The Nero Rankin Story – Episode Review

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THE NERO RANKIN STORY

Airdate: May 11th, 1961
Written by Leonard Kantor
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Produced by Lloyd Richards
Director of Photography Charles Straumer
Special Guest Star Joanna Moore
Co-starring Will Kaluva, John Dehner
Featuring John Duke, Jean Carson, Richard Karlan, Barry Kelly, Brook Byron, Murvyn Vye, Wolfe Barzell

“September, 1933. Although Eliot Ness had successfully destroyed the Underground Court, he had not been able to smash its parent organization, the Big Syndicate, then in control of over fifty percent of the nation’s crime. With the death of Judge Foley, chief of the court and chairman of the Syndicate, it was expected that the power of the Syndicate would wane. But, on September the 16th, at a roadhouse on the outskirts of Chicago, top-ranking members of the national organization had congregated to vote on the man whom Foley had designated as his successor months before he died.

“The heir apparent was an elder chieftain of crime named Nero Rankin, Foley’s teacher, in infamy, and at present, proprietor of Chicago’s most popular roadhouse, the Club Debutante. But before Rankin could assume his role as head of the Syndicate, he had to win a vote of approval by the Syndicate big wigs: Maury Brigger, who controlled the Southwest; Lou Hyndorf, boss of the East Coast from Canada to the Florida Keyes; Hooey Barker, who had been able to dominate the underworld of the Midwest without stepping on Al Capone’s toes; Patty Polofsky of Detroit, who headed the gunman squad, and Cy Brenner of New Orleans, bookkeeper for the Syndicate. Others present were top-ranking subordinates of the Syndicate who had no voting privileges.”

After narrowly winning his seat as head of the Big Syndicate, elder warlord Nero Rankin (Will Kaluva), proves to be an unpopular chairman, especially with Hooey Barker (John Dehner), who has designs on the throne. Barker puts his girlfriend, Althea (Joanna Moore), up for the job of Rankin’s secretary, where she will keep an eye on the old man for him and the rest of the Syndicate brass. Instead, she falls for him as the type who “loves popsies” and the diamonds he bestows upon her. Unbeknownst to the Syndicate, Rankin has a heart condition and has offered Eliot Ness the key to sinking the syndicate – but only after he dies.

With Ness interrupting Rankin’s operations nightly, he dispatches a carload of thugs to gun down innocent citizens outside the Federal Building. This act, he envisions, will prove his mettle to other syndicate leaders and force Ness to lay off  – until one of the witnesses positively identifies the wheelman for the trigger.

“Ness took the remaining ranking members of the Syndicate alive. From the ledgers and the books produced by Cy Brenner, came the evidence that led to prison terms for them ranging from twenty years to life. For Althea, as a possessor of stolen diamonds, there were several years without bubble baths. As for Nero Ranldn, his heart managed to hold out for eleven years, all of them spent behind bars. But, when he received word of his probation, it faltered, and he died of the good news.”

REVIEW

The sequel to the much superior The Underground Court earlier in the season, The Nero Rankin Story features a tiny uncredited cameo by Ernestine Wade as Althea’s maid. Wade was known to millions as Saphire Stevens, the long-suffering wife of Tim Moore’s George Kingfish Stevens in The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show on television, and had been one of the voices on the show in its later years on radio.

If anything is at all interesting about this program it is Joanna Moore, enjoying bubble baths and squeaking playfully as Rankin’s secretary. She has the charm of Gracie Allen’s mind enclosed in the topography of a 1930s centerfold. Dotted with stolen footage from previous episodes and haphazardly plotted, The Nero Rankin Story feels a bit lifeless.

QUOTES

SYLVIA: I haven’t had much to do with cops before.
NESS:
If you stick us, we bleed.

ALTHEA: Since when have you been giving out apples without worms in ’em?

OBSERVATIONS

• Never one to suffer fools, Ness absolutely glowers his way throughout the entire episode, shunning a newspaper photographer (“Don’t you ever smile?”) and his disdain for Rankin apparent in their meeting – all of this is before Rankin spins a careful of Thompson submachine guns at innocent civilians outside the Federal Building.
• Byron Morrow’s uncredited cameo as Hartley Lester plays the role that would typically be filled by Ness’ superior, Beecher Asbury.
• Brook Byron will be back in The Ginnie Littlesmith Story in the Third Season, playing more or less the same type, but with a much stronger Leonard Kantor script.

HISTORICAL NOTES

• In the episode, the address of the Federal Building is listed as 913 Dearborn Street. In reality, Eliot Ness and his squad had an office in the Transportation Building at 600 South Dearborn Street. Ness had taken up space there to evade the prying eyes and ears of less trustworthy officers of the law.

GALLERY

Stranglehold – Episode Review

By Episode Review, Season 2 No Comments

STRANGLEHOLD

Airdate: May 4th, 1961
Written by Harry Kronman
Directed by Paul Wendkos
Produced by Alan Armer
Director of Photography Charles Straumer
Special Guest Star Ricardo Montalban.
Co-starring Philip Pine, Kevin Hagen.
Featuring Trevor Bardette, Robert J. Wilke, Oscar Beregi, Burt Miller,
Adrienne Marden, Gene Roth, Frank Puglia.

“The Prohibition years wrote a dark page in our history. Americans who had once defied a king, refusing to pay a tax on tea, now paid a tax to the underworld on everything they drank or ate. From booze to bacon, from medicine to milk, racketeers poked their greedy fingers into every corner of the nation’s business. One little pig was going to market: The Fulton Fish Market in New York. A wholesale market, serving the entire east, shipping as far as Mississippi; a business of fantastic totals turning over $200 million a year, weighing out 700 million pounds of fish and one man’s thumb resting heavy on the scale.”

Eliot Ness is called in to investigate the stench in the Fulton Fish Market and gathers enough evidence on New York mobster Frank Makouris (Ricardo Montalban), to call in the grand jury. But thanks to Makouris’ reign of terror on the local fishermen, Ness cannot find anyone willing to testify. After his boat is destroyed, Joe McGonigle (Trevor Bardette) decides he has had enough and calls Ness. But the phone lines have been tapped by Makouris’ men, and the old fisherman is found murdered in his garage.

Fearful that the entire New York syndicate may now be threatened, Dutch Schultz (Robert J. Wilke), persuades Makouris to sacrifice Lenny Shaw (Philip Pine), one of his two closest men. But his other man, Swede Kelso (Kevin Hagen), reluctant to kill his buddy, shoots him in the arm at a distance enough to fool Makouris into believing him dead. Shaw fails to understand, and while recovering in protective secrecy, devises a plan to even the score with both men. He emerges at his own wake, an elaborate party thrown by Makouris to celebrate his departure, only to shock everyone, including Swede, who had little choice but to believe the falsified newspaper accounts of Shaw’s death. The first shots bring Swede down, but when Lenny turns to take out Makouris, Ness arrives to disarm him. In his dying breath, Swede, a man of few words, reveals his earlier plan to wing Shaw to “make it look right.”

“Lenny Shaw was sentenced to life imprisonment. Frank Makouris, convicted on Lenny’s testimony, was executed on March 25th, 1933. It made quite a difference at the Fulton Street Market. Within two days after Makouris’ execution, wholesale prices fell fifty-two percent.” 

REVIEW

Ricardo Montalban guest stars in this well imagined vehicle that deals not only with the rackets fouling New York’s Fulton Fish Market, but adds a second element of interest seldom examined in the series: The relationship between the top mobster and his hired guns.

Usually thought of as simply mindless hoods, Philip Pine and Kevin Hagen portray two close friends who must face off in a struggle for survival when the mob boss tries to offer one up as a sacrificial lamb. Indeed, the two men are murderers, but have normal tendencies to form bonds between themselves like regular folks. It’s difficult to feel much compassion for killers, but Kronman was able to write the parts in such a way that permits a high degree of interest with a very small degree of sympathy.

Despite the grins and friendly banter, Shaw is a hired killer and his personality is the opposite of Swede, who doesn’t say much and appears to think even less. Showing almost no emotion, he is more the portrait of what one might expect in that line of work. But in the end, of course, he lights up briefly when he discovers that his buddy didn’t die, just before entertaining a couple of holes in his abdomen delivered in mistaken revenge.

Ricardo Montalban is a splendidly slimy Frank Makouris and plays him with the usual relish he brings to all his roles. Especially intense is a scene where Makouris confronts Swede with the prospect of being killed if he fails to bring down Lenny Shaw. Swede, appearing to be forced into thought well beyond his normal light duty, stares off confused and fearful while Makouris menaces him with bursting eyes and five prolonged turns of a telephone dial that would connect Swede to his own demise did he not interrupt it on the fifth digit.

Interestingly, Joe Kulak pops up for his second appearance. (“I’ve had some dealings with Ness before,” he utters dryly in an indirect reference to a shared history that has yet to be written.) While the time period of the year is fuzzy, it must occur in canon before the storyline of The Organization.

Much like Frank Nitti managed earlier the same season, Kulak gets bumped off only to come back for more. It does seem a little curious to place him at the head of the table with Dutch Schultz and Lepke Buchalter when his debut episode indicated he was from and resided in St. Louis.  Screenwriter Kronman was probably delighted to reinsert what may have been his creation, but Kulak seems more like a plug-and-play-heavy than anything else. After ducking out of the way of Lenny’s gun during the party, Kulak is otherwise invisible to Ness – a missed opportunity.

QUOTES

SWEDE: Ask Makouris. I was with some friends.
NESS:
Everybody says Lenny was your friend. You’d never know it.

LENNY: I’m dead, Frankie. I even had to come in this place the back way. A swell joint like this, they don’t let no ghosts in the lobby.

OBSERVATIONS

• Robert J. Wilke works his way through the quiet portrayal of Dutch Schultz, who had previously been portrayed by Lawrence Dobkin in three earlier episodes. Wilke will be back as a snarling George Bugs Moran in Arsenal and The Eddie O’Gara Story in the Third and Fourth Seasons respectively.
• Are Lenny and Swede just friends?
• Aside from the exploding debris never landing in the water, the bombing of the boat is a clever pairing of three separate shots – the “dock” set at the Forty Acres backlot, the model boat, and the water beneath it.
• The shot of the injured and deranged Lenny stepping across a newspaper featuring a photo of his own face is a delightful touch.

GALLERY