Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life directed by Max Allan Collins (starring Michael Cornelison)

Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life (2007). Screenplay by Max Allan Collins from his Edgar Allan Poe Award–nominated play of the same name.

On May 16, 1957, the last night of his life, Eliot Ness receives a call from Oscar Fraley (his co-author or ghostwriter on The Untouchables, depending on whom you believe) about the galleys of the "upcoming" book. When the phone call is over, he begins telling his life story.

If there's a single author I would call the expert on Eliot Ness, it would be Max Allan Collins. Collins has been researching and writing fiction featuring Ness since the 1980s (longer if you consider that Dick Tracy, the daily comic strip Collins wrote from 1977 to 1992, was inspired by Ness): he has appeared in four novels as the main characters (The Dark City, etc., chronicling his time as Cleveland Safety Director), at least three novels in Collins's Nathan Heller series, Road to Perdition and its sequel Road to Purgatory, and probably a few others I have yet to encounter (I've only been a fan since 2004).

My point is, Collins has been putting historically accurate (and character-appropriate) words in Ness's mouth for 25 years, so who better to write Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life, a one-man show starring the man most famous for sending Al "Snorky" Capone to Alcatraz?

In fact, when I read that Collins was going to write a career retrospective of Ness, the only surprise was that it was going to be on the stage, an area I believe was new to the novelist and independent-film director. (But since a short film was produced to raise money for the project, it was only a matter of time before it would return to the screen.) Mounted in the Des Moines Playhouse in August 2005, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life was reportedly shot during the week, using the theater set, while the play itself was performed for audiences on weekends.

Relative unknown Michael Cornelison, an experienced stage and film actor who has appeared in several Collins-directed features and short films (see The Black Box Collection) inhabits Ness fully, never allowing a single doubt to creep in the viewer's mind that this is in fact the man telling his own story. Collins's conversational script also helps with the illusion. And, also acting as director, Collins keeps this potentially "stagy" venture visually interesting.

Two quibbles: the electric piano and theremin in the score by Mark A. Johnson are sometimes distracting, as is Ness's continual removing and replacing of his coat and hat, especially early on. Cornelison moves from set to set depending on the story he's telling, and — while this keeps the atmosphere of each portion authentic — I sometimes wanted him to just sit still and talk for a change. An individual with a good story to tell is endlessly fascinating, and after a while, I got so involved in the story that I didn't notice the motion anymore.

The combination of historical accuracy, Collins's roll-off-the-tongue prose, and Cornelison's engaging personality and character immersion make Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life a story that begs to be told again and again. I can even imagine listening to it while doing something else, just to be able to listen to the sheer wealth of information again. (Someone should consider releasing the audio track by itself; it would be great for commuters.)

Collins always packs his DVDs with extras, and Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life continues the tradition. Included is a feature-length commentary with Collins, Cornelison, and Dingeldein where they display just how much in love with this project they were. Also here are a deleted scene, a behind-the-scenes photo slideshow, and — most interesting of all — a new short film noir called "An Inconsequential Matter" (also with commentary) that is currently making the festival rounds. The story starts out similar to Sleuth but turns into something else entirely and is a good opportunity for viewers new to Cornelison to see him in a different role.


KentAllard said...

Very interesting. I'm familiar with Collins' other work on Ness, so I'll have to give this a look. I've always seen Ness' life as an American tragedy, a guy who seemed to have a limitless future (at the time he took the Cleveland job)to washed up (leaving the same).

Craig Clarke said...

Yeah, that whole "fighting social disease" period just seems like a real disappointment.

Related Posts with Thumbnails