Three weeks ago, Lost in Translation took a brief examination of the history surrounding Prohibition, Al Capone and the organized crime that built into empires thanks to bootlegging, and the Bureau of Prohibition agents known as “The Untouchables” led by Eliot Ness. From 1921 until 1933, a war between gangs and Federal agents waged, with the only real way to shut down the gangsters being charges of tax evasion brought against them by the IRS. Always pays your taxes. The IRS doesn’t mess around.
Ness, with Oscar Fraley, wrote an autobiography called The Untouchables which was optioned by Desilu productions. The pilot episode of The Untouchables series, “The Scarface Mob”, starred Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, Neville Brand as Al Capone, and Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti and was narrated by Walter Winchell. The two-part pilot covered Ness’ campaign to take down Capone, taking out breweries and distilleries and showing some of the problems The Untouchables had thanks to local police and political corruption.
With Capone dealt with in the pilot, the rest of the series focused on Ness taking on other mobsters. Frank Nitti (still played by Bruce Gordon), Waxey Gordon, Ma Barker, Dutch Schulz, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, “Bugs” Moran, “Lucky” Luciano, the Purple Gang, and many others had their stories fictionalized for the series. Ness wasn’t involved in the investigation and arrest in most of the mobsters. The New York City-based gangsters, like Schulz and Luciano, were targeted by Assistant District Attorney Thomes Dewey.
The episodes did show the difference between The Untouchables and the mobsters they faced. While the gangsters were living the high life, getting tailored suits, eating the best food, and driving the best cars in the most expensive locations, Ness and his men had to make do with regular suits and whatever food they could afford, and whatever vehicle the Bureau supplied while on a case. Even when it comes to weapons, the gangsters have semi-automatic pistols while The Untouchables only have .38 revolvers. Both sides, though, have access to the classic Tommy gun.
With Walter Winchell narrating, each episode took on the feel of a newsreel, preserving the feel of the era and allowing the show to have episodes from different parts of the 30s, pre- and post-Prohibition. The episodes unfold out as morality plays, with the moral being “Crime does not pay.” Given the era, though, crime may not have paid, but it did allow gangsters to rent happiness. Still, on The Untouchables, mobsters wound up either in prison or dead, no matter how much money they gained.
The series’ main problem is that it used up Capone in the pilot. Today, taking down Capone would be the focus of at least a season if not the series. With Capone serving time during the years the 1959 series covered, writers on the series had to use other mobsters. Fortunately, Prohibition had created a number of colourful gangsters. Ness, however, didn’t interact with many of them. Historical accuracy, at least in this frame, was loose. The goal of the series, though, was to tell good crime drama stories that kept viewers coming back week after week, something that happened over four seasons and 117 episodes.
Next week, Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness.
Post Tags: adaptation crime drama Eliot Ness Prohibition The Untouchables