The Untouchables were something of an iconic group of federal prohibition agents that operated between 1928 and 1933, later immortalised in public consciousness by a memoir of two former said agents, Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley. The book sold well enough that a fictionalised television drama based on it was developed and aired on the ABC Network in the US from 1959 to 1963 (the same span of time as Peter Gunn). The writing was consistently pretty good, as was the cast, but for the standard of the time, it was possibly the most graphically violent series on television, some critics even proclaiming it “unfit for television” —now, by modern standards, it’s almost tame, but often enough there are scenes that can shock even myself, and I practically grew up on Law & Order and NYPD Blue.
The writing and direction was strong, it certainly holds up to the former controversy in that sense, but here’s a major flaw to the series that I noticed right away: This show is anachronistic as hell. Remember, this is set in the late 1920s and early ’30s. The hair, especially on the men, is awfully dry during an era when Brylcream ruled men’s hairdressing with an iron fist, and it’s awfully volumunous for a period when a deep side-part and slicked-back was pretty much the only way for a “real man” wear his hair (unless you were Ramon Novarro, but that’s another story for another time), I’ve watched maybe half as many episodes as were ever produced and still have yet to see a woman with fingerwaves, several women sport haircuts and styles that didn’t really happen until 1960 (including one low beehive / bouffant in at least one episode), the clothes are all late 1950s / early ’60s, and the jazz is often more cool than hot. Menus on chalkboards have 1960s pricing. This show has a bizarre penchant for putting the men in zoot suts, which didn’t really exist until later in the 1930s and didn’t have any real popularity until the 1940s. Dresses have 1960s waistlines and skirt hems —which would’ve been scandalous when compared to the standard just-above-midcalve flapper hemlines. The writing certainly tends to carry the story well enough that sometimes I forget about the wall to wall 1960s pretty early on, but other times, I just forget that it’s supposed to be set in the 1920/30s. It’s like watching Dirty Dancing and immediately forgetting that first scene where Jennifer Grey’s voice-over explains that it’s set in 1963, cos dear lord does everything else about that film look and feel 1986.
In fact, the egregious anachronisms give me incredibly mixed feelings about this show. The writing, direction, and acting is all great. Care is certainly made to give most episodes a feel of 1930s gangster films, or at least that this is giving a nod to that genre. As a period piece, though, it’s a complete failure that manages only slightly better to capture the early 1930s than, well, 1986’s Dirty Dancing managed to capture the early 1960s. It’s quite watchable, but more as a quality crime drama that was popular and controversial for its violence in the 1960s, but as a piece about the prohibition era, it ignores the changes made in the thirty years between the era it depicts and the era it was produced in.
In short: I want to like this show more than I do. I love me some quality crime drama television writing, and this has that. As a crime drama alone, it’s fairly good. On the other hand, anachronistic period pieces bother me more than they seem to bug most other people, and when I can list off at least eight things off the top of my head on how this scene alone fails as a period piece1…
…then it’s far too distracting for me to enjoy. Your mileage may vary.
1: Elizabeth Montgomery’s hair in the opening credits; Montgomery’s dress in the scene — waistline, hemines (that double-skirt thing is very 1940s), style; Montgomery’s handbag (too big); Montgomery’s hat (WAY too big); Robert Stack’s hat; Robert Stack’s suit