THE PURPLE GANG
Airdates: December 1st, 1960 and July 27th, 1961
Written by John Mantley
Directed by Walter E. Grauman
Produced by Lloyd Richards
Director of Photography Charles Straumer
Co-starring Bruce Gordon, Werner Klemperer, Ilka Windish
Special Guest Star Steve Cochran
Featuring Carl Milletaire, Paul Lambert, Steven Geray, James Flavin, Rayford Barnes
“By early 1932, with the increasing pressure of law enforcement agencies against their liquor outlets and sources of supply and the repeal of prohibition imminent, the underworld began to look for new ways of exploiting the age-old principles of extortion and murder. Inspiration was not long in coming.
“Emboldened by the amateurish but successful kidnapping of the Lindbergh child, the underworld moved swiftly to put the ugly crime of kidnapping on a professional basis. Detroit’s blood-stained Purple Gang, long a synonym for terrorism in beer, booze, labor, and prostitution, quietly avowed their own version of the snatch racket. Their victims were other members of the underworld who could hardly go to police for help. By late August 1932, the Purple Gang had completed nine successful kidnappings for a total take of almost one hundred thousand dollars.
“The brains behind the Purple Gang’s long record of successful operation: Eddie Fletcher, ex-bank robber, murderer. A man who had proven himself so shrewd and so ruthless that even the powerful Capone organization had left him strictly alone. “
Eliot Ness is tracking the movement of Detroit novelty merchant Jan Van Tornek (Werner Klemperer), who he believes is Capone’s middleman for incoming narcotics shipments when Tomek suddenly vanishes. When Ness approaches Tornek’s wife (Ilka Windish), he finds her attempting to raise a $15,000 ransom for the release of her husband, being held by unknown kidnappers. Unable to raise all of the money by the allotted time, she hears what she believes are gunshots ringing out over the phone and hysterically assumes her husband has been murdered. When the phone rings again, it’s Jan, but he warns that they will certainly kill him if she fails another deadline, having stumbled into the affair, Ness offers to supply Mrs. Tornek with the money and arranges to follow her into a dismal section of Detroit where the kidnappers have instructed her to place the money and retrieve her husband.
The affair takes a gruesome twist when the gang, discovering that Ness is involved, decides to turn Tornek over to him, dead. Following the kidnappers’ instructions, Mrs. Tornek finds her husband hanged in an alley. From a waiting car parked nearby, a submachine gun chatters, bringing her down. Ness and Hobson, close at band, but not close enough to have intervened, race to the scene only to find Mrs. Tomek near death and a note pinned to her husband with the cryptic inquiry, “Satisfied, Mr. Ness?
With no idea how any of this has come about, an angry and bewildered Ness sets out to locate Tornek’s partner, Eric Vajda (Stephen Geray) but finds he too, has been kidnapped, and the Detroit police begin rounding up suspects. In their investigation, they stumble upon Rocky Garver (James Flavin), an early kidnapping victim who identifies one of the Purple Gang’s henchmen, Edward Wiles (Rayford Barnes). Caught napping in his one-room flat, Wiles is hauled in. Facing a murder charge due to the subsequent death of Mrs. Tornek, reveals that the gang had made the same mistake Ness made in pursuing the wrong man and that Eric Vajda is, in fact, the Capone middleman, currently being held for ransom in a deal struck between Purple Gang leader Eddie Fletcher (Steve Cochran) and Frank Nitti.
Ness then sets an intricate trap to intercept Nitti, seize the ransom and capture both Vajda and his kidnappers. In a blazing gun battle, the Purple Gang is wiped out and Vajda is taken into custody.
“On August 29th, 1932, in an empty Detroit warehouse, Eliot Ness and the Untouchables, with the help of the Detroit police, ended the reign of the Purple Gang. But Ness had no illusions. In a few months, the underworld would develop new sources and new pipelines, for wherever there was a demand for illegal commodities, there would be ruthless men like Nitti and weak and willing ones like Vajda.”
The Purple Gang is clearly the high water mark for the series and writer John Mantley’s finest hour. Although there will be many more four-star episodes, none will surpass this program’s relentless intensity that begins the moment the program opens and doesn’t let up until the credits roll.
The teaser for this installment was particularly effective. Mrs. Tornek, frightfully worried for her husband and trying to fend off Ness’s queries, answers the phone. As she begs for more time, she hears the gun she knows is pressed to her husband’s head, go off. Mrs. Tornek loses her mind, while in the doorway, a completely composed, but puzzled Ness stands by. Fade to black. This scene is replayed at the head end of the episode as a teaser leading into the main titles and remains the most electrifying opening of all 118 hours. A great deal more mayhem follows interspersed with heavy doses of suspense and sinister drama.
Steve Cochran, already well known for the nasty characters he often played, including one in James Cagney’s celebrated White Heat (1949), is superbly cast as the Purple Gang’s ruthless leader, Eddie Fletcher. He eats chicken while impaling the hand of his pleading victim with a fork. He fires rounds into the wall next to the head of another as a warning. Utterly loathsome, he is one who elicits cheers from an audience when he finally gets his due. In Fletcher’s case, he is ripped apart in the end by Ness’ submachine gun in what many consider to be the most well-defined exit for any criminal in the series. Ness and Fletcher only come face-to-face during the climactic gun battle and it is perhaps the episode’s only weakness that the story did not pit the two against each other sooner.
Robert Stack recalls the late Steve Cochran’s amusement at being wired with explosive squibs for the final scene. Cochran, often quiet and mysterious to the point of suspected deviousness like many of his characters, seemed genuinely worried as he was outfitted with a heavy steel plate to protect his chest from the squibs. “Charges lined the wall next to a doorway, across Cochran and across the wall on the other side of him,” Stack reflected. “When it was over, he got up slowly, checking himself out and kind of wandered away with this look on his face like he’d actually been shot up. It was a great scene, but he didn’t enjoy it.”
Werner Klempler, seeming light-years from his role as Col. Klink in Hogan’s Heroes the hapless, wrong-man-the-wrong-place victim, tortured, murdered, and ultimately thrown in Ness’ face. Of the exceptionally fine work by everyone in front of or behind the camera, clearly, that which brings it all together is Charles Straumer’s photography.
Except for several scenes set at a Railway Express Agency counter, almost every scene takes place at night or in near darkness. In one instance, Fletcher brandishes very nearly the only light for the take, a small desk lamp, which he turns into a victim’s face, blinding him. For many years, the poor quality of 16mm reruns, further darkening the image, often made much of this episode difficult to see, but it remained one of the series most sought after hours.
The Purple Gang is writer John Mantley’s blistering entrance to the series,
and he remains pleased with the way it was executed. The only thing he recalls being unhappy about was some of the mail from Michigan. “We tried to play up the role of the Detroit police, but I don’t think we could have done enough to suit everyone. My Detroit detective is based on the guy who cracked the case, but he wound up with a fairly small part and got completely left out of the gun battle in the end.”
As an afterthought, Mantley adds, he remembers one thing we should have done differently. When Mrs. Tornek is shot down, Ness is more worried about the note pinned to her husband’s trousers than he is about getting her an ambulance. Someone should have been running to a phone.”
While it’s almost a footnote in this entry, The Purple Gang signals the return of Frank Nitti to his rightful place as a recurring character after he was knocked off at the conclusion of the First Season in The Frank Nitti Story. For those viewers at home hardly keeping track of the series chronology, Nitti’s emergence is replete with a full re-introduction from Walter Winchell’s narration: “That evening, August 29th, 1932 at 9 PM, a black sedan with Illinois license plates was in Detroit. Inside the car was a man who was to die a violent death some years later, under the wheels of a train, but who at present was in control of the Capone empire. His name: Frank Nitti, known to the underworld as The Enforcer.”
While Ness and Nitti have just a single terse but memorable encounter, Nitti’s return announces producer Jerry Thorpe’s intentions to not only give Eliot Ness an ongoing nemesis via Bruce Gordon’s characterization but to use Nitti as an agent of chaos and conflict for other heavies in upcoming episodes. After all, the producers were planning another big, two-part episode about an attempt to free Al Capone from a prison train – and you couldn’t do that without the help of The Enforcer.
NITTI: You can’t do that. You have no right to touch that dough.
NESS: Sue me.
NITTI: Why you…
NESS: Go on Frank, I’d like nothing better than an excuse to muss you up a little.
This Eliot Ness’ only direct encounter with The Purple Gang, but once upon a time, it was not to be his last. In 1987, after the premiere of Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables starring Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, Stack found himself realizing a generation of film and television goers weren’t aware that once upon a time, he had been Eliot Ness.
While Paramount had expressed interest in the late 1960s in returning Stack to the fedora, he ultimately decided against it and cited his age as the primary reason, but thanks to the DePalma film, Eliot Ness had name recognition again. Somewhat provoked by Costner’s portrayal of Eliot Ness, Stack credited the film with pushing him to reconsider revisiting the character.
At the same time, Lorimar Television had optioned The Dark City, one of several semi-fictional historic stories using Ness as a main character. Penned as one in a series of Eliot Ness Mysteries for Bantam Books by Ness historian and author Max Allan Collins, the story revolved around Ness’ attempts to clean up the corrupt city of Cleveland.
Eliot Ness: The Cleveland Years never materialized on film and two years later, Producer Dan Blatt began work on a script that managed to hold Stack’s interest: Eliot Ness, Welcome to Detroit.
With plans to film on location in Michigan, the story largely concerned Ness’ attempts to combat remnants of the Purple Gang and the grip of the illicit drug trade on the city, a subject that Stack felt very strongly about. This project failed to materialize as well until the early 1990s when producer Michael Filerman conceived The Return of Eliot Ness (1991), which found Ness back in Chicago to investigate the death of a former Untouchable.
Paired with NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries, also hosted by Stack, the star confided that the story had an emotional hook necessary to bring Ness back, stating “It’s about an old warrior going back to war.” With Paramount owning The Untouchables property, it meant that this made-for-tv film would be stylistically different from the Desilu series, but 28-years after the original series, and for one night in 1991, Robert Stack’s Eliot Ness was back.
We’ll be exploring this title in a future installment of The Untouchables Retrospective.
The original Purple Gang was a notorious gang of Jewish and Russian gangsters in Prohibition-era Detroit who were ultimately ended in a wave of gangland massacres, police raids, and unfortunate encounters with the Italian mob.