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The Untouchables: Classic Campy Film Noir

Robert Stack as Eliot Ness

Okay, I am a sucker for the old series “The Untouchables” which was a combination of campy dramatics and a television version of film noir.   Based on the book “The Untouchables” written by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley, the TV series followed the adventures of Ness and his band of untouchables.

There was a campy aspect to the show with dramatic music and occasionally over acting and somehow the bad guys never seem to aim straight; they even miss the good guys with machine guns close up.   Yet, a whole generation of baby boomers and the greatest generation grew up thinking of Robert Stack as Eliot Ness.

The real Ness worked the Chicago scene from late 1920’s to the early 30’s fighting Al Capone and his gang, before the Feds convicted Al Capone of tax evasion.  Ness would later move on to Cleveland to be the head of Cleveland public before writing about his adventure; which provided the basis of the TV show.

For many, Ness was the guy who nailed Capone (even though he had little to do with actually sending Capone to jail on his tax evasion charge but he did manage to put dent into the Capone Empire.)  Capone targeted Ness for assassination but never succeeded in getting his guy before heading to jail.  Robert Stack closest agents and friends were Nick Georgiade, who played Rico and Paul Picern, who portrayed Lee.

The Real Eliot Ness

Critics panned the show for excessive violence and make no mistakes, a lot of folks often got killed in every episode and the bad guys were guaranteed to meet their end in violent ways.  Walter Winchell added an air of authority with his distinctive voice.  By the time the Untouchables aired, Walter Winchell was on the downside of his career but at his height, he was the pundit much of America listened to.  He combined the latest gossip with news item; and his new column was read by 50 million Americans and another 20 million listened to his Sunday broadcast.

Before World War II, he attacked Adolf Hitler and various pro-Nazis front group but after World War II, he turned to finding communists before his career headed downward after his support of Joe McCarthy.    In one of great ironies, The Untouchables was produced by Desilu, which was Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s Production Company and few years earlier, Winchell exposed Lucille Ball’s leftist political activities.  The show came under attack by Italian-American groups for the use of various Italian characters never mind that much of organized crime were Italian in nature.   Overlooked was that two of the agents were Italians as both Rico and Lee spoke Italian and the show did not just stereotype as gangsters but as federal agents.  It was not uncommon that other ethnic groups were shown as part of the underworld, which reflected the real world of organized crime.  The show maintained grittiness with much of action done at night and the set darkness added to the atmosphere.  What drove the show were the bad guys, who often played by some famous actors including Peter Falk and Robert Redford.

While Stack played his role straight and no nonsense, the bad guys showed more nuance personalities than the heroes.  In one episode, Harry Guardino plays a criminal who was ordered to kill his best friend played by Frank Sutton.  Guardino found himself conflicted and in the end decided to save his friend life after the mob kill his girlfriend, an action that cost him his life.

Ness was initially given credit for jailing Capone.

The heroes themselves often find themselves forced in ethical dilemmas while fighting a foe that didn’t play by the roles of society.  One scene, a bad cop pled with Eliot Ness to protect him but Ness allows the cop to his own device and as Winchell concluded that the cop lasted a month before the mob paid him back.    Ness and his Untouchables sometimes found themselves allied with one group of bad guys to deal with another and this showed the problems with law enforcement as they struggle with the day to day fight with organized crime.  You don’t always get to pick your friends and often your friends today will be your target tomorrow.

The Untouchables broke a mold as it added a dark aspect to television in an era dominated by comedy and lighter fares.  The bad guys  were shown to be human and the good guys occasionally needed to do bad things to get the bad guys and protect the public.

Heroes weren’t perfect but then in the real world, who is?


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