jan. 7, 1960. DVD released April 10, 2007.
The Untouchables brought violence on TV to the next level when it debuted in 1959. Instead of the minor shoot-outs that appeared on Westerns, this series had the staccato of Tommy guns as its symphonic score. There was blood in the streets as the bootleggers fought to keep their criminal empire in Chicago. It brought the classic gangster elements found in the cinema of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson to the small screen. There would be no more waiting for The Million Dollar Movie. The Untouchables brought the underworld to prime time. Legendary radio voice Water Winchell rattled off the dispatches from the prohibition era.
The Untouchables began as a two-part special on the same Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse that featured the one-hour I Love Lucy specials. This was a major change in tone and subject matter from America’s favorite redhead trying to sneak down to the club to be part of Ricky’s act. Lucy didn’t want to sneak into Frank Nitti’s favorite night spot. The show stuck to Eliot Ness’s autobiography on how he and his crack crew of Treasury Agents brought down Al Capone; instead of merely having to deal with the crooks, Ness also had to deal with dirty cops on Capone’s payroll. Robert Stack was the poster boy for law and order. He played Ness as an iron glove of justice. The special proved to be such a hit that instead of rerunning it to death, they spliced the episodes together and created a 99-minute theatrical release. The boxset features this cut. The original introductions made by Dezi Arnaz and Winchell for each episode when it first aired kicks off the presentation.
After the first few episodes based on bringing down Capone, Ness and his crew go from being mostly historically accurate to complete fictional characters. Contrary to the show’s reality, Ness had nothing to do with bringing down Ma Barker and her boys; he wasn’t eavesdropping on Dutch Schultz’s last words; and he definitely didn’t stop “Mad Dog” Coll’s alleged Kentucky Derby plot. It’s easy to see how the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was upset at seeing all the real crime fighting being done by Treasury Agents on the TV. But why limit such a great character by making them only live their actual life?
The Untouchables isn’t merely a show about the crime fighters. Stack and his crew don’t dominate the hour. The mobsters get plenty of camera time as they brood beneath their fedoras. When it’s an infamous figure like Ma Barker, the show gives a mini-biography of their early exploits. They show their rise to power and turf battles. While these mobsters don’t cuss as much as the cast of The Sopranos, their attitudes push the boundaries as to how heartless a bad guy can be portrayed on network TV. Bruce Gordon’s take on Frank Nitti is more brutal than Billy Drago in Brian DePalma’s movie version. The actors aren’t merely chewing cigars and doing slapstick impersonations of James Cagney. There’s serious violence seething on the screen. Lloyd Nolan, who often played FBI agents, nails the role of a mobster. There’s nothing campy about his ruthless plot to control a union in “The George ‘Bugs’ Moran Story.” Nothing is played for laughs.
The boxset contains only the first half of the premiere season. This is a shame since the show is addictive. While the storylines take liberties with history, the scripts maintain a dramatic integrity. They do a great job illustrating how organized crime attempts to takeover legitimate business and destroys lives. Nobody says, “You dirty rat!” Even with the violence and focus on the hoodlums, The Untouchables doesn’t let the bad guys escape unpunished. This show might be the godfather to The Wire and The Sopranos, but it was on a broadcast TV in the ’50s so the good guys had to win. But don’t mistake that concession for weakness. This show still has all the impact of Eliot Ness swinging down the ax to bust open a beer barrel.
“The Scarface Mob,” “The Empty Chair,” “Ma Barker and Her Boys,” “The Jake Lingle Killing,” “The George “Bugs” Moran Story,” “Ain’t We Got Fun?,” “Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll,” “Mexican Stake-Out,” “The Artichoke King,” “The Tri-State Gang,” “The Dutch Schultz Story,” “You Can’t Pick the Number,” “The Underground Railway,” “Syndicate Sanctuary” and “The Noise of Death.”
The picture is 1.33:1. The black and white transfers are near mint. The details are sharp. These episodes look like they were filmed last year instead of nearly half a century ago.
The English soundtrack is Dolby Digital Mono. The sound mix is clean. Robert Stack’s rich bass voice comes out clear; he sounds like justice when barking out orders to Rossi and Youngfellow. The Spanish Dolby Digital Mono track sounds a tad muffled. The subtitles are in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
No bonuses are included. It’s a shame Paramount didn’t include a documentary about the real Eliot Ness. But that might confuse the audience willing to accept the myth that Ness and his crew cleaned up America.
The Inside Pulse
This could have been one of those shows that aged poorly with mumbling mobsters and cardboard lawmen. Nearly half a century later, The Untouchables still packs a wallop with its unflinching machine gun moments. If you enjoy the Gangster action found in Scarface, The Sopranos and The Wire, this collection is essential for the DVD shelf.