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.