Ness returns, virtue intact Television hero from yesterday still has those untouchable values


November 07, 1991|By Michael Hill

RIGHT AT THE end of the first act of Sunday night's "The Return of Eliot Ness," there is confirmation that we are in the land of television mythology.

The year is 1947. Unlike the soldiers who are coming back from a war, Ness is coming back to one. He leaves his Ohio retirement and returns to Chicago because an old compatriot in arms has been killed in the line of duty.

Actually, this cop was killed in the apartment of a gangster's girlfriend -- she was, as Norman Mailer might put it, naked and dead -- and everybody just assumes that he was on the take.

Even the dead man's son, a cop himself, figures his father was one of the many tainted by illicit money in the corruption-plagued Windy City. But Ness knows better.

He had stood side by side with this man in the Capone years. If you wanted to cross the line, the money was available. This guy didn't. "He was," Ness explains to the son, "untouchable."

Just as when Leonard Nimoy turned around and introduced himself as Mr. Spock in the last scene of this week's "Star Trek: The Next Generation," or when Tonto once explained to the sole survivor of a group of ambushed Texas lawmen that he is "the lone Ranger," the line has a resonance that sends a chill up the spine of your collective television consciousness.

And so, "The Return of Eliot Ness" invites you to come with it to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the good guys were as pure as the driven snow and frowned on all those who weren't.

You will notice that that one line is the only mention of the series that spawned this re-hash, "The Untouchables," which ran on ABC from 1959 to 1963, but was only really a hit in one year, its second.

Clearly to avoid paying somebody some rights money, this movie was ostensibly made about Eliot Ness and, conveniently, Robert Stack had some experience with the role and was available to play him.

And, when Ness returns, it's to a different network, NBC, and, alas, without Walter Winchell's narration. "The Return of Eliot Ness" will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) Sunday night at 9 o'clock.

As in the original series, Ness is facing complications resulting from the departure of Al Capone. Then, it was the early 1930s, and Capone had left for jail and gangs battled over his turf. Now, Scarface has shuffled off this mortal coil and gangs are battling over his turf.

Stack approaches the role with the same minimalist style that served him so well in his previous incarnation. He uses the bullets in his gun for those whose evil deeds color them black, but bullets come out of his steely eyes when he looks at anyone who would settle for a life lived in a shade of gray.

Ness comes back to Chicago only to attend the funeral of his friend. But when he sees what's happened to the reputation of that friend, he jumps in. Though he doesn't seem to have a badge or any formal authorization from anybody, he is allowed to go around town shooting up the place, apparently simply on the strength of his name.

"The Return of Eliot Ness" does have a generational aspect to its plot, as Ness tries to pass along his values to his compatriot in the investigation, the son of his dead friend -- Gil Labine, played by Jack Coleman. And Ness deals with one of the old-time gangsters, Art Malto (Philip Bosco), as he tries to keep the reins on his son Bobby (Anthony DeSanto) who has an ambition and greed that would have made him a hero in the 1980s.

The basic plot, though, is as old as Adam and Eve, revolving around a temptress, played by Lisa Hartman, who shows an ability to play all sides of the four-poster in seeking her aims.

"The Untouchables," "The Lone Ranger," "Superman" and their ilk ran on television when the world seemed to be a simpler place, painted in black and white. We were good, the Commies were bad. Our TV heroes displayed moral certainty.

Nowadays, when you don't know if we're supposed to hope the Soviets go broke or not, or if we're supposed to side with the Serbs or the Croats -- when even Ness has taken a beating, depicted as violence-crazed in the movie "The Untouchables," as a publicity-seeking showboat in a TV film on Frank Nitti -- it's reassuring to see that Tommy gun once again in the firm grip of Robert Stack as Eliot Ness.

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