The Untouchables chronicles the campaign of Eliot Ness (Robert Stack), the young U.S. Prohibition Bureau agent, to smash the beer and booze empire of Al Capone in 1920s Chicago.
Though certainly tame by The Shield standards, the inaugural 14 episodes from The Untouchables' 1959-60 season are still as potent as a shot of Al Capone's bootleg whiskey. Dames get slapped around. Mugs are mowed down in a hail of wall-pocking, mirror-shattering bullets. Upstanding citizens are brutally terrorized by thugs. Incorruptible Feds are brazenly rubbed out. Sometimes, criminals have the last laugh. It has the visceral kick of watching one of those pre-code Hollywood movies produced before the Hays Office stepped in to sanitize objectionable content. This set opens with the theatrically released version of the two-part pilot episode that set the noir sensibility of the series. Robert Stack (in his iconic and oft-parodied role) stars as Elliot Ness, a straight-arrow Federal agent who forms a special squad of "reliable, courageous, dedicated and honest" men who initially take on Al Capone's corrupt criminal empire in 1929 Chicago. Ness is "a real man," (as a "burly-q" stripper observes). He's just not exactly loaded with personality. Nor do any other of the squad members stand out, except perhaps for Martin Flahrety, and that's only because he's played by a pre-Dick Van Dyke Show Jerry Paris. But from Neville Brand's Al Capone and Claire Trevor's Ma Barker to an unbilled Harry Dean Stanton as a suspect blind newspaperman, it's the legendary criminals and their henchmen (and the great character actors who portray them) who give each episode considerable moxie.
Produced by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball's Desilu Studios, this groundbreaking series is based on the book The Untouchables: The Real Story by Ness and Oscar Fraley. Real? Not quite. Despite Walter Winchell's signature rat-a-tat narration that gives the proceedings a documentary-like tone, liberties were taken in retelling the sagas of Capone, Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, "Bugs" Moran, "Mad Dog" Coll, and others. But the episodes are so pulpishly good that even if Ness was never really involved in a shootout with Barker (and he wasn't), more forgiving viewers will be of the opinion that he should have been. --Donald Liebenson