A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
In the first half of the 20th century, before the the feminist movement and sexual revolution made it more acceptable for a woman to be in control of her own desires, American popular culture relied on codewords and insinuation to indicate when a lady was… well, let’s just say “available.” The female in question could be a divorcée, which implied experience in the bedroom, and the will to end an unsatisfying marriage. She could be “wanton,” or “fallen,” or “a working girl.” Or she could be “a femme fatale,” which was a woman who wasn’t just open about what she wanted, but who had the guile to get it—while ruining men’s lives in the process.
Four years before she landed her defining TV role as Samantha Stephens on Bewitched, Elizabeth Montgomery was nominated for an Emmy—her first of nine nods—for her performance as a quintessential femme fatale in The Untouchables’ second season premiere, “The Rusty Heller Story.” Rated as the 97th best TV episode of all time in the 2007 book TV Guide Book Of Lists, “The Rusty Heller Story” has Montgomery playing the title character, a southern-fried sexpot who begins the episode as just another dancer/hostess at a Chicago-area bawdy house, and ends it as a major player in the early 1930s’ scramble to replace Al Capone as the city’s crime boss.
Montgomery is a firecracker in “The Rusty Heller Story.” In her first appearance, she’s dressed like some kind of a fantasy creature, complete with polka-dot animal ears and eyebrows drawn to look like antennae. Without saying a word, she begins to angle her way toward the new mob boss in town, Charles “Pops” Felcher. But her boss warns Rusty that Pops “ain’t no patron of the arts,” so instead she turns to his lawyer, Archie Grayson (played by Montgomery’s future Bewitched co-star David White… which is all kinds of creepy in retrospect). Meanwhile, she feeds intel she picks from flirting with Capone’s accountant—played by Norman Fell—to both Pops and to The Untouchables’ real-life T-Man hero Elliot Ness. With her coy Dixie accent and sly innuendos like, “You better keep your word to me or you ain’t never gonna wipe your hands on my towels no more,” Rusty keeps finding ways to seem harmless while putting herself into the middle of the action.
The plot of “The Rusty Heller Story” is as direct and uncomplicated as nearly every other episode of The Untouchables, which was a show that seemed to take its cues from star Robert Stack’s clipped vocal tones. (Stack’s monotone, all-business take on Ness was later parodied perfectly by The Simpsons episode “Homer Vs. The Eighteenth Amendment,” where comedian Dave Thomas spoofed the character as “Rex Banner.”) The goal of the Prohibition agents in “The Rusty Heller Story” is to figure out why Pops and Archie have moved to Chicago, and to stop them before they “make themselves known to the corruptible elements in the local government.” Rusty, meanwhile, piggybacks on their rise, to live like the queen she always dreamed of becoming when she was growing up in poverty in the south.
And she gets away with it for a while, too, until she ends up in the crossfire between the feds and the finks. As she breathes her last, Rusty flirts one last time with Ness, who looks on her with actual tenderness—pitying the ambitious materialist who couldn’t broaden her imagination enough to figure how to make the best use of her wiles. In Stack’s memoir Straight Shooting, he called “The Rusty Heller Story” one of the show’s best episodes, for one reason in particular: “It was the only time that Ness became emotionally involved.”
The Untouchables hasn’t exactly been forgotten as one of its era’s best shows, but over the decades it’s been eclipsed: by the hit 1987 movie version of the Elliot Ness story, and by a spate of adult-oriented 21st century mob shows that included Boardwalk Empire, set in the same Prohibition era. Though it was popular enough in the ’60s to spawn a Dell comic book and other merchandise, the original The Untouchables—based, like the movie, on Ness’ memoir of the same name—is talked about more today for being one of a handful of shows condemned in the early ’60s for excessive violence, rather than for how well it carried the look, language, and rat-a-tat energy of the classic American gangster picture into a new medium.
In his classic essay “The Gangster As Tragic Hero,” critic Robert Warshow writes about how Americans are partial to mob stories because they expose the big secret about ourselves: that beneath our cheerful, consumerist exteriors, we fret that we’re greedy, self-serving, and undeserving of our success. With movies like The Public Enemy and Goodfellas, and TV shows like The Sopranos, it’s like we’re looking into a mirror with a mixture of awe and disgust. We want these people to be punished; but we also want them to make the most of their crime-spree before they fall.
The boom in gangster pictures in the early 1930s was attributable to multiple factors, The Great Depression being chief among them. These films were a fantasy of wealth in a time of lack, as well as an explanation of how a country that had relied on immigrants and the poor to help expedite industrialization and fight wars had then abandoned its underclass when the economy crashed. The mob movies’ popularity faded by the ’40s, hastened off the screen by the Roosevelt administration’s recovery, the advent of WWII, the shift toward private detective stories and “film noir,” and the stronger enforcement of a Hollywood production code that warned against movies graphic violence and lionizing crooks—even when their ultimate message was “crime doesn’t pay.”
The Untouchables was about as bullet-riddled any TV drama of its time (and, as mentioned, got dinged for that by concerned critics and parents’ groups), but the writers and producers attempted to justify their tommy-gun tattoos and piles of corpses by claiming the cause of “history.” The series didn’t have the same thematic underpinnings as the ’30s movies. It was presented more as a nostalgia-piece, with the staccato narration of Walter Winchell there to remind older viewers of the golden age of radio. The show was also framed as a celebration of efficient, dogged law enforcement, reporting on their hard work in dismantling the rackets. There’s a matter-of-factness to the program, as though it were a documentary about how the U.S. government restored law and order during Prohibition.
But that doesn’t mean The Untouchables was devoid of deeper meanings. Because the premise of the show was that Ness and his team were putting out post-Capone fires across the country, the stories didn’t always take place in Chicago. But like a lot of other crime exposés in the mid-20th century, The Untouchables generated drama from the notion that vice was spreading from America’s coasts into its middle: into places like Hot Springs, Phenix City, and the Chicago suburbs. In the early going at least—before prominent Italian-American organizations protested—the series gave the men behind this epidemic a pronounced accent.
There are actually two strong accents in “The Rusty Heller Story.” One belongs to Pops, who’s of indeterminate European origin, but whose heavy inflections were exactly the kind of thing that got The Untouchables threatened with boycotts from anti-defamation leagues. Whenever possible, the writers tried to use the names of real-life gangsters, from varying ethnic groups, to deflect some of the outcry. But Pops Felcher was fictional—and in more ways than one, since the plot of the episode reveals that he’s actually an illegal immigrant who’s stolen someone else’s identity. He’s really not much of a character. If anything, he’s something of a stooge: an ersatz Capone simultaneously controlled by Archie, Rusty, and his own jealous wife.
The other accent belongs to Rusty. The Untouchables always had a way with poetically blunt language. Gangsters and molls would get up in the hero’s stoic face to say things like, “You’re getting paid to spill beer, Mr. Ness, not to interrupt private parties.” But Rusty impresses Ness with her softer, quirkier turns of phrase. She warns that “common places” like police interrogation rooms “give me amnesia… and amnesia leads to lockjaw in us higher animals.” Or she flirts with the lawman while painting her nails, and marvels that unlike other men who hear her “music,” Ness doesn’t “see me as a French postcard.”
Elizabeth Montgomery had logged a lot of hours in episodic TV before she played Rusty Heller. The daughter of handsome Hollywood actor Robert Montgomery (whose 1950s live anthology series Robert Montgomery Presents she appeared on frequently), the actress was gifted with one of the small screen’s best profiles, with an upturned nose she later used to great advantage during her eight seasons of Bewitched. In “The Rusty Heller Story,” she makes an immediate impact with her styling alone. “The Untouchables” had their cool hats and strong shoulders, presenting an impressive silhouette as soon whenever they stormed out of or barged into a room. Rusty counters with dance-costumes, gowns, negligees, and bed-jackets—each striking and elegant, and different enough to suggest a woman who contains multitudes.
It’s that suggestiveness—not always lusty, though that was certainly implied—that makes Montgomery’s performance and the whole femme fatale archetype so potent. “The Rusty Heller Story” ends with an epilogue wherein Winchell claims that the information she procured for Ness helped expedite Al Capone’s sentencing on tax evasion charges. And then the narrator crosses one final “t,” mentioning that Pops’ wife was arrested for the possession of stolen goods, after the cops found the fur coat that Pops initially boosted for Rusty—and that his wife then insisted he pass along to her. This becomes one last act of revenge for our anti-heroine; true to form, it all starts with an article of clothing.
This may seem like a paltry and regressive kind of power, for a woman to steer the fortunes of multiple major urban crime organizations just by batting her eyelids and cooing like a belle—all while stunningly attired. But just as the audiences of the 1960s were hip to the significance of how the men in The Untouchables talked (and whether their last names ended in a vowel), so they grasped why a character like Rusty was special. She was a prize, not just because of how she looked but because of her wits, and because of the promise that something exiting might happen when she was around… in bed or otherwise. The Untouchables wasn’t exactly an intellectual show, but it was smartly crafted, making use of everything from costumes to set design to create a version of Chicago where glamour and grit were constantly under threat by hoods who didn’t care who or what was in the way they pulled out their weapons. Sometimes they destroyed a grubby newsstand. Sometimes, a rare gem.
Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Party Down, “California College Conservative Union Caucus”