The great thing about The Untouchables was the fact that it was the closest thing TV ever got to film noir. While none of the episodes ever reached the heights of The Maltese Falcon or Touch Of Evil, they were definite touchstones for one of the best cop shows ever.
The most recent DVD reissue of The Untouchables is Season Three Volume Two. The twelve one-hour weekly episodes originally aired from March to July 1962. This may well be well be the high point of the series. The writers had clearly found their voices, and the acting is superb. What makes season three stand out for me so much is the fact that the program is progressing in real-time. As the days of Prohibition are coming to an end, Eliot Ness and his men begin to turn their attention to the other vices of the day: gambling, prostitution, and narcotics.
The Untouchables always had a pretty gritty feel to it, but in season three, there seems to be more of an effort to reflect the truth than ever before. The moral ambiguities of both good and bad guys have never been more pronounced. And no matter what, you gotta love the shootouts.
More than anything though, I think it was during this season that The Untouchables really started to reflect contemporary thoughts on the Mob. Remember, until RFK really started after them as his brother JFK’s Attorney General, organized crime had been allowed to flourish. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover would not even admit that the Mafia existed for years.
The stories, action, and acting really are top-notch in this series; it is little wonder that the show is so fondly remembered. There is another treat though with this series of DVD reissues. Never have the clichéd words “In glorious black and white” been so true. I mentioned "film noir" earlier as an obvious influence in many aspects of The Untouchables. One of the most striking is the use of light and shadow.
Some noir films were extreme in their use of darkness and light, which makes them somewhat difficult to follow at times, no matter what the director is trying to say visually. Because of the limits of TV though, and the mass entertainment nature of the medium, these elements had to be held in check somewhat.
What emerges is a nearly perfect combination, on some of the finest film stock ever. These episodes are absolutely pristine. Not a glitch or lighting problem anywhere throughout all of this material. All I can say is that the negatives must have been stored in Fort Knox, because the visual quality of the programs is outstanding. It is as if the shows were filmed yesterday.
Although I am not the biggest fan of the decision to release each season in two separate volumes, The Untouchables remains true “must-see TV.” It is also my contention that of the four-season run, season three was the finest. The Untouchables was about as good as any TV show about the Feds vs. the Mob ever got, at least until The Sopranos came along, 40 years later.