Given my enjoyment of such Prohibition Era Warner Bros. gangster classic films as THIS and THIS, it’s a wonder I’ve waited this long to find my way to the 1950s classic TV series THE UNTOUCHABLES (1959-1963). But, the same Black Friday 2012 sales that gave us THIS and THIS, and further expanded our journeys into PERRY MASON and GUNSMOKE, also takes us to late 1920s – early 1930s Chicago, and drops us into the midst of the legendary battles between G-Man Eliot Ness and Gangster Al Capone.
THE UNTOUCHABLES begins as a two-hour special (later released theatrically!) that tells the story of Ness putting together a special and incorruptible squad of Federal Agents (meaning those who can be trusted to not be on the take – thus “untouchable”) to bring down Capone. It was produced by Desi Arnaz (of I LOVE LUCY fame) at Desilu Studios (that later gave us the first seasons of STAR TREK and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE), and aired on April 20, 1959.
More Desilu Productions below:
|Note Steven Hill (and not Peter Graves) on the box!|
|Neville Brand (as Texas Ranger Reese Bennett) at lower left|
Disc One of this set (all I’ve been able to enjoy so far) includes the two-hour pilot for THE UNTOUCHABLES – which included introductions by both Desi Arnaz and Walter Winchell, and two more episodes of the “regular” series:
“The Empty Chair” (10/15/1959): With Capone imprisoned, his lieutenant and enforcer Frank Nitti (perfectly played by Bruce Gordon) vies with Capone’s “bookkeeper” Jake Guzik (the great professional guest star Nehemiah Persoff) for the top mob spot. BTW, the status of “Guest Star” for both Keenan Wynn and Nehemiah Persoff likely tells their fate in THE UNTOUCHABLES as well as any “spoiler” might.
“Ma Barker and Her Boys” (10/22/1959): Claire Trevor (who started in the genre-defining John Ford / John Wayne western film “Stagecoach” – 1939, which I promise to review sometime in 2013… not to mention THIS Academy Award winning performance) is Ma Barker, who leads her “boys” on a multi-state crime spree and on a collision course with Elliot Ness. The episode begins with Ness’ raid on the Barker place but, in flashback, tells the story of how Ma Barker came to be.
This outing is a magnificent example of how good TV could be in those (regrettably) bygone days. Indeed, with quality material like this – and WAGON TRAIN (which we will be discussing soon), one wonders why television was held in the low regard that it was. Trevor is simply amazing in this one! See it, if you can!
At least in the episodes I’ve viewed, THE UNTOUCHABLES, though it began in 1959, does not exhibit the “tinny” and less interesting type of music scores that were utilized in the early episodes of PERRY MASON and GUNSMOKE, and also hampered the otherwise fine First Season episodes of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1964). THE UNTOUCHABLES sounds more like a mid-sixties show, with the take-notice, “full-bodied scores” that were a staple of such programs. (Yeah, I know… It takes a real music-score geek to appreciate this. The rest of you are free to go!)
Barbara Nichols’ performance as “Brandy La France” (voluptuous wife of a “murdered mousy nobody, turned informant”) may very well be the inspiration for the character of HARLEY QUINN of BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES. Nichols appeared in both the Pilot and “The Empty Chair”. Check it out for yourself – and you may at least modify any thoughts you may hold about Harley originating with the play “Guys and Dolls”. (Of course “Brandy” could have been born of “Guys and Dolls” herself… this stuff is so much fun to consider, isn’t it?)
Lastly, for a '50s show, THE UNTOUCHABLES is not at all shy about mentioning narcotics and prostitution as mob activities, along with the expected alcohol bootlegging - at least in what I've seen thus far. Themes that adult dramas like PERRY MASON tended to ignore (in deference to the times?), and the latter of which GUNSMOKE seemed to deftly "dance around".
It amazes me to consider the number of great TV series and movies I’ve either discovered – or rediscovered – strictly due to DVD. (From PERRY MASON and THE FUGITIVE, to LOST and THE WAKLING DEAD – not to mention lots of Cagney and Bogart films!) It MUST amaze me, because I keep writing about such occurrences here!
|We keep FINDIN' 'EM, don't we!|
|Or, try it in its handy COMIC FORM!|