In one of the 16 gripping episodes that close Season Two
of this landmark crime series, a pesky reporter asks the famed Prohibition era Treasury Agent, "Mr. Ness, don't you ever smile?" From the "Big Syndicate" to an unending parade of mobsters, killers, bootleggers, and dope pushers trying to muscle in on the incarcerated Al Capone's territory, Chicago in the early 1930s doesn't give Ness and his incorruptible squad much to giggle about. No, Robert Stack's Ness isn't a barrel of laughs (when one killer asks if the jury will go easy on him, Ness replies, "They'll put a cushion on the electric chair"), but what he lacks in personality, he more than makes up for in his relentless drive to break the mob. Each of these tautly written and directed episodes is like a noir of the week, all menacing shadows, hard-boiled dialogue, insidious corruption, heartless goons, slinky femme fatales, and overwhelmed cops. The criminals, as ever, make the most lasting impression. Lee Marvin is at his glowering best as Nick Acropolis, rising underworld titan, who in a climactic moment, comes after a traitor in his organization with a pair of gardening shears. In "Death for Sale," James MacArthur stars as a fresh-faced "kid" cornering the market on the opium trade. In "The Nero Rankin Story," Will Kuluva stars as an elderly, ailing successor to Capone's chair, who tries to make a deal with Ness to lay off for a year until he dies, after which he'll turn over the company books. Ness replies, "I don't make deals with punks." In these episodes, The Untouchables
further pushes the envelope on TV violence. There are grisly murders, ferocious beatings and maelstroms of gunplay. The violence, often sudden and shocking, takes no prisoners, claiming not only guest stars whose credits would suggest they'd stick around for the full hour (Ned Glass in "Death for Sale"), but, more of a dilemma for Ness and company, innocent bystanders. In "The Nero Rankin Story," Rankin tries to intimidate Ness by having his gang shoot at ordinary citizens in the street. "How many dead bodies before you lay off, Ness?" is one pointed message left at a crime scene. From top to bottom, these episodes are cast with indelible character actors who often muscle in on better-known guest stars. In "The Antidote," Joseph Wiseman co-stars as a handicapped killer in Telly Savalas' mob who pathetically tries to play the victim card when Ness nails him. "What else could I be?" he wails. Ness shows him a front-page headline about Roosevelt's election and replies, "Yesterday, you could have been elected the President of the United States." The Untouchables
is 100-proof vintage television that just keeps getting better with age. --Donald Liebenson
Robert Stack, Anthony George, Bruce Gordon. Eliot Ness, the fearless lawman of legend works with his team of handpicked agents to bring down Al Capone's illegal empire in 1920s Chicago. 16 episodes on 4 DVDs. 1961/b&w/13 hrs., 25 min/NR/fullscreen.