The Scarface Mob

by Charlie Largent Apr 13, 2024

The Scarface Mob
Starring Robert Stack, Walter Winchell, Neville Brand
Written by Paul Monash
Photographed by Charles Straumer
Directed by Phil Karlson

The Great Depression made the high-rolling mobsters of the movies seem all the more glamorous; audiences not only sympathized with those sharp-dressed devils, they dreamed about trading places. Even a gangster’s demise could assume heroic proportions on the big screen; Edward G. Robinson met an operatic end in Little Caesar, and in White Heat, James Cagney’s death atop an oil tanker was staged like a fireworks display, an explosive sendoff usually reserved for ancient kings or halftime at the Super Bowl.

When these hoodlums finally appeared on TV, their bigger than life personalities were diminished by a 15″ Philco—but they gained a different kind of power courtesy of Walter Winchell, narrator for the prime time mobster saga, The Untouchables. The 62 year-old Winchell was a snarling muckracker with a huckster’s bravado—his broadcasting style, a rat-a-tat rush of carny barker theatrics and tabloid sensations, breathed life into The Untouchables‘s legendary criminals and the crime-busters who chased them.

Chief among those lawmen was a man named Eliot Ness who at the age of 27 managed a team of select agents charged with bringing down the country’s premiere mob boss, Al Capone. In 1957 Julian Messner published Ness’s autobiography The Untouchables, a “bullet by bullet” memoir recounting his dangerous adventures. Co-written by sports writer Oscar Fraley, the unexpected bestseller was optioned by Desi Arnaz and The Untouchables made its debut on CBS’s Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. All of this was lost on Ness—just before his book went to press he died of a heart attack on May 16, 1957.

Though Arnaz was a savvy producer in most respects, he was eager to strap on a shoulder holster and take the role of Ness himself. Lucy quieted him with an ethnic slur and that was that. Desi won the second round after Lucy pushed back against Winchell’s hiring—the columnist had insinuated on his radio show that she was a communist. Arnaz stood firm about Winchell’s casting, but only after defending his wife; “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that is not legitimate.” 

The part eventually went to 40 year-old Robert Stack, born and raised in Los Angeles, he had navigated Hollywood’s pitfalls with uncommon discipline, earning praise for his dramatic chops in Written on the Wind and his  beleaguered pilot in The High and the Mighty. The no-nonsense actor—his autobiography was titled Straight Shooting—played the steely Ness as a Cold War Robocop, programmed for truth, justice, and the American way. While Neff the Good Guy was its bulwark, the Bad Guys were the show’s real attraction; more than a few episodes were conceived as blood and thunder biographies of America’s most famous thugs—episodes like The Dutch Schultz Story and Ma Barker and Her Boys, lurid potboilers that were given a touch of class by Hollywood heavyweights like Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Redford.

Directed by Phil Karlson and written by Paul Monash, the two-hour pilot episode was divided in half and broadcast over two consecutive weeks. It was titled simply The Untouchables, and served as the origin story for Ness and his avengers with a particular focus on Capone for whom appearances were everything—he wore the most expensive clothes, ate at the best restaurants and ran his organization out of the swank Lexington hotel in downtown Chicago.

The subject was tailor-made for Karlson who attended school on Chicago’s west side and grew up observing those same gangsters at work (departing his local bijou one evening, Karlson watched as a gangland murder played out in front of the theater). But the director of the exceptionally hard-boiled The Phenix City Story and The Brothers Rico was wary of typical TV producers: “They won’t allow me to do what I want to do.” Arnaz chose Karlson precisely for his hard-hitting style and gave the director free rein—in other words, There Will Be Blood. On April 20, 1959, the ribbon was cut on one of the most sadistic productions in the history of commercial television; if Cody Jarrett’s death throes in White Heat were a celebration, dying on The Untouchables felt cheap, ugly, and queasily real.

In the wake of The Untouchables‘ popularity that two-part pilot was edited together for theatrical release and titled The Scarface Mob. The streamlined movie version benefits from the minor cuts but the big screen also betrayed the television-bound production—the exterior sets looked small and the acting too big. What remains potent is the violence; after Ness and his crew raid one of Capone’s breweries, they leave behind a battleground of bullet-riddled corpses face-down in pools of beer, a witty if grisly substitute for the blood the censors would never allow. 

After a few years on the force Ness had tired of his carefully planned raids upended by cops on the take, so he conceived of a special force made up of “six honest men” (the force was actually Herbert Hoover’s idea). The media tagged them “the untouchables” and they went to war with the mob, turning Chicago into a combat zone with Ness as a Patton in pinstripes, wading into battle with a leather helmet and brandishing a sawed-off shotgun. His secret weapon was a five-ton truck with a streetcar rail attached to its front, a tank that could smash through the walls of Capone’s hidden treasure mine.

Neville Brand played “Scarface” using an Italian accent so cartoonish it led to protests from congress, the FCC, and Mafia boss Sam Giancana who suggested a meeting between Frank Sinatra and Arnaz (it did not end well). Capone’s airtight organization was fronted by the memorably malevolent Frank Nitti played by Bruce Gordon, and a shifty mob lawyer played by John Hoyt. With those two seasoned crooks in charge, Ness’s best hope was George Ritchie, an inveterate bootlicker played by Joe Mantell (this charmer also acts as a pimp to his stripper wife played by Barbara Nichols).

Ritchie knew the layout of Capone’s office by heart and provided Ness all he needed to wiretap the mobster—the execution of that scheme is Karlson’s centerpiece, a suspenseful, well-edited sequence that careens between nightclubs, mobster lairs and Chicago’s cramped alleyways—it’s a bravura moment but it’s the promise of bloodshed and other horrors that gives the show its brazen energy, from the sexualized assault on Ness’s fiancée (Pat Crowley) to the ruthless retributions directed at his closest colleagues.

The show was received with praise (except from the Capone family who sued), and if there were any complaints about the episode’s wall-to-wall gunplay, they were deflected by show opposite it, Peter Gunn, an urbane detective series whose outré violence would soon be surpassed by Ness and the boys. The Scarface Mob did well enough that producers repeated the process in 1960 with Alcatraz Express, pieced together from The Big Train directed by John Peyser. It was followed by The Guns of Zangara, a re-edit of The Unhired Assassin directed by Howard Koch.

The Scarface Mob, the TV show that became a movie, is back where it belongs, in our living rooms—but this time in high definition thanks to Arrow’s new Blu-ray release. It’s the best of both worlds, the show’s original intimacy is restored and Charles Straumer’s gleaming cinematography (he was the man behind the camera for Batman and Mission Impossible) looks picture-perfect. Along with the superb transfer Arrow has included a generous side order of extras including Gang Busters, a new video essay on Phil Karlson by film critic David Cairns, and The Scarface Mob, focusing on the life and times of Eliot Ness by film critic Philip Kemp.

Inside the keep case are six postcard-sized lobby card reproductions and a double-sided poster with artwork by Jennifer Dionisio. Rounding out the package is an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Barry Forshaw and liner notes on The Untouchables by Dan Lynch and Kelly Lynch.


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Barry Lane

Is that really Herbert, or should that have been J. Edgar Hoover?

Mike D

I think Robert Stack got the gig after Van Johnson demanded too much money.

Barry Lane

No, Johnson turned it down, the medium was the issue not money.

Katherine Turney

I have the box set on THE UNTOUCHABLES, and have enjoyed it very much.

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