THE TRI-STATE GANG
Airdate: December 10th, 1959, June 9th, 1960
Written by Joseph Petracca
Produced by Josef Shaftel
Directed by Allen H. Miner
Director of Photography Charles Straumer
Special Guest Star William Bendix
Featuring Alan Hale, Gavin MacLeod, Jay Adler, Roxanne Berard, Stanley Adams, Peggy Maley, Joseph Mell, John Ward
“In the latter part of 1933, an epidemic of hijacking broke out in the states of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The similarity of the holdups identified them as the work of the Tri-State Gang. This time it was a factory shipment of radios. The routine was always the same: Big Bill Phillips, a cheap, hulking six-foot-four ox of a man, handled the truck. Artie McLeod, a cheap tin horn gambler, handled the burlap hood with style and efficiency. The oldest of the gang was Georgie Kaufman, a battered ex-pug who once fought Benny Leonard in Madison Square Garden. The fence was James Jonathan Harris, sometimes called Gentlemen Jim. A quiet-spoken Englishman from the moors of Yorkshire. He was a suspicious and ever-watchful man. Bobby May, second in command, three-time loser, an ex-con, San Quentin. The leader of the gang was Wally Lagenza, a pale, cold, blond beast untouched by any civilizing influences. The doctors at Dannemora once described him as a vicious, antisocial animal, dangerous, ruthless and depraved. Eliot Ness and his men had been assigned by Washington to investigate the activities of the Tri-State Gang. That same night, they drove down to Richmond, Virginia, where they met with Sheriff Wilson of Richmond County.
Ness picks up the trail after one of the Tri-State Gang’s victims survives, but loses it and one of his own men when a stakeout erupts into violence. After Big Bill Phillips dies in the gun battle with federal agents, Lagenza orders the murder of Lizzie Dauphine, Big Bill’s girlfriend, to protect the identities of the gang members. Feeling the heat from federal agents, Lagenza graduates into kidnapping and ransom and unwittingly enters a trap sprung by Ness.
“And that was the end of the Tri-State Gang, not with a bang, but a whimper. Artie McLeod was tried on seven different counts and got life. Wally Lagenza was tried for murder in Virginia and died in the electric chair at Richmond, on February 2nd, 1935. And oh yes, Lizze Dauphine went back home to Quebec.”
In a splendid display of his talent, William Bendix, known for his portrayal of fearsome criminals and the benign lead in ABC’s The Life of Riley, plays the savage Lagenza with maximum relish.
Not nearly as convincing is Alan Hale, who appears in this pre-Gilligan episode more like the Skipper swept up by the wrong employment agency rather than a member of a vicious, depression-era gang.
Despite its evenness and inconsistencies, The Tri-State Gang is relatively electrifying for its brutality. It’s a shame that Ness and Lagenza barely share any screen time but the ending shootout in a local Zoo makes for a nice touch of variety and offers a fair bit of metaphor since Lagenza is referred to as an animal several times in the episode. In fact, the use of the term “animal” was a cause for concern for Dorothy Brown of ABC’s Continuity Acceptance Department. In a December 3rd memo to Quinn Martin she writes:
“I am gravely concerned and the watching public ever zealous…it is best to avoid the words like ‘broad.’ The show’s killings totaled up in revulsion for this viewer…The continuous use of “animal” still bothered me…The portrayal by Bendix was excellent to the extent that it was well done and directed but I was not entertained nor interested.”
The Tri-State Gang also serves as a line of demarcation in the first season. Producer Josef Shaftel has been recently drafted to replace the departed Norman Retchin. Both Shaftel and the episode’s author Joseph Petracca would carry on to influence dozens of future Untouchables installments and fashion some of the best episodes of the First and Second Seasons. From here on in, the brutality, pacing and stakes start to gel and even Winchell’s narrations, which Shaftel openly admired as a shortcut to authenticity, have more tobacco in their bark.
In addition, Ness loses his first man since the Desilu Playhouse in the person of LaMarr Kane (Chuck Hicks), who has been largely invisible until now. Kane is the first Untouchable to die of “natural” causes in the series. He’ll be back in Christmas Eve’s You Can’t Pick the Number, as that episode was produced before The Tri-State Gang.
Hicks would go on to have a pretty busy career as as a stunt man and supporting characters in shows like Batman and The Twilight Zone – and even later plays a stunt man in Lucy The Stunt Man, with Joan Blondell. He also briefly appeared in 1990’s Dick Tracy. The yellow-jacketed detective comic was of course originally inspired by the real Eliot Ness.
As of this writing in 2019, he’s also one of the only original surviving actors from Ness’ squad, a title he shares with Nicholas Georgiade. While we’re not able to confirm it, it’s likely that Kane was written off the show purely for budgetary reasons.
WINCHELL: Georgie Kaufman, the inept and blundering ex-thug, had died by the code of Wally Lagenza’s jungle law. He was not fit to survive.
• Ness is barely moved by Kane’s death, but does admit it’s a “lot to lose for nothing.”
• While several Tri-State gang members did actually find their way into Philadelphia, the gang has a newspaper from the Philadelphia Globe, despite them being held up in Richmond, Virginia. It’s possible an earlier script had them in hiding in Philadelphia before the story-line was condensed and the prop department had already created the paper.
• Ness uses spent shell casings twice in the episode to connect the gang to two murders, but we never see Lagenza expel these used shells or reload his revolver. If he had been using an automatic handgun, the shells would have been expelled.
• Kane and Youngfellow set up the wiretap, in another omission of Rossman’s “expert wiretap” background.
• One of the gang drops his pistol off the bed he’s seated on. It’s clearly a mistake, but the actors play it off.
• Gentlemen Jim’s death on the fire escape when his target is on the first floor is pretty amusing. When Rossi observes that he was entering the third floor when his target was on the first floor, a sardonic Ness replies: “Some things come off as planned.”
• Stack’s physicality as Ness is so much a part of his characterization, that it’s always easy to tell when a stunt man is filling in. When Ness chases after Lagenza following the shootout, the hunched shoulders and awkward stance are a dead giveaway that it’s not Stack.
• The musical queue during the phone call was commonly used to end episodes.
• The sound design of The Untouchables is another element that made the program so starkly unique. One of those elements is comprised of four different gunshot sound effects that reverberate more like a cannon or shotgun than a pistol. The effects materialized from the archives of Glen Glenn Sound and was originally used in Desilu’s short-lived western The Texan, from which The Untouchables also borrowed several stock musical cues. We’re making note of this because in the scene when Ness stops Gentlemen Jim from entering the hospital, Ness’ gun has the trademark Untouchables sound, where as Jim’s is a non-descript sound more commonly used by Warner Brothers. (In the edit of the episode teaser, both guns have the same sound effects.) We look forward to discussing Glen Glenn’s contribution to the soundscape of the show in future content.
• The real Tri-State Gang preferred robbing U.S. Mail trucks and murdered their way through Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia before being caught by Philadelphia police in January, 1935. The gang managed to blacken Richmond’s history with murderous robberies and jail-brakes and were eventually done in by a girlfriend.
After Lagenza’s previous trial and subsequent escape in which a guard was killed, the Judge ordered a hasty execution and an unrepentant Lagenza exited the world on February 2nd. The Tri-State Gang appeared in at least one other gangster film in the 1950s and even duked it out with Batman in a 1964 issue of Detective Comics.