Saturday, October 27, 2007
Written by Musgo Del Jefe
Can I criticize an artist at the beginning of his career as he just starting to hone his craft? The artist in question is producer Quinn Martin on The Untouchables and the work is the new DVD release of The Untouchables: Season 1, Volume 2, which contains the second half of the 1959-1960 rookie season. Martin would go on to produce The Fugitive, The F.B.I., Barnaby Jones, and The Streets Of San Francisco among other hits. These shows would all be known for a distinctive and unique style. Does The Untouchables carry that same level of quality that I would come to expect from a Quinn Martin production?
The premise of the show is simple to set-up. The series is based on the real-life adventures of Eliot Ness (Robert Stack), a U.S. Treasury Agent who fought crime out of Chicago in the 1930s, and his group of agents called The Untouchables. Eliot's main nemesis is Al Capone (Neville Brand), but the series focuses on all kinds of mob crimes. Unlike the groundbreaking The Fugitive, the stories and quest to put Capone behind bars is not told in chronological order. In fact, a majority of the stories are set after Capone's arrest in 1931. Telling the stories out of order gives the writers more freedom from continuity, but it also disconnects the viewer from any ongoing drama. These standalone stories never gain momentum of a greater cause and it ends up feeling like an anthology show.
Some of the conventions of later Quinn Martin shows are here. There is a general structure that would later become the labeled Act title cards. There's a compelling narration by Walter Winchell that keeps each episode moving along. The typical episode starts with a short scene that will happen later in the show. I've always been confused by this structure - first encountering it in The Flintstones as a child. The narration of the title sequence, giving us the names of the actors and the title of the show sets a serious mood, but Winchell's narration isn't that of a storyteller. It's that of a newsman and makes the episodes too often seem like newsreels.
The episodes typically focus on the gangsters first. There's a moment in each episode where it looks like the bad guys are "untouchable". So often, someone won't testify against The Boss or there isn't enough evidence, etc. I was struck by the sadistic violence of the gangsters. In "The Star Witness," Jim Backus guest stars as an accountant that's going to testify against his boss. In order to bring him out of hiding, the gangsters run down his young dancer daughter in their truck, breaking both of her legs. But it's usually at this point that something breaks in the case, quickly leading to its resolution. In some episodes, that can be the final arrest of the gangster, or in many cases, their death in a bloody shootout.
The biggest downfall in the series is in production values. In The Streets Of San Francisco, the city is a vibrant, brilliant character. This period piece mostly takes place in and around Chicago and yet here are rarely city scenes. Most of the sets are stark interiors, needing little period dressing. Add to that, the procedural aspect of the show. Like many of the Quinn Martin productions, we get little personal background of the characters. Ness is a blank slate that solves crimes - much like his counterparts in The F.B.I. and The Streets Of San Francisco. Many of the stories end up feeling like a combination of Dragnet and the early Superman comic stories and serials.
When the stories even slightly add some humanity, you realize the potential that this series had. In "One Armed Bandits," my favorite episode on this collection, a man is released from prison who Ness had helped put away years earlier. Ness meets the man at the bus station right out of prison and the man talks about wanting to lead an honest life. He is pulled back into forcing slot machines into stores (a plot right out of an early Superman story) in order to protect his daughter, who herself doesn't even know her father is alive. At one point, the man is ordered to execute Ness to stop his investigations. Not only can't he bring himself to do it, but he saves Ness' life by killing another man. The convict is shot and dying, but in a moment of humanity we don't usually see, Ness takes the man to the daughter's wedding. Now satisfied, he dies in Ness' arms. Those little moments of humanity are what make later Quinn Martin shows so precious.
This release is an interesting step in the journey. Later productions would show a maturity that isn't present in all of these episodes. The casts are great, the action is superb, but the development of the QM signature style would put the shows into a different category. The DVD features an episode of The Lucy Show (this series is a Desilu production like The Lucy Show) in which Robert Stack plays his Untouchables' character to perfection. It's a nice addition to an otherwise bare-bones release.