So far, Lost in Translation has introduced the Prohibition era and the Untouchables and has looked at the TV series starring Robert Stack and the 1987 film with Kevin Costner. To wrap up, there’s one more TV series about Eliot Ness and his team of Untouchable Prohibition agents, the 1993 series with Tom Amandes as Eliot Ness, John Rhys-Davies as Prohibition Agent Michael Malone, and William Forsythe as Al Capone.
The 1993 The Untouchables series was produced during the height of syndication, where independent channels could choose packages of shows to fill in gaps in programming. While these shows didn’t have the ratings that network series had, they did have an audience with a few syndicated series becoming cult hits. At the same time, it is possible for a show to get lost in the shuffle or not hit all markets. Still, The Untouchables ran two seasons.
The pilot episodes present both Ness and Capone as they grew up, contrasting their childhoods and teen years. Capone got involved in criminal activity at a young age while Ness worked on oratory, boxing, and getting himself ready for a possible political career. As adults, Ness convinces his brother-in-law to sponsor him to be a Prohibition Agent while Capone moves up the rungs to become Johnny Torrio’s right hand man and, later, successor in the South Side Gang. The two men’s paths will cross.
The rest of the series gets into the details of the battle between Ness and Capone. Other elements of the time make appearances, from organized labour and the organized crime’s attempts to get a hook into it to internal strife within Capone’s mob. The series also contrasts Ness and Capone, showing their differences and showing where they are similar. Ness is very much a family man, one who is devoted to his wife and daughter. Capone cares for his son, but while he does love his wife, his treatment of her makes her wonder.
Like the 1959 series and the 1987 film, the 1993 series goes back to the autobiography Ness wrote with Oscar Fraley. The ’93 series also pulls from The Last of the Untouchables by former Untouchable Paul Robsky with Fraley. The 1993 series also dramatizes events, building off historical events to tell a crime story. Unlike the 1959 series, the latest version of The Untouchables keeps Capone and stays linear. There’s no sense of the episode being a news reel. Instead, it is the continuing battle between law & order and organized crime for control of Chicago.
The 1993 series pulls from the previous incarnations and from the books written by Ness and Robsky to bring everything into one continuity. Television has an advantage that film does not – time. As long as a TV series is allowed to continue, the production can delve into details that need to be glossed over for film. Movies may have the budget to pull off a scene like the Stairway Shootout in the 1987 film. TV allows for getting closer to the characters, seeing what makes them tick, and seeing what can throw them off. The 1993 series gets into the lives of Ness and Capone, making them more human than the portrayals from the movie. Both men have flaws. And it’s these flaws that create drama.
Tom Amandes’ Eliot Ness is charming, competent, a square jawed hero with simple needs, closer to Costner’s portrayal than Stack’s. The depth the series provides to him helps set up Ness as charismatic; the audience can see that he is a leader. That’s not to say that Stack’s Ness wasn’t; the nature of storytelling with the original kept the focus on Ness’ investigations and on the gangsters instead of Ness’ personal life.
The choice to include the private side of Ness is what makes the 1993 The Untouchables its own work, separate from but building on top of what came before. As a result, the series takes a slower approach to getting Capone, including small wins along the way. The series also shows what a TV show can do in contrast to movies; the audience can get closer to the characters and discover why they behave as they do.
Post Tags: adaptation Al Capone crime drama Eliot Ness The Untouchables