THREE THOUSAND SUSPECTS
Airdate: March 24th, 1960
Written by Jerome Ross
Directed by John Peyser
Produced by Charles Russell
Director of Photography Charles Straumer
Special Guest Star Leslie Nielsen
Featuring Bruce Gordon, Mary Sinclair, Burt Freed, Peter Leeds, Ned Glass, James Flavin
“September, 1932; the federal penitentiary al Leavenworth, Kansas, 430 miles from Chicago. In this violent period, law enforcement had become a big game hunt. The quarry was the most dangerous marauder of them all: the big-time racketeer. For Eliot Ness and his Untouchables, the trophy room was a federal prison. And, one of their prizes was a man named Nick Segal. Because of collusion and protection in political circles, this vicious killer of at least six people was serving three years for violation of the Volstead Act. And, Nick Segal was now eligible for parole after serving one year of this sentence.”
Relegated to light-duty dusting the prison library, inmate Nick Segal is killed by a single rifle shot from outside the building. Earlier, he had sent a message via an underground mail route that he wanted to talk to Eliot Ness and officials believe that his unknown partner may have arranged not only for his parole to be denied, but for his murder as well.
Ness encourages convict Tom Sebring to pose as Segal’s vengeance-seeking friend to find the killers. After considerable persuasion, including the promise of an early release, Sebring is transferred to Leavenworth, where he adopts an aggressive posture and hounds, various inmates over the incident. But his activities are monitored and an inquiry is sent by the clandestine mail route to the Nitti mob, which Ness and the Untouchables follow.
Arriving at a Chicago pool room, the letter is held for the syndicate’s postman, Ed Keiffer, who will deliver it to its final destination. Eliot Ness is on hand to follow Keiffer, but he recognizes Ness and the desk clerk lights a match to the letter hidden under the counter. The trail runs cold when Reel explains that his job was only to put a forwarding address on it – an address that sends Ness to a vacant lot. Keiffer then disappears. Frustrated, Ness has word relayed back that the plan went awry and Sebring assumes that Ness will no longer work for his release.
Eventually learning of Sebring’s activities and fearing that he may bring further trouble, Nitti agrees to have Sebring dispatched during a prison riot that Nitti’s men inside the prison will carefully orchestrate. He also issues a warning to Segal’s partner, Nat Baldwin, that should this event go astray, he would “be thrown to the cops” for having created the whole ordeal. Soon Keiffer is apprehended attempting to steal a penny’s worth of peanuts from a machine and interrogated relentlessly until revealing that Segal had been murdered by a guard. Ness heads for Leavenworth just as the prison erupts in turmoil. Unwittingly agreeing to participate in a jail break planned as part of his own disposal, Sebring moves to escape.
In a long dash for cover across an open area, Sebring forces another man to go before him, effectively messing up the scheme, and suddenly the wrong man is fired upon by the guard who had been waiting for Sebring – the same guard who had killed Segal. Arriving on the wall with the warden, Ness exchanges shots with the guard, who falls to his death. After the riot, Sebring is brought to the warden’s office where he confesses to having been on his own in going over the wall. But Ness assures him that, with his parole hearing set, nobody would believe that he had tried to escape.
“A little less than two hours later and four hundred and thirty miles away, the body of Nat Baldwin was deposited in front of the 43rd district police station, in South Side Chicago. Frank Nitti fulfilled his part of the deal. Baldwin was thrown to the cops – dead. Very dead. The Untouchables had won another battle, this time inside a prison. But the fight against the organized underworld, the Frank Nittis, the Abe Spitzels and the Joe Bolters, was not going to be won in a single decisive battle. It could only be won by accepting the fact of deadly and never-ending war. The man most aware of this was Eliot Ness.”
Closet comedian Leslie Nielsen (Forbidden Planet, Tammy and the Bachelor), is but one of the numerous highlights featured in Three Thousand Suspects, a thoroughly engaging and relatively violence-free installment with a charm all its own.
Exceptional because, among other things, the principal characters are all well defined, fascinating and likable in their collective crookedness. Especially memorable is Ed Keiffer, who uses a penny soldered to a wire to filch a tiny handful of peanuts. Played intensely by Ned Glass, the little man with the convincing Depression-era dog face. His relatively small but important role is played with Emmy Award quality enthusiasm.
This single appearance for guest star Leslie Nielsen is of the type he often played early in his career only to astound everyone with his abrupt and quite successful conversion to comedy with the advent the Airplane! features and Police Squad in the early 1980s. Some of his early serious roles, including this one, are now fairly amusing given that one sees a little deadpan Frank Drebin in every tough guy he ever played.
As Ness’s reluctant stool pigeon, Nielson’s Tom Sebring at one point collars another inmate and grills him while menacing the man’s eye with a lit cigarette wiggling from the comer of his mouth. The routine, quite serious at the time, is now hilarious. This does not diminish the effectiveness of the episode, for it remains one of the all-time best and achieves a remarkable realism through the extensive use of stock footage of Leavenworth and other large, gloomy federal prisons.
Apart from the Second Season’s Big Train, it’s also one of the few hours to spend so much of the narrative inside a prison and does much to harking back to the film noir subset of the prison film.
Numerous creative choices help elevate this material, including the use of extreme close-ups when Sebring interrogates a cell mate, with the camera composition cropped tightly around a mouth and ear as the two prisoners whisper to each other. Several scenes are staged and composed efficiently to add variety to what would otherwise be normal to the series. Instead of the usual briefing scene, Ness is seen shaving and talking to his men in a mirror in a one shot master. Later, Allison and Ness emerge and vanish behind an increasingly despondent Keiffer in an interrogation room as they question him.
One of the final images of the hour is a classic, with one of Nitti’s dearly departed lieutenants dropped at the doorway of a Chicago Police Precinct, with the backlit letters on the entrance raking the body.
Three Thousand Suspects is the first episode to credit Winchell in the billboard. Finding that the series was becoming a major hit, Winchell demanded that his name be upfront. It is Winchell who reminds us that even though Ness has struck victory this hour, he is locked into a “deadly and never ending.”
• John Peyser, who directed a number of Untouchables episodes, also directed four episodes of the TV show Casablanca, based on the film of the same name.
• Peter Leeds portrayed LaMarr Kane in the Desilu Playhouse episode and returns this hour as the short-lived Nick Segal.
• It’s a nice touch when Keiffer announces Ness in the pool hall and half the gangsters – who include regulars like Allen Jaffe in another uncredited role – all quickly head for the door.