Old cars, a raging black and white, the characteristic voice-over and a group of policemen who look “tough to kill”. It was to turn on the Ranser and find a show, one of those reserved for movies or black novels from the “Mystery Club.” But The Untouchables it was on open television, and it turned out to be a gateway to a rare narrative on the small screen of the time, which had the added bonus of being based on real events. Or almost.
Chicago in the days of Al Capone, when the mafia had such absolute control of the city that it was known as “the capital of crime.” Assassinations, account adjustments and, in inferior conditions, the group of policemen commanded by Eliot Ness, who were trying to bring some order to blood and fire. The scripts of The Untouchables They were based on the memoirs that Ness himself had published with Oscar Fraley, a resource that provided a patina of verisimilitude to each of the stories that were presented each week for an hour.
Producer Quinn Martin was the promoter of the idea, and also the one who sought out Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Jr. to make it come true through Desilu Productions. The couple were immediately excited, but proposed a pilot test first. Thus, on October 15, 1959, as part of the Washington Desilu Special the first of the stories was presented. Two things led to immediate success: the first had to do with the raw narrative and use of violence, the second was the choice of the main character. Actor Robert Stack gave Ness a ruthless agent bearing, ideal for the show’s tone, but a bit off the mark.
Before Stack, various actors had been tempted for the role. The first were Van Heflin and Van Johnson, both very popular then, but the stars were not convinced, since they saw the program as a sure failure that would drag them down, curtailing their chances of moving forward in Hollywood. A big mistake judging by the results. Plan B featured Fred MacMurray, Jack Lord, and Cliff Robertson, who politely said no as well. The solution was to put the bar lower and find someone with less fame, and also less pretensions.
Born Charles Langford Modini, Robert Stack had a prolific Hollywood career that no one remembers. By the time his consecrating role in The UntouchablesThe actor had some thirty films to his credit and had worked with Ernst Lubitsch, William Castle, Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk, among others. However, when a photo of him appears, his image is immediately associated with that of the implacable agent, an enemy of Al Capone.
On the other side of the coin was Eliot Ness himself, a man who was more of a desk than an action. The policeman was obsessed with fighting crime in the days of Prohibition, and that is why he formed a group of nine men and named them “The Untouchables” (which would be something like “the insobornables”). It was also the title of his book, on which the show was based.
The cut made by the series left out some setbacks in the agent’s life, which overshadowed his image and led him to an early death at the age of 54, after a heart attack. For just two years, Ness was unable to see her life captured on the small screen.
After that promising start in the special of Desilu, The Untouchables it formally debuted in the United States on October 15, 1959 in prime time. With the voice of Walter Winchell in the role of narrator, offering the context of each episode. The data is more than anecdotal, since years before, in times of blacklists, Winchell had accused Lucille Ball of having sympathies with communism. The actress and producer had no problem accepting her name anyway, when producer Quinn Martin proposed it to her.
Word of mouth was leading to The Untouchables higher and higher, at the same time that different associations and figures shouted in the sky for the high level of violence that the show showed. Among those outraged was Frank Sinatra, who condemned the broadcast for being “stigmatizing” for the Italian-American community. Even Al Capone’s widow, Mae, sued for a million dollars for their negative image of her husband. Needless to say, they didn’t see a penny.
As the controversy grew, reflected meticulously in the newspapers of the time, some sponsors also lowered their auspices, in an attitude inversely proportional to what would happen today.
According to what was learned later, the other side of the counter were not happy with the series either. Aladena Fratianno, a mobster turned FBI informant, claimed that the mob had ordered the murder of Desi Arnaz, as a graphic example of why they didn’t have to mess with them. The informant said that two hitmen stood guard in front of the house of Lucille Ball’s husband, waiting for the precise moment to act. But before the moment arrived, the order was canceled, understanding that the image of the mafia would be even more resentful when it was awarded such a fact.
The issue of violence was an issue that also transcended borders. The memoirs are very aware of how, at the beginning of the 60s, Channel 9 rejected any idea of broadcasting The Untouchables, precisely because of that. More permissive was 11, which gave it a first opportunity quite late at night, and then Channel 2, which reaffirmed its validity in central time.
The Untouchables It garnered good reviews, a loyal audience and even the occasional award for its protagonist, but the harshness of his story was a stigma from which he could not get out. As the seasons progressed (there were four in total), the series began to lose strength, and they bet more on the charisma of the group than on the graphic nature of their actions. Even more prominence was given to the character of Enrico Rossi (Nicholas Georgiade), an Italian-American member of the group, as if to calm fans.
In the last season, an attempt was even made to add a lieutenant played by Barbara Stanwyck to the forces of the law, an idea that no one liked. Not even the actress, who after two chapters stood up and was never heard from again.
Come back through the big door
With less interesting stories, a repetitive scheme and various questions, The Untouchables It was dimming the brightness of its previous seasons (especially the second, where the series found the exact tone) and ended up being canceled. However, despite the debacle, both Eliot Ness and his team had made a deep impression on viewers at the time. So much so that in the following years they tried to give it new energy more than once.
In 1987, and after his experience with Scarface, Brian De Palma decides it’s time to take the series to the movies. The Untouchables marks a new starting point in history, with Kevin Costner as Ness, Robert De Niro as Al Capone, and Sean Connery drawing all the attention as a colleague of the former named Jim Malone. T he film -which is part of the HBO Max catalog- maintains the atmosphere of the program, but through the screen of the director. It can be said that more than a tribute, it is a source of inspiration.
The success of the film led to believe that it was time to return to the original idea, and in 1991 the film was broadcast for television The return of Eliot Ness. Three decades later, Robert Stack donned his hat, stiffened his jaw, and did his best to recreate the epic of the original. This time it was tried to follow the guidelines of the original series carefully, but in colors and with a touch of sensuality, very typical of the 90s. Both the proposal and the repercussion had little taste, just a glint in the eyes of the veterans but absolute indifference in the younger audience, to whom the product was actually aimed, thanks to the enthusiasm with which the De Palma blockbuster had been received.
Seen into the distance, The Untouchables it still maintains intact the conditions that made it a success. Painting of a stark era (both the 30s in fiction, and the 60s in production) in which an attempt was made to lay the foundations of a story in the most direct and forceful way possible. Whatever it takes and whoever falls.
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