HEAD OF FIRE – FEET OF CLAY
Airdate: April 21st and September 29th, 1960
Written by Ben Maddow
Directed by Walter E. Grauman
Produced by Charles Russell
Director of Photography Charles Straumer
Special Guest Star Jack Warden
Co-starring Nehemiah Persoff, Madeline Rhue
Featuring Leo Gordon, Virginia Christine, Adrienne Marden, Norm Alden, Lawrence Maldonado, George Chirello, Patsy Kelly
“Eliot Ness, chief of the special unit known as the Untouchables, had not eaten in twelve hours. These were the twelve hours that the jury had been out deciding the case that Ness had prepared so carefully against a mobster named Johnny Fortunato. At 9 p.m., the jury came back and delivered its verdict: not guilty.”
Ness is delighted to encounter Frank Barber (Jack Warden), an old school chum he has not seen for many years, until he discovers early on that Barber is caught up with Chicago mobster Johnny Fortunato (Nehemiah Persoff).
Head of Fire – Feet of Clay is an intriguing if not flawed and occasionally ponderous experiment in humanizing Eliot Ness. (This author’s father and he agreed nearly 99% of the time as to what amounted to a quality Untouchables episode, but approach this installment from opposing viewpoints.)
The Untouchables did not often find itself making literary references, let alone ones to the Old Testament, but credit to Ben Maddow for following up his most excellent Noise of Death with an attempt to probe Ness’ psyche by mixing him in with a manipulative old friend. “Feet of Clay” is a quote from the Book of Daniel:
“Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.”
“Feet of Clay” refers to a character flaw or weakness in an otherwise laudable character or leader. It’s possible that “Head of Fire” is a reference to Ness and Barber is his “Feet of Clay.”
First the positives: This episode is a great opportunity to spend virtually the entire time with Robert Stack, whose Eliot Ness is positively beaming at the prospect of seeing Frank Barber within the first five minutes. Throughout the episode, we see Stack delighted, sensitive, outraged, confused and sensitive – likely the greatest range of emotions Stack will play in a single episode, let alone the entire series.
The episode’s fight scenes offer a great piece of theater, too. Fortunato arrives in the 8th round along with his entourage. They sit in quiet unison. Fortunato immediately orders a bag of peanuts from the vendor, dumps them onto the floor and pops the bag as a signal to his boy to throw the fight. The fighter goes down for the count on the next punch. Fortunato marches triumphantly off, his henchmen in tow.
Another highlight is Nehemiah Persoff, who gets to the chance to chew Maddow’s hard-boiled dialogue left and right. “You’re spoiling a beautiful friendship and a ten-dollar tie,” he snarls as Ness nearly strangles him. Johnny Fortunato is one of the more brazen and eloquent antagonists that Ness squares off against, flaunting his jury acquittal and dressing Ness down left and right. This great chemistry will catch ablaze again when Persoff and Stack face each other down in The Waxey Gordon Story in the Second Season.
Now, the not so positives: Ness spends most of the time wandering about, exerting a great deal of his otherwise valuable federal time. When Barber vanishes in the latter half of the episode, we’re left with his girlfriend/secretary Chickie, as she suffers from a traumatic brain injury following an assassination attempt meant for Barber. This is where the hour falters, sputtering its provoking premise into the aftermath of Barber and Chickie’s abusive relationship though Madlyn Rhue tries her best. Ness finally realizes just how twisted his old friend is when he meets Barber’s wife. Ness has been played for a fool as blackmail against Fortunato, through and through.
In the series final year, it was widely advertised that Ness would lose a few cases for the first time, when actually this episode dealt with that even if somewhat after the fact. Ness lost big in The Noise Of Death and failed to win his court case in The Dutch Schultz Story, where Luciano rose to take over. In both cases, the mobsters went down, but their syndicates survived.
Despite the miscues, the ending is nevertheless compellingly filmed. Fortunato and his men have been ambushed by Barber, leaving the two of them badly wounded. As Barber dies, Ness stands and drapes his jacket over him. The camera cranes back revealing Ness alone with Barber’s body as Fortunato howls at him from the background: “You got no heart. No heart. No heart, Mister Ness. You got no damn heart. You got no damn heart.”
• Ness and Barber both refer to the Viale Brothers, which links it to One Armed Bandits and The Jake Lingle Killing.
• Another link to One Armed Bandits – both it and this episode have no closing Winchell narration, instead choosing to end on the drama of the moment.
• Madlyn Rhue will return in the Second Season’s The Tommy Karpeles Story and Jack Warden will be back in The Otto Frick Story.
• The audio bed in this episode carries some muted flaws in the print, as music from another episode’s soundtrack bleeds over twice in the background. This has happened in both VHS and DVD issues of the program.
• John Mantley’s Ring Of Terror in the Second Season deals more directly with the topic of boxing and in general is a far more successful episode. Curiously, prize fighting was legalized in 1919 – the same year alcohol became illegal.
NESS: I hate to see you with dirty hands, Frank.
BARBER: What’s so crooked about being crooked?
FORTUNATO: Well if it ain’t Uncle Sam again. My country ’tis of thee.