The Return of The Untouchables
By James Grahame
I was recently reminiscing about classic television shows with Retro Thing co-editor Bohus Blahut. He admitted an addiction to The Untouchables, a series based upon the autobiographical book by Elliot Ness. It ran for four years on ABC and loosely related Ness's experiences in the U.S. Justice Department in Chicago during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
I hadn't thought about the show for over a decade, since watching it in late night reruns on a Detroit TV station. For that reason, I must be one of the few people on Earth to associate Elliot Ness more strongly with 8 Mile Road than Chicago. Interestingly enough, a bit of Googling revealed that 14 episodes from Season 1 will be released on DVD in April 2007. But more on that later.
Elliot Ness began writing his memoirs in 1955 but passed away shortly before he was able to enjoy the pleasure of seeing his book become a bestseller. Desi Arnaz announced in early 1959 that Desilu Productions had purchased the movie and TV rights to the book. The Untouchables was originally shot for the big screen, although it debuted on CBS Television in April 1959 as a well-received 120 minute two part presentation that was later released in European cinemas as The Scarface Mob.
The decision to shoot The Untouchables for theatrical release
helped to ensure its longevity, because the beautiful black-and-white
cinematic feel of the film flowed into the series. Much of this was due
to the efforts of producer Quinn Martin, who imparted a distinctive
cinematic editing style featuring unusual camera angles and
night-for-night sequences (a rarity in the studio age).
ABC eventually outbid CBS for the broadcast rights, and the show hit the air in September 1959. Martin remained as producer throughout the show's first two seasons, ensuring that its look and feel remained true to his original cinematic vision (he later went on to helm The Fugitive and The Streets of San Francisco, among others). The series featured some wonderful character acting, although only Robert Stack carried his lead role into the series. At the time, Stack was better known as a movie actor and was reluctant to accept the lead role in the series.
Of course, The Untouchables wasn't without faults. Its focus on the Chicago mob raised concerns of stereotyping in the Italian-American community, and even the FBI was said to be somewhat miffed about the historical inaccuracies surrounding the downfall of mob boss Al Capone.
The Untouchables Season 1, Volume 1 features 14 episodes from the 1959-1960 season. In fact, it's already available for pre-order.