THE GANG WAR
Airdate: January 18th and May 24th, 1962 Written by John Mantley Directed by Paul Wendkos Produced by Lloyd Richards Director of Photography Charles Straumer Co-starring Victor Buono, Bruce Gonion, John Kellogg Featuring Ed Nelson, Joe di Reda, Peter Forster, Anne Whitfield, David Faulkner, Paul Birch, Claudia Bryar, Dal McKennon, Wayne Heffley, Paul Dubov, Lou Krugman
“Prohibition, 1932. The City of Chicago was consuming alcohol at the rate of 32 million gallons a year. These figures are incredible, but they are documented: 86,000 gallons a day. It was manufactured in everything from massive distilleries to grimy bathtubs. It came into the brawling city by truck and motor car, by pop bottles and pipeline. All of it was illegal. Most of it was bad. Some of it was poison. A mere trickle, less than 1 % of this staggering total was the finest liquor money could buy, the purest Scotch and rye whisky. It came from Canada. For the speakeasy proprietor, who would assure the silk stocking trade of a steady supply of imported Scotch, the rewards were enormous, but the risks were even greater.”
Frank Nitti finds his speakeasy business being usurped by competing roadhouses offering better liquor just over the Cook County line. When Nitti attempts to deliver an attitude adjustment to the competition, his men find well-prepared and well-armed opposition.
“Pani Surigao, purveyor of fine beverages, petty tyrant, commander-in chief of his own small army, died as flamboyantly as he had lived. With his destruction, the threat to the Capone empire was reduced to a small group of men who were eventually to destroy it.”
The Gang War is a real toss of the coin. The story is flawed and the episode is marred by uncharacteristically poor special effects. The pilot, Rusty Miller, not only survives a nasty crash landing (from an airplane that was previously suspended by wires), but he puts up with a severe beating and later two bullets in the back. Truly a man of steel. Night scenes filmed in a wooded area look like indoor sets on several occasions.
Lastly, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral puts Ness and his men all fifteen feet away from Surigao’s men, but they blaze away at each other endlessly with a few bullets hitting anything or anyone; the average TV shootout that The Untouchables studiously avoided for almost three years. The battle is climaxed by the explosion of Surigao’s warehouse and the perception is that the farthest man is, at most, twenty paces from it when it goes up, yet he and the others are remarkably unscathed. Not even a cloud of dust reaches them.
When then, can possibly redeem this hour? As flawed as it is the episode contains the most memorable Nitti-Ness confrontation of the entire series. Furious at the loss of innocent life in the escalating disagreement, Ness goads Nitti into slapping him. The Enforcer is then hustled off to spend the night in the slammer for striking a federal officer and the next day Ness threatens to frame Nitti with a life sentence. It is one of the longest and most fascinating encounters between the two adversaries. Brimming with righteous anger and all the brute force of a five-ton truck breaking through brewery doors, Ness is at his most compelling when he’s seething.
Screenwriter John Mantley remembers working on the script for The Gang War when another “no more Italians” order came down from the front office. His lead character in The Gang War originally had an Italian name, so Mantley had to come up with another one. He went back to his desk, pulled out a world atlas, and pinned it to the wall. He stuck two pins in it, randomly.
When he looked up, one had stuck near Pani, and the other had landed in Surigao. Bingo. Pani Surigao. (Winchell interpreted it as Pah-nee Sir-ih-guy-o.)
Victor Buono’s appearances are somewhat limited and his character is not at all unlike the one he played in Mr. Moon a year earlier, but he is just plain fun to watch, all 350 pounds of him.
Viewers who enjoy gratuitous gunfire will continue to like this installment despite its shortcomings.
NESS: No liquor in your speaks, no blood in your veins.
NITTI: Nobody does that to me. Nobody!
NESS: Why not? The word’s out. Every hood in town saying Frank Nitti’s weak. Nitti’s soft. Nitti’s ready to be pushed over. When’s the last time they called you “The Enforcer?”
NESS: I’ve also got some advice for you. I don’t care what you and your kind do to each other but if one more human being’s hurt in this town I’m going to set you up for a life sentence…Try me. Just step out of line once, and Hobson’s going to put a bullet in me with your gun.”
• In Canada Run the week before, Canadian whiskey was coming in by boat – and in this episode, it’s being flown in.
• In an episode rife with tommy-guns, Ness is seen using a shotgun – a rarity.