This week’s edition of Silver Screen Feds goes back to the Roaring Twenties and the lawless days of Prohibition, to look at the best and worst Treasury agents who ever busted up a still on-screen: Legendary lawman Eliot Ness from the 1987 film “The Untouchables,” and deeply disturbed Agent Nelson Van Alden from HBO’s series “Boardwalk Empire.”
BEST FEDS: Eliot Ness, Treasury Department, “The Untouchables” (Andy Medici)
How do you take down one of the most notorious criminals in America’s history? How do you capture and convict a man responsible for gang violence, murder and untold corruption?
Why, with a Treasury Department employee of course.
And when your target is Al Capone — especially Robert De Niro playing Al Capone — your only hope is Kevin Costner as a highly stylized and ultimately effective Eliot Ness.
Costner plays an agent of the Bureau of Prohibition tasked with controlling the then-illegal flow of alcohol into Chicago. While his methods are highly unorthodox, he is squeaky clean and manages to put together a team of men to take down the otherwise unassailable Capone.
Ness shows determination, grit, intelligence and a passion for the job that should make any federal employee proud as he raids Capone’s warehouses and eventually sets up a sting at the Canadian border (a quick shout out to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is in order here) to intercept a shipment destined for Chicago.
Capone has paid off judges, juries and even the mayor, but Ness outwits him at every turn. He bluffs a judge into thinking Ness has evidence against him and he convinces a bookkeeper to flip on Capone by shooting the body of an already-dead gangster.
After Capone is finally convicted, a reporter asks Ness what he thinks about prohibition being repealed, and Ness responds in true federal employee fashion — apolitically.
“I think I’ll have a drink,” Ness responds.
WORST FEDS: Nelson Van Alden, Treasury Department, “Boardwalk Empire” (Stephen Losey)
Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden is, in many ways, the evil twin of Elliot Ness. Van Alden carries a thin veneer of piousness and faux-incorruptibility as he leads his crusade against Atlantic City bootlegger Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), but it barely masks his true nature as an overly righteous psychopath.
The dour Van Alden (Michael Shannon) commits many sins over the show’s three seasons that ultimately reveal him as a poor excuse for a G-man. Early in the show, Van Alden kidnaps a mortally wounded hijacking witness and tortures him until he reveals the name of the hijacker — right before the witness dies.
He’s also a hypocrite. In another episode, Van Alden delivers a high-and-mighty speech to a junior agent about how regulations prohibit law enforcement officers from accepting gifts — even those as small as a comped lunch at a restaurant. He then returns home and stashes a wad of cash stolen from an evidence bag behind his bedroom mirror.
Ultimately, Van Alden proved to be an ineffective enforcer of the infamous Volstead Act. He busted up the occasional speakeasy and booze-soaked dinner, but was unable to collect enough dirt — and boy, was there dirt — on Nucky Thompson to put the corrupt county treasurer away for good.
And in one of the show’s most notorious sequences, he brutally murders one of his own agents. As the first season progressed, Van Alden began to suspect — correctly — that fellow Agent Sebso had been bought by Thompson and murdered a witness on the crime boss’ orders. Van Alden starts casting vaguely anti-Semitic aspersions on the Jewish agent’s character and openly distrusting him. Desperate to get back into his boss’ good graces, Sebso agrees to come to a lakeside baptism and is browbeaten into allowing Van Alden to baptize him. But in full view of a shocked church congregation, Van Alden violently forces Sebso under the water and drowns him.
If that’s not a human resources nightmare, I don’t know what is.
[This video contains some language, violence, and the most disturbing baptism I’ve ever seen.]
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