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Sometimes the magic happens, sometimes it doesn't. Consider this basic plot for a TV series: Back in the roaring twenties, a a tough but honest cop gathers around him an elite force and sets out to stop organized crime in a major American city. Sound familiar? Sure . . . it's The Untouchables, which premiered in 1959 on ABC with Robert Stack as Eliot Ness. Also, though, it's The Lawless Years, which began that same autumn week on 'another network.' James Gregory played Barney Ruditsky, a New York City (The Untouchables was based in Chicago) cop who likewise puts together a task force to take on the mob. But the magic didn't quite happen, because very few people watched, even as The Untouchables became an instantaneous hit. Maybe it's that the fine character actor Gregory (catch him as Angela Lasnbury's pathetic husband in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE - no, not the abysmal remake, the original!) didn't exude the charisma and sex appeal of a born star like Stack. Maybe the members of his team weren't as interesting and/or diverse. Maybe they didn't have as strong character actors playing as intriguing villains (like Neville Brand and Bruce Gordon as Al Capone and Frank Nitti on the ABC show). Certainly, they did try to capture the tenor of the times and the atmosphere, including excellent music by Max Steiner, was terrific. Maybe it was the lack of Walter Winchell as the narrator, or the fact that at half an hour they couldn't develop as interesting situations. Any way you cut it, this show - which survived for two years - is one of those forgotten exercises in crime drama on the small screen.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
.... but probably golden sepia, it looked odd but dazzling. This was
quite an unusual find on "Best of TV Detectives". Obviously made hoping
to compete with the hugely successful "The Untouchables", it almost
succeeded, lasting 45 episodes and it copied the more famous show in
naming the episodes - "The Cutie Jaffe Story", "The Poison Ivy Story"
etc. It starred James Gregory who played Barney Ruditsky, head of the
FBI's Gangster Squad in the 1920s - the lawless years. He also played a
big part in breaking up Murder Incorporated and was a technical adviser
on the show.
The problem for me was with the half hour episodes the show was over before it got started and there was no detail of characterization. Typical was "The Dutch Schultz Story" - he was in a couple of scenes but the main story was about the mob's plan to ambush crime crusader Thomas E. Dewey and how it came unstuck. The time line was off too - everything was supposed to have happened in 1929 but this particular event really happened in the mid 1930s. Another episode, "Lucky Silva" told how the Mafia tried to gain prominence in the mid 1920s. Martin Landau had the title role (obviously derived from Lucky Luciano). It was not a series where you will find many later stars in smaller roles.
Two of the better episodes, I thought, were "The Morrison Story", about a corrupt judge wanting to make amends and "The Poison Ivy Story" about a gang of young punks who terrorized Brooklyn in the mid 1920s by holding up little delis. Worth a look.
Although I never saw the show, reading through some of the cast members names is like watching the credits roll on "The Untouchables". Joseph Mell, Stanley Adams, Chuck Hicks, Robert Carricart, Bernie Fein, Dick Wilson, Norman Alden, Herman Rudin, Bartlett Robinson, Dick Bakalyan and others apparently worked for Desilu while toiling for California National. Allen H. Miner even directed episodes of both series. In fact, if I'm reading the notes correctly, Chuck Hicks (who later did stunts on CHiPS) even played the same character: Agent LaMarr Kane during TLL season one's "The Billy Boy 'Rockabye' Creel Story". The Kane character was killed off in "The Untouchables" episode entitled "The Tri State Gang", along with "Big Bill Phillips" (described to perfection by Walter Winchell as "a hulking six-foot-four ox of a man") played by "Skipper" Alan Hale. The one glaring omission is WHICH network aired "The Lawless Years". For the life of me I simply don't recall this series, despite the fact it ran three seasons. Of course that is likely because for me, at that age, "The Untouchables" was about the only thing that REALLY mattered on the 21" screen of the B&W Westinghouse console in our living room.
I have watched nearly every episode of this series.
The plots are based on the memoirs of the real life gangster squad detective and - for me - I prefer this show without the narration of the Untouchables which was spoken in capital letters throughout.
This was a good series and is well worth a look, there is a realism about the way ordinary people were frightened into submission and there isn't the epilogue at the end of each episode which so ruins many shows.
Each episode starts with a slide show detailing the thugs who feature and there is no sympathy from Ruditsky for any of them. What makes this series really great is the fact that the real life Barney Ruditsky was technical adviser - there is an understated realism in each episode.
Believable characters and real stories - well worth a watch.
"The Lawless Years" was a mid-season replacement in the 1958-59 TV
season, predating the better known "Untouchables" by about six months.
As other reviews have stated, the similarities between "Lawless Years"
and "Untouchables" are striking: a stubborn detective who gathers a
team of unstoppable agents to fight crime during the Prohibition era.
The setting for this show, however, was New York City, which here seemed to lack some of the color of Chicago. The criminals, unlike the flamboyant bad guys that populated the Second City, seemed almost interchangeable from episode to episode. Barney Ruditsky's squad was likewise void of any strong personality.
The dry subtleties in "The Lawless Years" make their episodes appear like a possible pilot for "The Untouchables". (The pilot for the Eliot Ness show originally aired on Desilu Playhouse.) The reason the latter is remembered, in my opinion, is due to the stronger characterizations and better scripts on "The Untouchables".
"The Lawless Years" works as an enjoyable fill-in-the-blank crime procedural, but if the viewer wants a better taste of the flavor of the Prohibition era, best to stick with "The Untouchables"
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