PART ONE OF THE UNHIRED ASSASSIN
Airdates: February 25th and September 8th, 1960
Teleplay by William Spier
Directed by Howard W. Koch
Produced by Joseph Sbaftel
Director of Photography Charles Straumer
Special Guest Star Robert Middleton Featuring Joe Mantel, Bruce Gordon, Claude Akins, Lee Van Cleef, Frank de Kova, Richard Deacon, George Neise, John Duke, Eleanor Audley Ray Kellogg, Charles Watts, Robert Anderson, and Argentina Brunetti
”November 9th, 1932. At 15 minutes past midnight, Eastern Standard Time, the Associated Press from Palo Alto, reported this three-word flash: ‘Hoover concedes defeat’. Three years of depression had thrust Herbert Hoover and the Republicans from control of the government and elected New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States. The Volstead Act was doomed. Repeal of the 18th amendment, prohibition, was inevitable. At 2:15 a.m. Chicago time, the Untouchables led by their chief, Eliot Ness, celebrated the beginning of the end of prohibition by destroying the last of the breweries operated by Al Capone and company. ”
Mayor Anton Cermak is marked for murder by the Capone mob when he fails to accept a bribe that would allow Nitti and his associates’ free reign at Chicago’s Century Of Progress Exposition. While in Florida, Guiseppe Zangara, an itinerant immigrant with a severe mental disorder, plots the assassination of President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
While planning the mayor’s elimination, Jake “Dodo” Ryan, one of Nitti’s goons, is caught up in his own intrigue attempting to charm a young woman whose husband owns a small dry-cleaning business nearby. Rather than enforce the mob’s protection racket on the dry cleaners, Ryan hopes to exchange benevolence for her favors. She wishes to have nothing to do with the gunsel, and during one of his advances, her husband emerges to inflict a severe beating on the amorous hoodlum and reports the incident to the police.
Meanwhile, the Capone mob has hired two out of town gunmen to kill the mayor, and they soon discover his habit of having breakfast at a small cafe each morning. On the morning of the attempt, Jake Ryan is busy plotting the murder of the dry cleaner by lining a pair of trousers with an explosive.
Securing the services of a boy on the street, Ryan watches as the building comes down on the hapless businessman, killing him instantly. On the lookout for Ryan, Ness and his men are less than a block away from the dry cleaners when it blows up. They arrive to catch the mobster attempting to flee, and he is identified by a boy who unwittingly participated.
In an impromptu plea bargain, Ryan divulges the plot against Cermak. Racing across town, Ness and Allison arrive moments before the cafe is peppered with machine gunfire. The mayor is shaken by the incident, but unharmed.
“The first attempt on the life of the mayor of Chicago had failed, but there would be another attempt. More hired assassins would be put to work on the project which by now had become the obsession of the Capone gang. And in Miami, Florida, to an unhired assassin with an obsession for the death of another man, came momentous news. In a Miami pawnshop, Joe Zangara, for $8, bought a revolver and 10 bullets. A 32-year-old bricklayer-turned derelict had become the principal actor in a drama whose final scene would be witnessed by an audience of 10,000 people.”
Apart from the actual Capone drama, no other story would lend itself quite as well to this series than the murder of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak.
Based on fact, steamed in the many rumors of the day, and served up with several good subplots, The Unhired Assassin is the most ambitious saga of any in the series. To be sure, there is considerable fiction crafted into the story, but it’s highly entertaining, well-paced, and establishes the series as an epic storyteller well beyond cops and robbers.
Robert Middleton is the perfect cinematic Cermak, closely resembling the chief executive whose name still graces one of Chicago’s main thoroughfares. While the plot may be predictable, little else is, and Jake Ryan’s tussle with the dry cleaner resulting in the mayor’s spectacular save is the grand stuff of the Saturday matinee, complete with fistfights, shootouts and the cavalry perched to pounce.
Most memorable is “Dodo” Ryan himself, artfully imagined by Claude Akins, who fills the beefy, intellectually-challenged hoodlum’s pinstripes better than almost anyone. His rise in the story detonates with the pressing machine. In an attempt to wrangle leniency on a murder so fresh the smoke is still clearing from the set, he is crushed by the wonderful, only-on-TV hammer of justice.
A furious Eliot Ness, who moments before, lost his temper and bashed Ryan in the face, agrees to his plea for mercy in exchange for details on the mayor’s imminent assassination, which, up until then, Ness was unaware. As soon as Ryan reveals the plot, Ness voids the bargain and has him packed off on first-degree murder. It is one of the finest hours in Robert Stack’s characterization of Eliot Ness, filled with glowering, clever, and righteous anger.
Joe Mantel, a truly fine character actor, who had appeared in the pilot as feather-weight George Richie, easily turns in the most remarkable performance as the demented, obsessed Giuseppe Zangara, his descent into deeper madness becoming more evident each time the story returns to him, setting the stage for the second installment. As with the casting of Middleton as Cermak, Mantel bears a convincing resemblance to the real-life Zangara.
That Zangara – portrayed as a garden variety lunatic quite independent of the Chicago mob – was himself an Italian immigrant, did not go unnoticed by the program’s critics, then gathering forces to shortly condemn the series.
This hour’s subtle differences from other First Season episodes are all strengths, as it has the unusual narrative distinction of being able slowly thread together two completely opposite story-lines which won’t overlap until Part 2. Important to this hour are showing Ness’ friendship with ally Cermak – setting the stage for the inevitable catastrophe lying in wait the following week – and to remind viewers that Prohibition-as-plot-device won’t last forever.
Threading Eliot Ness into the story of Anton Cermak, the attempted assassination of President Roosevelt, and the case of Zangara, is a stroke of genius. Like with Prohibition, both names and events would still be on the peripheral of public memory in 1960. Not only does this episode successfully weave itself through actual characters and happenings, but it succeeds in making Eliot Ness larger than life in a way even the original Capone-saga only flirted with. In its four short years of production, The Unhired Assassin remains the series’ boldest reinterpretation of history.
ZANGARA: I don’t gotta kill Hoover?
NEWSPAPER MAN: Nah you don’t gotta kill Hoover. Democrats did it for you.
NITTI: Finito that Bulgarian.
• This episode’s mise-en-scene is noted in the level of detail to recreate a Miami street (palm trees, painted trash cans and store-fronts), the morning light used in the scenes leading up to the assassination attempt, the lengthy and brutal fight between Ryan and the Elite Dry Cleaner’s owner and the climatic shootout in the Culver City lot filled with extras and cars. As it’s winter, everyone is also wearing long coats.
• Would the open-air lunch counter that Ness, Allison and a police officer meet at be open in winter?
• Desilu’s incarnation of Eliot Ness is revealed to be 35 and have a son. Because we never see Mrs. Ness or his family in the series, the mere mention of them is worth noting.
• Another notable strength of this episode are the number of character actors who will also appear in the series later on. Frank de Kova first appeared as Jimmy Napoli in the Desilu Playhouse episode and will play Nitti’s bodyguard Louis Campagna in both parts of The Unhired Assassin and in the The Frank Nitti Story. With his unusual looks and strange, characteristic delivery, he’ll later star in four other episodes as different characters. Barry Russo is back as another bit-player, having previously popped into You Can’t Pick the Number. He’ll appear in five other episodes through the series’ run-time, including most notably in The Underground Court (an another episode that DeKova will star in.) Robert Middleton will also play the heavy again in two episodes in the Second Season.
• Cermak and Zangara all, indeed existed. For obvious reasons, Cermak’s questionable rise to power and influence is gilded over in favor of making him an ally of Eliot Ness. Zangara, an unemployed bricklayer, purchased a revolver and ten bullets for $8.00 and suffered from a debilitating, persistent pain. The mob’s distaste for Cermak has been well-documented and Cermak for a time had his own police security detail, though here Ness assigns Youngfellow and Rossman to the task.