A SEAT ON THE FENCE
Airdate: November 24th, 1960
Written by William Templeton
Produced and Directed by Walter E. Grauman
Director of Photography Charles Straumer
Co-starring Joseph Anthony, Gene Lyons, Frank Silvera
Special Guest Star John McIntire
Featuring Val Avery, Frank Salinas, Olan Soule, Dan Barton, John Anderson, Arlene Sax, Len Lesser
“In late summer 1932, the underworld organized to compensate for the stemming of its supply of narcotics from Asia and southern Europe. Greedy for revenue derived from Chicago’s more than five thousand dope addicts, the syndicate had turned to the systematic robbery of retail druggists, doctor’s offices, and wholesale drug houses for its source of narcotics. The thefts were increasing ominously and becoming more daring. Though Eliot Ness was able to recognize the signatures of most of Chicago’s mobster leaders, he was not familiar with the technique of the mastermind behind this new outbreak of evil.”
Radio commentator Loren Hall (John McIntyre) becomes involved with disenfranchised syndicate drug supplier Dino Petrone (Frank Silvera), when Hall broadcasts a story that he is to be the recipient of a letter that will incriminate the hierarchy of the current narcotics operation in Chicago.
Dispatched to eliminate Petrone is hitman Willie Dasher (Gene Lyons), whom Petrone talks into sparking him long enough to get himself out of the country. But instead of leaving, Petrone sets himself back up in the drug business. For his failure to complete the contract, Dasher falls out of favor with his boss, Victor Bardo (Joseph Anthony). Dasher arrives to complete the job, but before his demise, Petrone had advised Hall that he will get the incriminating letter should anything happen to him. But the letter goes up in flames along with Petrone, leaving the puzzled radio personality the focus of attention for Bardo and Eliot Ness.
Ness cajoles and Bardo threatens, but Hall cannot produce what he does not have for either side. By chance, he runs across Dino’s sister, Carla (Arlene Sax) who had only recently arrived from Italy, but she knows nothing about the letter or the extent of her brother’s involvement with the syndicate.
Bardo ultimately has both Hall and Carla Petrone kidnapped and leaves an insulin prescription trail for Ness to follow and the Untouchables catch up with him before he can harm his captives. In a brief gunfight, Bardo is killed resisting arrest.
“With Victor Bardo’s death, another victory had been won by the Untouchables in their long fight against narcotics racketeering. Carla Petrone grew to love and respect her adopted country, while Loren Hall returned to his job a wiser man, having learned that even a journalist cannot sit on the fence forever.”
It isn’t clear why Dino Petrone got into so much trouble with Victor Bardo, and that feature sets the stage for a weak and confusing story. The main character, Loren Hall, is a gentlemanly version of Winchell (if one can imagine that), well-developed and finely portrayed by veteran actor John McIntire.
Worth noting also is that Ness only discovers the name of his antagonist roughly halfway through the episode and becasue Bardo is such a refined bore of a villain (something oft revisited in the Fourth Season), and since the conflict between Loren Hall and Ness rarely does much to send sparks flying, A Seat on the Fence remains basic filler wedged in between The Mark Of Cain and The Purple Gang. Why Willie never mentioned to Bardo that he destroyed the incriminating letter in question before his death allows the episode to sputter along.
There is, however, a common, but no less ugly flaw that deserves mention. When Willie Dasher is sent to knock off Dino Petrone, he manages to stop a train in a tunnel. Fact is, apart from the subway system and a legendary deeply buried network of utility tunnels that once entertained some narrow gauge freight equipment, there are no railway tunnels anywhere near Chicago, given that there are no mountains. Further, a speeding passenger train could not be stopped in one by piling a bunch of crates and boxes on the track. If this were so, trains wouldn’t be forever crashing into things that get in their way, like stalled cars and cavalier truck drivers. While the scene itself is well executed using a combination of b-roll, lighting and performances, ideas like that are hopelessly dated and aimed at unsophisticated audiences.
WINCHELL (in a thin reference to himself): In the late 20s and the ’30s, the broadcasting newspaper man held a unique position. He knew tycoons and bums, gangster sand reformers, blue-bloods, and call girls. He tried to keep faith with all of them. His sources of information depended on it.
HALL: Mr. Ness, you’re wasting your time. I won’t have another death on my conscious.
NESS: Pertone? Your hands are clean.
HALL: And the fact remains that he’s dead. I’m betraying no more trusts.
NESS: I can force you to talk.
HALL: Before a grand jury? What if I refuse to testify?
NESS: You’ll be cited for contempt of court.
HALL: And I’ll go to jail. Another victory for the Untouchables in their fight against major crime.
NESS: Crime, Mr. Hall, could never become major without the help of misguided people like you.
While the episode itself is relatively flat, it makes overt mention of a continuous narrative theme that comes up throughout the anthology of The Untouchables: that crime can only prosper with the consent of the public itself. From Winchell’s narration in the conclusion of the Westinghouse saga, the public’s “dangerous indifference” to Ness telling Hall that his neutral ground between the law and the lawless is part of what helps criminals keep their edge. As Quinn Martin remarked in a February 1960 issue of TV Guide: “As such, it is actually more dangerous today than it was 30 years ago. It’s easy enough for the private citizen to become enraged when a car full of goons swings down a street spouting machine-gun bullets. It’s not so easy to become enraged when people are quietly and effectively-being fleeced of millions of dollars without realizing it and, sometimes, actually enjoying it.”