THE UNTOUCHABLES: SEASON 1, VOLUME 1
Image B+ Sound B Extras D+
"The Empty Chair," "Ma Barker and Her Boys," "The George 'Bugs' Moran Story," "The Jake Lingle Killings," "Ain't We Got Fun," "Vincent 'Mad Dog' Coll," "Mexican Stake-Out," "The Artichoke King," "The Tri-State Gang," "The Dutch Schultz Story," "You Can't Pick the Number," "The Underground Railway," "Syndicate Sanctuary," "The Noise of Death"
THE SCARFACE MOB
***/**** Image A- Sound B Extras D+
starring Robert Stack, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Nichols, Pat Crowley
written by Paul Monash, based on the novel The Untouchables by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley
directed by Phil Karlson
by Ian Pugh I love Brian De Palma's The Untouchables precisely for the self-consciously fictionalized varnish that curiously seems to have earned it disdain among the director's devotees. Apart from its romantic, "pure cinema" thrills, however, its Hollywood gloss is the perfect complement to De Palma's penchant for effortlessly transforming assaults on the body into assaults on the mind: an undercurrent of violence constantly threatens to erupt and destroy the gentle exterior of a make-believe 1930s Utopia dictated by fedoras and pinstripe suits. No such undercurrent exists in the original 1959-63 Robert Stack television series on which the 1987 film is ostensibly based--it, too, is pure romanticism, but of a sleazier, more straightforward breed. Corruption and greed are obvious and rampant in "The Untouchables"' world, and the violence that greets dissent is treated as an accepted fact of everyday life. Each episode of the series begins with a brief preview of the scene featuring the most gunfire (usually taking out some poor schmuck who crossed his superiors), which quickly establishes the down-and-dirty rules in play. The greatest aspect of "The Untouchables" lies in how these scenes incite both a visceral thrill and the soon-fulfilled desire to see justice served.
The same goes for the series proper, launching with the fittingly-titled "The Empty Chair," wherein enforcer Frank Nitti (Bruce Gordon) and his hoods battle for control of the Chicago empire after Ness and his boys drag Capone off for income-tax evasion at the conclusion of The Scarface Mob. Indeed, the lack of Capone leaves something of a vacuum "The Untouchables" labours to refill; subsequent yarns find Ness putting the kibosh on prominent gangsters of the era (or at least colourful, fictionalized personalities), but none carry the name recognition to compete with Scarface himself. From a brief comment regarding a nearby goon who once acted as his chauffeur to the tracing back of a murder weapon he once used, every episode refers to Capone or his downfall in some capacity--simultaneously acknowledging his vital place in the mythology of the era and the final consequences of his lifestyle. It suggests something of an admission on the show's part that the reality was infinitely more grand than anything you could make up. By the same token, it explains "The Untouchables"' overwhelming preference for focusing on its seedier elements, in order to get away from the glamorization of gangsters.
As a white-hat hero, although Stack was one of the best, his presence is actually used more sparingly than a newcomer to the series might imagine. Many times Ness and his largely anonymous crew are only around to pick up the pieces as the criminal underworld devours itself from the inside-out with roundelays of excess and backstabbing. Such treatment ultimately results in two distinct forms of exhilaration--the endless stream of gangland violence, occasionally interrupted by shorter bursts of violence from the feds, indulging the viewer's more prurient desires while leaving a feel-good epilogue in the name of justice by association of last-man-standing. Not to mention, of course, how Ness's greatest victories result in the show's most memorable images: a blast of Tommy Gun fire from a dying crook, ripping a grandfather clock apart; four revolvers, each erupting from a different corner of the screen, levelled at a captive criminal; and an axe buried in a poker table strewn with dirty money. (The show in fact often recycled its raid montages, perhaps to pinch pennies but undoubtedly to capitalize on their iconic resonance.) "The Untouchables" draws clear-cut lines between its heroes and villains, to be sure, but it takes neither for granted and understands the guttural attraction to both "lifestyles" in popular entertainment. In so doing, it reveals its ultimate sympathy for an "indifferent public" that indirectly allows crime to flourish; its frequent condemnations of such indifference can thus perhaps best be seen as a simple argument to sway its viewers towards virtue.
The first fourteen episodes of "The Untouchables" arrive on DVD alongside The Scarface Mob in a four-disc set from Paramount's CBS Video branch. Transferred, like the series itself, in its native fullscreen aspect ratio, The Scarface Mob is practically bathed in rich noir shadows of deep black and nuanced grey; subsequent instalments are shot a lot brighter and maintain an impressive sharpness here, though the average episode reveals more print debris than does the entirety of the pilot. The Dolby 2.0 mono sound is consistently good across the board despite the occasional quirk in volume.
The only real "extra" appends The Scarface Mob. Although the TV version of the two-part pilot is absent from this package, the film is preceded by introductions from producer Desi Arnaz and narrator Walter Winchell as they prefaced said pilot's debut on "The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse". With the image of Ricky Ricardo forever burned into our minds, it's a tad awkward to see Arnaz playing it so straight, though as a whole the piece is of little value beyond that of a historical curio. Considering the many stories and critical examinations surrounding "The Untouchables"--including (not unfounded) accusations of Italian stereotyping and rumours that the mob once put a hit out on Arnaz--there's no telling if the lack of supplementary material is a matter of missed opportunity or the powers-that-be hoarding stuff for future volumes. Disc 1 opens with a choice to go straight to the main menu or a block of DVD previews for various CBS-Paramount dramas ("Num8ers", "NCIS", "Medium", "The 4400", and several incarnations of "CSI") as well as "Mission: Impossible: The Complete First Season". Originally published: June 20, 2007.
50 minutes/episode, 102 minutes (feature); NR; 1.33:1; English DD 2.0 (Mono), Spanish DD 2.0 (Mono); CC; English, Spanish, Portuguese subtitles; 4 DVD-9s; Region 1; Paramount