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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

THE UNTOUCHABLES: SEASON 3, VOLUME 1 -- DVD review by porfle

If you've only seen the nostalgia-hued, touchy-feely DePalma film, you might be surprised to find that the classic TV series on which it was based was way more powerful and dark. As THE UNTOUCHABLES: SEASON 3, VOLUME 1 demonstrates, it was one of the most hardboiled, violent, adult crime series that ever hit the airwaves.

Robert Stack is perfectly cast as the four-square lawman Eliot Ness and seems to revel in playing one of TV's toughest and most incorruptible characters. As much as I like Kevin Costner's interpretation, the physically-imposing Stack looks much more hardcore and intimidating to the typical cowardly underworld figure.

We don't get to find out much if anything about his personal life or those of his crew--their job is to take down the bad guys, and their lives revolve around that job. It's as though they exist only to tirelessly battle organized crime in Chicago. As for comedy relief or lighthearted banter, the dead-serious nature of the show leaves precious little room for such things. This is further emphasized by famed radio newscaster Walter Winchell's distinctively straight-faced narration and a somber musical score (some of the same cues were used in George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD).

The Desilu backlot is the perfect backdrop for the show's self-contained film noir fantasy world populated by hardbitten cops (both honest and dirty), cowering civilians, and an endlessly fascinating rogue's gallery of ruthless crime bosses and their trigger-happy gunsels. Bruce Gordon glowers and growls as the imprisoned Al Capone's surly surrogate, Frank Nitti, who rules Chicago's underworld with an iron hand. Several episodes involve Nitti's attempts to import and distribute illegal booze and narcotics while Ness and his men work to cut off his supply or nab his top capos. Gambling in various forms is another major crime enterprise infesting the city.

Gordon seems to relish playing the role of a gangland kingpin, as do most of the guest stars who portray underbosses, upstart competitors, or soldiers. In "The Death Tree", Charles Bronson takes control of a gypsy ruling council through assassination and terror. Peter Falk is "The Troubleshooter", rising quickly in the crime ranks by eliminating problems and targeting Ness for a frame-up. "The Matt Bass Scheme" features a grinning Telly Savalas as an enterprising thug who plans to transport whiskey into the city via a sewer pipeline.

Ruth Roman is outstanding as a homicidal female criminal in "Man Killer." Herschel Bernardi, Don Gordon, and Robert Emhardt are a trio of crime specialists who decide to combine their talents while hasbeen ex-boss Jay C. Flippen is duped into serving as their "Fall Guy." In "Power Play", Albert Salmi gives one of his best-ever performances as a fugitive harbored by a lonely spinster (Mary Fickett) who has deadly designs on him.

"The Gang War" is an exciting tale of rival crime boss Victor Buono's airborne smuggling racket which draws the ire of both Nitti and Ness, with lethal results. And in the suspenseful "The Whitey Steele Story", Ness himself goes undercover as a surly thug in order to expose a gambling racket, while Henry Silva and Murray Hamilton threaten to expose his true identity.

Other noteworthy guest stars appearing in this collection include James Gregory, Cloris Leachman, Vincent Gardenia, Carroll O'Connor, Bing Russell, Marc Lawrence, Antony Carbone (CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA), Arlene (Sax) Martel, Wendell Corey, Milt Seltzer, Michael Constantine, Joe Turkel, Paul Richards, Mike Kellin, Theodore Marcuse, Vic Perrin, Harold J. Stone, Joan Staley (THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN), John Larch, Barbara Luna, Vaughn Taylor, George Tobias, Dabbs Greer, Arthur Hill, Simon Oakland, Gavin MacLeod, Ed Nelson, Paul Birch, Herbie Faye, Frank Cady, Phillip Pine, Ed Asner, Bert Convy, and Dyan Cannon. Peter Coe of such films as THE MUMMY'S CURSE and HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN even turns up as a two-bit thug named "Flipper."

More than just showing up to collect a paycheck, these guest stars give solid performances that reflect the feature-film quality of the writing and production values of the show. Each episode has the look and feel of a classic-era Warner Bros. gangster picture, with exquisite black-and-white cinematography and stylish direction by the likes of Paul Wendkos, Bernard L. Kowalski, and Abner Biberman.

This is one of the most violent shows of its era. The body count mounts quickly as characters are brutally rubbed out in various nasty ways, usually after crossing Frank Nitti or squealing to the cops, and the lethal action is always well-staged. Nowhere is this more evident than in the episode entitled "Loophole", in which crooked lawyer Jack Klugman flaunts the law to keep vicious criminal Martin Landau out of jail. A drive-by hit on a potential witness outside the courtroom explodes into a chaotic, bullet-riddled street battle filled with blazing Tommy guns and crashing cars. The sequence is beautifully directed and thrilling, rivaling similar scenes in the GODFATHER films.

The four discs in this DVD set contain 16 episodes which originally aired 1961-1962. Picture is 4:3 full-screen and looks great. Sound is Dolby Digital English and Spanish mono. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. No bonus features.

If you get a bang out of vintage gangster flicks, THE UNTOUCHABLES: SEASON 3, VOLUME 1 is a great collection of hard-hitting, action-packed entertainment from one of the best crime shows ever produced. This noirish and violent show doesn't pull any punches.

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