THE UNDERGROUND COURT
Airdates: February 16th, 1961, July 6th, 1961
Written by Leonard Kantor
Directed by Don Medford
Produced by Josef Shaftel
Director of Photography Charles Straumer
Special Guest Star Joan Blondell
Co-starring Richard Devon, Frank De Kova
Featuring Eddie Firestone, Vic Perrin, John Duke, William Fawcett, Arthur Kendall
“September 8th, 1934, 5:15 a.m. The Morrow Castle, an American cruise liner returning from Cuba with 318 passengers and a crew of 231, was ablaze off Spring Lake, New Jersey. All efforts to curb the fire were in vain. At the same time, Eliot Ness, acting on reports from Cuban agents, was racing down the Jersey coast to the scene of the disaster, where passengers and crew were being pulled out of the sea. Ness was on his way to arrest passenger Valentine Ferrar, racketeer, gambler, disbarred lawyer and founder of the Big Syndicate. It was reported that Ferrar had collected for the Syndicate, then in control of most of the U. S. criminal world, over a million dollars from their interests in Havana.”
Unconvinced that mobster Ferrar (Richard Devon), perished at sea with the mob’s Havana bankroll in his possession, Eliot Ness sets out to find him, while the Big Syndicate’s notorious underground court has Ferrar’s partner, Inky Beggs (Vic Perrin), picked up and interrogated. Despite intense pressure brought to bear upon him by “Judge” Foley (Frank DeKova), the court’s wild-eyed leadership. Beggs swears he witnessed Ferrar drown. But Foley, whose claims of “extrasensory perception,” has him feared throughout the underworld as something of a “psychic” isn’t taken in.
Returning to Ferrar with the good news that Foley apparently fell for the scam, the pair is soon confronted by the court’s gunmen. Hidden in the closet, Ferrar seizes the moment and guns one of them along with Beggs, accusing his partner of a double-cross. He leaves the other gunman alive to warn Foley of an incriminating letter that will be mailed to Eliot Ness in the event of his death.
Hoping to fade quietly away with the Syndicate’s money, Ferrar takes up with Gloria Wagnall (Joan Blondell), an eccentric widow planning a sentimental cross-country drive. Through a copy of the want ad Mrs. Wagnall had placed for a driver, Ness discovers the arrangement but arrives after the pair has left.
Renaming Ferrar “Gordon”, like her pet crow and previous husband, Mrs. Wagnall is curiously amused to learn that Ferrar is a fugitive and reveals herself as a kindred spirit of sorts, “all brothers and sisters under the skin.” Given the letter for safekeeping, Mrs. Wagnall memorizes its contents – then destroys it against Ferrar’s wishes.
As the journey wears on, Ferrar’s patience with the increasingly bizarre Mrs. Wagnall begins to ebb, but he agrees to a final stopover at a cottage where she prepares an elegant meal. Meanwhile, Ness receives a tip on Ferrar’s whereabouts, but narrowly escapes the trap set for him by the Big Syndicate to keep him from intercepting Ferrar and the letter. Under interrogation, a surviving gunman reveals the existence of the letter. Ness quickly returns to the pursuit.
After enjoying a brief stay at the cottage, Mrs. Wagnall sets out for home, alone. She is soon intercepted by the Untouchables, and willingly reveals very nearly every detail of her encounter with Ferrar, leaving out the letter and precisely where Ferrar went after leaving the cottage. After her release, Ness keeps her under surveillance hoping the Syndicate will come looking for her. They do, and Ness follows close behind with a raiding party.
Under the gun, Mrs. Wagnall tries to convince Foley that she is one of “their own kind” and would never reveal the contents of Ferrar’s letter. As Foley prepares to do away with her, Ness and his men burst in. In the ensuing battle, Mrs. Wagnall is critically wounded and later in the hospital unable to remember much of the letter.
Convinced that the cottage may yield clues to Ferrar’s whereabouts, the police follow up on a tip that he had, in fact, never left it. Soon, Ness and his men arrive to watch as the police unearth more than clues.
“Mrs. Wagnall died with the names of the Syndicate’s leaders locked in her memory. And so, although Eliot Ness had destroyed the Underground Court, partially crippling the Syndicate, he was unable as yet to destroy it. But the mystery of Ferrar’s whereabouts was soon cleared up. He’d been buried, along with the other ‘Gordons’, a victim of a heavy dose of arsenic administered while sharing Mrs. Wagnall’s fantasy of a second honeymoon. It was the lady’s way of deep freezing a happy memory. But Valentine Ferrar could claim one distinction over the others. With a million dollars still wrapped securely around his waist, he was the richest Gordon in Mrs. Wagnall’s garden.”
Very nearly perfect on all counts from paper to film, The Underground Court is the successful combination of history and fanciful fiction, enriched with devious gangsters and bizarre characters of Hitchkockian elegance. Frank De Kova’s threateningly mystical, drug-addicted Judge Foley sets the tone for Kantor’s absorbing tale, enhanced by an often-repeated secondary musical theme highly appropriate for Blondell’s endearingly peculiar Mrs. Wagnall. Kicking off the action with the real-life sinking of the SS Morro Castle – and the actual newsreel footage of its disaster – is an inspired start.
While spooky Mrs. Wagnall is a refreshing departure from garden variety villains, the entire gangster scenario itself is given fresh treatment. The underground court presided over by the leery Judge Foley, is a shadowy row of a half dozen men revealed mostly by the flashlights they play upon their “defendants.” Early on, mousy Inky Beggs gets the full treatment, and in the conclusion, it’s Mrs. Wagnall, who fails to take the moment or much of her life seriously and becomes annoyed with the lights in her face.
Overall, The Underground Court is intense, exciting, often funny, and rich in fully-developed, eccentric characters, with screenwriter Leonard Kantor infusing personality to even brief secondary folks, like the wry house manager (William Fawcett), the gas station clerk (Eddie Firestone), or hoodlum Bo Narrins (Barry Russo.)
Kantor, the scribe behind The Rusty Heller Story, decorates the script with memorable dialogue from start (“You go the route, Inky?”) to finish (see Winchell’s darkly comedic closing narration). His talent for creating unique and beguiling female characters is once again well on display. Whereas Mrs. Wagnall is a world apart from Rusty Heller, they are indeed “members of the same club.” Blondell is eccentric, peculiar, and still very likable. Only by the end of the episode do we realize just how sinister she really is.
Blondell’s long career began in the same period as this story in the 1930 feature film Sinner’s Holiday with Jimmy Cagney, based upon the Broadway play, Penny Arcade. She’d appear in six more films with Cagney, often as a smart, sassy, and sexual foil. With such a legacy, Blondell is right at home on The Untouchables, and she is one of the few ’30s and 40’s eras actresses to appear on the series with her dignity intact.
Hot on the syndicate’s trail and clearly hot over their attempt to dissuade him from locating Valentine, Eliot Ness will return to battle the remnants of The Underground Court a few episodes later in The Nero Rankin Story.
FOLEY: They call me Judge Foley. Ever hear of me, Inky? What have you heard?
INKY: That you’re psycho.
FOLEY: The word is psychic, Inky. It means I got extrasensory perception. You don’t have to know what that means, Inky. Just so long as you’re impressed.
NARRINS: You lousy fed, you don’t care about my skin.
NESS: That’s right punk. I’ve got more feeling for the skin on a sausage.
FOLEY: You have to understand our spot, Mrs. Wagnall. We’re big business, ya know. And we can’t afford to get stuck by some loaded hairpin.
WAGNALL: I’ll give you my word in writing if you want me to.
FOLEY: There has to be a safer way than that to make sure you don’t break out in a case of wag-jaw.
• While Barry Russo’s character Bo apparently gets locked up, the actor will be back in the “sequel” episode, The Nero Rankin Story – but as a completely different character named Lefty Southern.
• Judge Foley taking a nose full of cocaine on camera is pretty brazen for 1961.