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.
Last week, Lost in Translation looked at the 1959 TV series with Robert Stack. The series took liberties, but presented the episodes with a feel like a newsreel. Stack played Eliot Ness as a straight edge cop and head of a squad as dedicated to law enforcement as he was. The series did acknowledge that they took ideas from Ness’ autobiography, The Untouchables, co-written by Oscar Fraley.
In 1987, about thirty years after the series, give or take, David Mamet wrote and Brian De Palma directed an new adaptation of the autobiography. The film, also called The Untouchables starred Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, Robert De Niro as Al Capone, Sean Connery as Jimmy Malone, Andy Garcia as George Stone/Giuseppe Petri, Charles Martin Smith as Oscar Wallace, and Billy Drago as Frank Nitti. Connery won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Malone, and the film was nominated for three others, Best Original Score, written by Ennio Morricone, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design.
The film focuses on the Untouchables’ pursuit of Al Capone. Ness’ first outing in Chicago goes as it did historically, a lot of notice and no whiskey; Capone’s men had been tipped off by someone on the Chicago Police Department. Despite the headlines, Ness pushes on. He gathers a core group of men he can trust – former beat cop Malone, rookie cop Stone, and IRS accountant Wallace, who was assigned to help Ness with an eye on nailing Capone for tax evasion.
The point of view remains on Ness and his men for the bulk of the film. Capone is is kept removed from the day to day operations of his mob, making it difficult to pin him on any crime. The mob boss does keep his own men in line, with force if needed. The choice is be loyal to Capone or die. Ness, however, earned the loyalty of the Untouchables. The difference between the mobsters and the law enforcement agents is wide. Capone has an expensive home, has staff who will serve the finest dinner on silver plates and wine in crystal glasses. Ness has a simple house, crammed in between two similar houses, a wife and child, simple furnishings. When Ness goes out with his team, they go to a cheap diner.
Ness’ investigation includes a raid on a smuggling convoy along the Canadian border with the RCMP’s assistance, where he manages to arrest Capone’s bookkeeper. With some persuasion, the bookkeeper helps Wallace to decode the ledgers. Capone doesn’t take the news well. Nitti is sent to make sure the bookkeeper doesn’t testify, resulting in both the bookkeeper and Wallace dead. Capone ups the ante by having Malone killed as well.
Undaunted, Ness continues the fight. In his dying breath, Malone tells Ness about Capone’s other bookkeeper being sent out of town by rail later that night. Malone and Stone stake out the railway station, leading to one of the tensest scenes in cinema history. The clip below doesn’t show the tension building as Ness watches people arriving and trying to figure out who could be part of Capone’s gang. The shootout is the release of that tension.
With the bookkeeper, Ness is able to build a case for tax evasion against Capone. Despite an attempt at jury tampering, Capone is found guilty, is fined $50 000 and is given 11 years in prison.
The movie takes a few liberties. Some were needed because of the nature of the medium. Ness had ten men initially, all under thirty and idealistic. It’s harder to corrupt a young man full of idealism than an experienced man who has seen how the world works. The TV series could bring in different members through the use of a rotating cast of supporting actors. A film doesn’t have that luxury, so Ness has just Malone, Wallace, and Stone. Frank Nitti didn’t die during Capone’s trial from a fall from a building; Nitti took over Capone’s mob when Capone went to prison and died by his own hand in 1943. However, the film did keep the focus on Ness’ investigation of Capone.
While some of the historical facts were loose, visual details were accurate. Chicago landmarks were used, and the fashion of the era for men and women, for high class and for working class, was accurate. Visually, the film is lush. The 1959 TV series didn’t have the luxury of colour, so couldn’t be anywhere near as lush. The advantage of movies is budget, and The Untouchables made the most of this advantage.
Like the 1959 series, the 1987 film lets drama outweigh historical accuracy in a few areas. However, the strength of the cast, the writing, and the filming lets audiences ignore differences until well after the film is over. The Untouchables is a crime drama, a war between law & order and criminal enterprise, and is well worth viewing even if it isn’t 100% accurate.
Next week, Tom Amandes as Eliot Ness.
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.
Over the next few weeks, Lost in Translation will be looking at various incarnations of The Untouchables, including two TV series and a feature film. However, each of those can trace back to the real-life Untouchables, a group of agents who took down Al Capone in during Prohibition. The Untouchables, led by Eliot Ness, gained their nickname by turning down sizable bribes. The name also was used for Ness’ autobiography, the 1959 TV series, the 1987 film, and the 1993 TV series.
There is a history lesson to get through first, to set up the era. Prohibition, the banning of alcohol except for very limited uses or, if today’s media existed in the Roaring Twenties, “The War on Alcohol”, ran from January 19, 1920 until December 5, 1933. Instead of just enacting laws, the US went with a Constitutional amendment, the Eighteenth. To enforce the amendment, the Volstead Act was enacted, with Congress overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. The Act banned “intoxicating beverages”, which was further defined as anything having greater than 0.5% alcohol by volume. The restriction included home-brewing of beer but, thanks to the Bureau of Internal Revenue, not home wine making.
The Volstead Act also provided for the creation of the Bureau of Prohibition, a branch of the Treasury Department that was charged to enforce the law. The Bureau of Prohibition was understaffed, with an initial 1500 agents for the entire US, and lacked resources, with a budget of $500 000 (a little under $6.8 million today). There were no initial requirements to become an agent other than be recommended by a Congressman or local politician. Cronies easily slipped into the Bureau.
The lack of budget caused another problem. People weren’t willing to just stop drinking alcohol. Booze is a social lubricant; people enjoy going out for a couple of drinks with friends. Prohibition was brought in because of excesses, but it didn’t take into account the reasons why people drank alcohol. There is a huge difference between having a glass of wine with dinner and polishing off a six-pack in an hour. Since all alcohol, with exceptions for medicinal purposes and home-made wine, was illegal, the only way to get alcohol was to turn to the criminal element. Organized crime saw a massive influx of cash during Prohibition, enough that it was cheaper to pay off a Prohibition Agent with a year’s salary, $3000, to look the other way. Agents were underpaid, at least in the field. Combined with cronies put in by politicians who frequented speakeasies, the Bureau of Prohibition was a bandaid on a sucking chest wound.
Even if a speakeasy was found and closed, the fines involved weren’t enough to dissuade the fined from re-opening elsewhere. The Volstead Act just didn’t go far enough to be a deterrent. There were enough ways around the laws and enough people who didn’t care about the laws to stop the flow of alcohol. Organized crime flourished, allowing men like Al Capone to get rich while controlling cities.
A few things changed because of the corruption and lack of effect the existing laws were having. In 1927, the IRS started investigating tax evasion by mobsters and bootleggers. The IRS didn’t care where the income came from; it just wanted the income declared and taxed. In May, the ruling in the United States v Sullivan ruled that, yes, criminals still had to file tax returns, though the Fifth Amendment allowed for not revealing the source. With this, the IRS created a special unit specifically to go after tax evasion by mobsters.
In 1930, the Bureau of Prohibition was taken from Treasury and placed under the Department of Justice. Prohibition agents were investigating more violent crimes, which fell better under the umbrella of Justice. In Chicago, the US attorney appointed Eliot Ness as Special Agent in Charge of the area. Ness gathered the top agents in Chicago, all of whom were incorruptible and skilled, in order to take down Capone’s mob. After a few attempts at working with the Chicago Police Department on raids that were busts because of corruption in the department, Ness and his team worked alone on raids that did put a dent in Capone’s criminal empire.
Ultimately, Al Capone was arrested for tax evasion. The Volstead Act just could not do justice to everything the mobster did in his career. Capone was tried and convicted of five counts of tax evasion in 1931 and was sentenced to eleven years in prison and a then-record $50 000. Capone’s gang continued without him, but the biggest blow to rumrunners was to come.
In 1933, Utah became the thirty-sixth state to sign off on the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth entirely, ending Prohibition. However, there were some lasting effects. Organized crime got a strong foothold and a large infusion of cash during Prohibition. Corruption among Prohibition agents and local police left both with poor reputations, even if it wasn’t a majority of law enforcement officers involved. Several states ran into problems with revenues; taxes on alcohol funded a number of budgets. The Federal government lost $11 billion in tax revenue and spent another $300 million to enforce Prohibition.
There’s still some holdovers from the era. Cocktails became popular during the time; bartenders added juices, colas, ginger ale, and maple syrup to the bathtub gin they served to hide the taste of the raw alcohol and the impurities from the distilling process. NASCAR has its roots in bootleggers racing each other, even after Prohibition ended. Non-American breweries and distilleries made new in-roads to the US market. At least one brewery, Sleeman Breweries in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, has included its role in provided beer to the US during Prohibition in promotional material.
The stage is now set to review the various versions of The Untouchables, from three different eras. Each review will link back to this if a refresher is needed on the era. If some of what happens seems familiar, remember that some lessons take a long time to learn.