PORTRAIT OF A THIEF
Airdate: April 7th, 1960
Written by Herbert Abbott Spiro
Directed by Walter E. Grauman
Produced by Joseph Shaftel
Director of Photography Charles Straumer
Featuring Henry Jones, Charles McGraw, Edward Andrews
“1931 found America and the world hitting the depths of Depression. Men begged for jobs when there were none to be had. In the larger cities, bread lines formed and soup kitchens fed the hungry and the homeless. Apples were sold on street corners. But 1931 also saw man soaring to the heights: the Empire State Building was rising fourteen hundred feet to tower above the island of Manhattan. In Chicago, Eliot Ness and his Untouchables had cracked the bootleg empire of Al Capone, only to learn that thousands of gallons of illegal alcohol were flowing into the city from some mysterious source. Ness took his problem to Beecher Asbury, the federal district attorney.”
When millions of gallons of government-licensed alcohol begin showing up in all the wrong places in Chicago, Eliot Ness traces the origin to Brawley Mills, a respectable East Coast distillery that makes alcohol for industrial purposes. As Ness moves in on the executives of Brawley Mills, Johnny Torrio pushes his partners to the brink.
“E. Carlton Duncan, born Aristide Brittano, never lived to testify against his principals. His death ended one of the most notorious swindles of modern times, but Eliot Ness had accomplished what he set out to do: he ended the supply of illegal alcohol going from the east to the Capone mob in Chicago, and he saved Brawley Mills from bankruptcy, by stopping the fantastic drainage of its assets. A drainage that exceeded thirty million dollars.”
This episode features the nefarious and fictional Brittano Brothers, running a respectable, government licensed distillery in some place named Brawley, New York. The boys even went so far as to change their names to rise above a real or imagined suspicion that Italians couldn’t cook some mash without selling it to gangsters. Of course that’s exactly what they’re doing, supplying Chicago’s Johnny Torrio with as much as the thirsty Capone speakeasies can drink.
Torrio seems to have the Brittanos over an oaken barrel, and fellow countrymen or not, the hapless duo pay dearly for the privilege of doing business with the Chicago underworld. A fairly predictable, fairly violent story with, as one might suspect, the usual historical underpinnings.
Walter Grauman seems determined to do something with this hour, which trades the more interesting story of Johnny Torrio for the story of two white-collar criminals. White-collar crime is pretty tiresome on The Untouchables and the show is best when it pairs brutal and colorful thugs with the brutal and colorful Ness.
Portrait Of A Thief nevertheless features a few clever exchanges and well-staged, brutal moments – the murder of Brooks Wells in his shower is particularly well-done, if not cut slightly to get past the censors – and moments later a gangster goes down firing a stream of Thompson submachine gun bullets into the dirt.
It’s also rare to see such bloodthirstiness for Ness. During his the Untouchables’ raid on a warehouse, Johnny Torrio’s nephew screams, “IT’S NESS, GET HIM!” as he emerges from the back of a truck with his machine gun blazing. Given that this Ness was quite the thorn in the mob’s side, this zeal for murdering him is understandably established within Desilu’s narrative.
Another item to upset the Italian-American viewership, the main problem with Portrait Of A Thief is that Edward Andrews doesn’t look at all Italian in any way, shape or form (and of course, hardly does Charles McGraw.) He appears as he does in almost every role he has ever played: a well-groomed businessman of the eternal white, conservative, anglo-saxon, Episcopal-Republican-Mercedes owner variety.
In short, Edward Andrews is E. Carlton Duncan and could never have been Aristotle Brittano. It would have made more sense to cast Marc Lawrence in the role and let Ness be suspicious from the start.
NESS: Five-thousand gallons. That’s a lot of alky.
FOREMAN: Oh, that’s nothing. I’ve seen shipments of ten, maybe twenty thousand gallons come through here.
FOREMAN: You betcha. When it comes to booze, brother, there ain’t no Depression.
NESS: You think it’s all going to bootleggers?
FOREMAN: You’re the one that said it, not me.
NESS: Somebody’s got to say it, it might as well be me.
TORRIO: You know Ness! He always goes for the books!
Given the real Johnny Torrio’s connection to Capone, it’s noteable that Desilu only called upon his name and likeness just this once. After getting out of the business in the mid-20s following an assasaination attempt, Torrio naturally gave the reigns of the gangland empire to protégé Al Capone, Torrio moved to Italy until Mussolini made life difficult for him.
Torrio moved back to New York and formed a consortium comprising of known criminals Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello, eventually leading to a near nation-wide organization known as the National Crime Syndicate. (In the episode’s narration, Winchell notes Torrio has a meeting at Luciano’s hotel.) Torrio was eventually charged with tax evasion in 1936 and managed the rare death by natural causes.
• In yet another climatic shoot out, Ness and his men take cover behind bushes, which are not exactly bullet proof.
• Rossi has a little more to do in this episode and gives the last name of Fuselli, the name of deceased Untouchable Joe Fuselli as a cover.