Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Scarface Mob (1959)

The Scarface Mob was the major two-part television event that ushered in the famed crime series, The Untouchables, in 1959. Phil Karlson—who had directed noted film noirs such as Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street--was the director of the two-part pilot for the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse production company, which, with Desi Arnaz, produced I Love Lucy. Referred to as The Untouchables: Part 1 and The Untouchables: Part 2, the TV episodes were later shown theatrically as one feature. Narrated by the resolutely earnest Walter Winchell, The Scarface Mob (and later The Untouchables television series) was a crisply black-and-white cops-and-robbers crime analogue with strong noirish stylistic flourishes and undertones. The Scarface Mob promised an entirely tougher, grittier television series for viewers.

Embodying Eliot Ness is the perfectly cast Robert Stack, whose relentless sternness and almost limitless sense of propriety made him seem to be the ideal Ness. Stack possessed the ascetic screen presence with that immediately recognizable voice, which seemed to bring Ness to life, whether or not it was indeed true to the real man. Neville Brand plays his great nemesis, mobster Al Capone, adorned with a scar on his face for the role. Brand lets loose as Capone, and in one of the most memorable scenes, alternately laughs hysterically and glowers menacingly at his gangland associates. Bruce Gordon is Frank Nitti, Capone's chief enforcer. Keenan Wynn shines in the juiciest good guy part as ex-convict-turned-crime-fighter Joe Fuselli, whose knowledge of the Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects, some of the inner-workings of the Chicago gangs and indispensable “street smarts,” as they would be called today, are proven to be invaluable in aiding Ness and his unit of “Untouchables.”

Karlson's mise-en-scene transcends The Scarface Mob's television-production origins. Aided by standout television cinematographer Charles Straumer—who would go on to light seventy-eight episodes of the television crime saga—Karlson creates a Chicago underworld that seems quite unnervingly authentic. A dark room in which Ness and his colleagues begin to ensnare Nitti and his confreres by acting like dirty cops accepting a bribe becomes a habitat that, in its aphotic, dimly lit texture portends the duplicity employed by both lawman and outlaw. Straumer casts face-splitting shadows that indelibly cast the characters in the context of being two-faced. When one hood tries to kill Ness with a knife, and is stopped from doing so (partly thanks to Fuselli knowing what the knife-wielding killer was saying to Nitti in Sicilian), Karlson focuses on the weapon with appropriately penetrative focus. Fuselli angrily stabs a table with the knife, and the light caught on the blade increases the thick tension between Ness, Nitt and their respective forces.

One frame through which to look at The Scarface Mob is the controversial depiction of Italian- and Sicilian-Americans. Drawing the ire of the Knights of Columbus, The Untouchables television series slowly softened the unmistakably strong ethnic tropes that were interwoven in the depiction of the gangster characters. Nearly every conceivable manner in which to highlight the hoodlums' ethnicity is employed, from the raucous yelling matches to the repeated line of “Stupido!” to one another. It is understandable why the Knights of Columbus were concerned with the depictions of Italian- and Sicilian-Americans. Some of the mannerisms and details do call attention to themselves, prodding the viewer to recognize the “hot-blooded”—as it is called in both The Scarface Mob and later Untouchables episodes—emblematic figurative lineaments of the characters' ethnicity. (In one early episode, Stack's Ness says the only member of Capone's gang who doesn't have his brain holstered against his side is Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik, the Polish-born Jew, and Capone's accountant as well as financial and legal adviser, thus establishing dual ethnic typecasting, however based in reality, in one statement.) Occasionally the prominently embossed characterizations are almost oppressive in the borderline outré ethnic stereotypes. Yet the emphasis on a solid verisimilitude makes much of this both forgivable and understandable, given the almost intimate relationship The Scarface Mob establishes between the viewer and all of the characters. The intricacies of the Sicilian gangsters are brought to full, vivid life. One such chilling detail: the process through which a killer is chosen to commit a murder in the “bacio di morte” (“kiss of death”).

Where The Scarface Mob (and later The Untouchables) counters the very valance against which its drama transpires is the depictions of sympathetic characters belonging to the same ethnic background as the villains. Most especially, Wynn as Fuselli is outstanding in subtly creating an entirely fleshed out, endearing character. Fuselli's selflessness is given both quiet and bold expression, and the screenplay by Paul Monash based on the novel “The Untouchables” by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley creates a fully rounded, compassionate arc for this most pivotal character. The hairpin twists that dot the crime story's trajectory like speed limit signs next to a road are always plausible, if bedecked. What occurs to Fuselli leaves a last impression, and is forcefully moving. Likewise, Wolfe Barzell as an older man named Picco, a kindhearted but fearful Sicilian father figure to Fuselli, Picco, is palpably effective. In the first hour-long episode, The Empty Chair, a new man joins The Untouchables team—a brave Italian-American, Enrico Rossi, whose moral outrage at the unrelentingly cruel barbarism of criminals who share his ethnic background informs the character as much as his honorable courage. In these characters, considerable balance is provided.

Quasi-documentarian in its form, The Untouchables television series continually provoked intense responses from the viewer. Winchell's narration often criticized a “dangerously indifferent public.” Paradoxically, Al Capone is referred to on at least two occasions as the most infamous result of “America's experiment with Prohibition.” Viewing the issue of the ethnically centroidal matter, the fittingness of the real-life historical drama cannot be dismissed. Prohibition was but one major triumph of the progressive era. The temperance advocates who associated alcoholic consumption with poverty, insanity and criminality from approximately the 1830s onward in America began to target German and Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century as groups that were in need of significant collective reform. Whether evidenced by the powerful and propagandistic Anti-Saloon League of 1893-1933 or the anti-Catholic Immigration Restriction League born in Boston in 1894, which assailed the “undesirable immigrants” of southern and eastern Europe (Italians, Sicilians, Poles, Jew, etceteras), the crusade finally became the national Constitutional law after achieving great success in local jurisdictions and states. That certain criminal elements belonging in no small measure to the immigrant populations against whom many of the progressive era's most vehement constituents and representatives won success after success arose to cash in on the sudden illegality of something so many people wanted is fittingly amusing, and, in a somewhat warped way, perhaps almost a strange, ugly form of cosmic justice.

12 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

It has been over 40 years since I last saw an episode of the Untouchables, but the series still holds vivid memories of a gritty realism and immediacy that made it essential weekly viewing in my home. Alexander has admirably evoked this in this sharp and nuanced essay.

I am not American. I am Australian, but my father is Sicilian and my late mother was Greek. They were part of the great wave of migration to Australia from the 30s through to the 60s, so my childhood experience is akin to that of the first wave of second generation Italo-Americans growing up in the 20s and 30s in US cities, but the Mafia has never had a significant presence over here, so there is a significant difference. There was prejudice and stereotyping, and as far as popular entertainment went, we didn't exist, sort of like black Americans in 40s Hollywood.

So a show like The Untouchables was hardly welcome fare in that sense, but my father was an avid fan and he never complained of stereotyping - it should be understood in Southern Italy, la Cosa Nostra is a part of the fabric of life, so we would have had a hard time arguing bias.

There was no point fighting the truth - organised crime during Prohibition had a strong Sicilian presence. What did happen was the only thing that could happen did happen - both in the US and here: the great mass of decent Italians took the dream of a new country in both hands and embraced hard-work and an openness to establish roots and an honest future for their kids. They became proud citizens of their adopted nation - like the Jews, the Irish and others. In every street and every-day these new citizens belied the stereotypes and overcame prejudice in anonymity.

An experience of my childhood is a vivid example of this process. My parents ran a corner-store in a socially mixed suburb. One of my mother's customer's was an Anglo-lady who liked to drink. Our store was on the way to the pub. One Saturday afternoon, this lady was so drunk she collapsed in the gutter near the store and must have lay there a while as passers-by ignored her. When my mother saw her, she picked her-up and walked her home. Neither woman ever mentioned the episode to the other, but a new deeper bond existed between them.

Btw, I am reminded of other great TV crime dramas of the period: Peter Gun, Bourbon Street Beat, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, 87th Precinct... Is any of this stuff on DVD?

Alexander Coleman said...

Tony, I cannot express how thankful I am for your very detailed, intelligent and gently emotional comment. And thank you so very much for the kind words.

I myself, being an avid fan of noir, crime dramas and, yes, gangster pictures--so long as they're good, of course--as well as a great admirer of Italian and Sicilian culture, have always approached this issue with delicacy but also firmness with regards to your point: "What did happen was the only thing that could happen did happen - both in the US and here: the great mass of decent Italians took the dream of a new country in both hands and embraced hard-work and an openness to establish roots and an honest future for their kids. They became proud citizens of their adopted nation - like the Jews, the Irish and others."

Truer words on the subject were never written.

My own father was, as an adolescent, an enormous fan of The Untouchables television series. From him, I now have the show's first season on DVD. He described certain memorable scenes to me, and I had seen The Scarface Mob on an old BETA tape years ago. I was astonished at how much I remembered--I was probably ten or so when I saw the extravaganza, but as I watched it last week, I was taken aback by how powerful it remained, and how difficult it was to take one's eyes from the unfolding drama.

I truly appreciate your relating of your own story, Tony, and that of your mother and father. In reading about the Knights of Columbus controversy with regards to the television show, I learned that, apparently, many Italian- and Sicilian-Americans enjoyed the show.

That is a particularly touching story about your mother and the Anglo lady.

I am finding the series quite rewarding as I begin viewing the first season from the very beginning. Packed with intense drama (no one could stare like Robert Stack), double-crosses, killings and well-handled social commentary, this is a series that must have played a large, underappreciated role in redefining pulpy, gritty--and, thus far, serialized!--dramatic television. Evidently, the violence and risque subject matter (a striptease is performed in The Scarface Mob) put Arnaz and company in hot water with the FCC.

"Btw, I am reminded of other great TV crime dramas of the period: Peter Gun, Bourbon Street Beat, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, 87th Precinct... Is any of this stuff on DVD?"

Wow, I do not know, but I would love to find out. I have heard of all of those but Bourbon Street Beat. I'll have to look into all of those soon. Thank you for the tip in the way of a question. Classic TV shows are given DVD releases all the time nowadays... Speaking of my dad, I bought him the first three seasons of the Richard Boone western series, Have Gun--Will Travel, a show he loved when it ran.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Alexander, I loved Have Gun, Will Travel too. A great noirish western series about a hired gun. Richard Boone had a very hip persona. Sample episodes from other seasons are legally hosted on Hulu - but only for US IP addresses:(

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, I had just gone to bed before your second comment appeared, Tony.

Yes, I keep wishing that the latter seasons would be released. Have Gun--Will Travel was a fine show, a western noir of sorts like you say. Richard Boone was terrific in it.

Sam Juliano said...

Oddly enough Tony, none of those classic television crim edramas you mention are on legitimate DVD yet. that was a fantastic story about the immigration experience, and I wanted to address that comment here. The story there of your mother's rescue of that intoxicated woman and their ensuing bond is very moving.
This is one of the greatest 'comments' I've ever read. But then, Alexander's response was fascinating as well and the ensuing discussion on these timeless shows.

I will make my longer response to Alexander's review of THE SCARFACE MOB at Dark City Dame's site and I will copy and paste it back here when I am done.

Sam Juliano said...

Quasi-documentarian in its form, The Untouchables television series continually provoked intense responses from the viewer. Winchell's narration often criticized a “dangerously indifferent public.” Paradoxically, Al Capone is referred to on at least two occasions as the most infamous result of “America's experiment with Prohibition.” Viewing the issue of the ethnically centroidal matter, the fittingness of the real-life historical drama cannot be dismissed. Prohibition was but one major triumph of the progressive era....."

Indeed, in this fecund and insightful passage, as with may others in this essay Alexander Coleman takes on the issue of public response, which in this context was pre-ceeded by a cogent lead-in that dealt with typecasting, a rigid stereotyping that as the author amusingly relates "caused great ire from the Knights of Columbus". (I actually was a member of that group years ago, as I am also Italian-American, and had to undergo quite an initiation as I recall). Some of the 'naturalistic' dialogue was rather insincere, like the chosen line 'stupido' which was a narrow constriction of what Italian_Americans said in exclamatory phrasing. I remeber THE SCARFACE MOB, but I don't own it, and better recall of course the UNTOUCHABLES series, which as you authoritatively relate was a convergence of elements, not the least of which was the stunning performances by Robert Stack (who deserved an Oscar for Sirk's 'Written on the Wind')and Neville Brand. Your attention to specifics in their style and reception is superlative.
In the end, it's your historical placement of this piece in the pantheon of television that makes it stand out most consumately. A marvelous launching of this series at Dark City Dame's incomparable residence.

January 7, 2009 5:29 PM

COPIED AND PASTED from the comment section of Dark City Dame's site.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you so much for the very comprehensive comments, Sam. Most appreciated as always. Fascinating indeed to learn that you became a member of the Knights of Columbus! Yes, some of the "ethnic" dialogue is insincere, and the stereotypes are present. However, there is little question that the TV movie and show were hard-hitting, noirish entertainment. Thank you again!

Anonymous said...

THE UNTOUCHABLES was a great TV show. Robert Stack was an awesome presence.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes indeed, Anonymous. Thank you for the comment.

mc said...

Fantastic review. I just saw this recently and enjoyed the heck out of it. Robert Stack was something else.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, mc, for the kind comment. You're right--Robert Stack was terrific.

Jacob said...

Pretty effective information, lots of thanks for the article.
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