Crime Story (1986)
From the very beginning of television as the dominant form of entertainment in this country on type of series rapidly rose above the rest by becoming the most popular genre in television history, the police drama. Other genres wax and wane in capturing the public’s attention but not crime shows. Over the last seventy years or so I cannot find a single TV season that did not include at least one representative of this enduring series format. With so many police and detective series through the annals of television history to consider some are going to be in the fat section of the statistical bell curve indicative of the mediocre shows that have naturally proliferated. A few regrettable examples with therefore occupy the regrettable distant end of that curve set aside for the worse of the lot. This means that an exceedingly rare number of series will be eligible to enter the ranks of the best of the thousands of other cop shoes. One series that has earned its place in that ranking is under review here; ‘Crime Story’. Originally aired in 1986 this show has stood the test of time still defining the genre after a quarter of a century. To commemorate the twenty fifth anniversary of the show Starz/Anchor Bay has released a nine disc DVD set of both series of this ground breaking series. The individual seasons set were initially made available in 2005 but this is the first time the complete season can be added to your collection in one swoop.
The series remains notable for helping to start or at least solidify the careers of many of the created people that redefined the genre in the eighties and continue to exert a significant influence on it to this new millennium. Actors, writers, directors and producers synonymous with crime dramas served as the creative foundation of this series. I was all ready an adult when this series premiered with decades of experience as a fan of the genre and I realized immediately that this was one of the special shows on TV that was changing the very landscape of the police procedural series. Revisiting it now not only brought back a rush of fond memories but viewing it through more experienced eye demonstrated just how incredibly well crafted ‘Crime Story’ was. There are nuances inherent to this series that are even more apparent in retrospect that while watching in the moment 25 years ago. I watched it with my best friend who was also an original fan and our consensus was it comes across better than ever. Part of that is how the setting of the series dove-tails into the current trend of sixties retro television. Series such as ‘The Playboy Club’, ‘Pan Am’ and the leader of the trend, ‘Mad Men’ have made that turbulent decade into all the rage. Set in the early nineteen sixties ‘Crime Story’ looks at the activities of police detectives and mobsters against the backdrop of a world on the brink of drastic change.
Lt. Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) knows the streets of Chicago like few detectives on the force. The reason is simple; he grew up on the tough South Side. This is the type of neighborhood readily used in the famous gangster flicks of the forties. There a boy would either grow up to ever one of two professions; cop or criminal. Torello Leveraged that streetwise understanding into a highly successful career in the Chicago police for ultimately leading to his being given the supervisory role in the elite MCU, The Major Case Unit. As he reads the unit’s mandate his team is not concerned with the usual metric of closing individual cases; they go after the perpetrators or major, ongoing crimes, typically involving complex targeting of organized crime. The units was close knit and toughen by hard experience consisting of veteran detectives Sgt. Danny Krychek (Bill Smitrovich), Det. Walter Clemmons (Paul Butler), Det. Nate Grossman (Steve Ryan) and relative newcomer Det. Joey Indelli (Bill Campbell).in the feature length pilot the focus of their investigation became clear; Ray Luca (Anthony Denison). Torello had known Luca as a hit headed, impulsive punk from old neighborhood. After a violent encounter it became obvious to both parties the intense danger the other represented.
Lucas had been acting as an independent outside the usual hierarchy of the organized crime family controlling the city. This puts Luca in a precarious position not only working outside the law but outside the estranged from the protection of the traditional mob. After a few highly profitable and expertly executed jobs Luca comes to the attention of a crime boss Manny Weisbord (Joseph Wiseman). Lucas’ crew is made up of a core of career criminals well versed in the art of burglaries; Pauli Taglia (John Santucci) and Frank Holman (Ted Levine). Once Lucas subjects himself to the tutelage of the elder mobster he undergoes a significant change in his modus operandi that is obvious to Torello; Lucas has matured from an impulsive street hood to a cunning criminal manager driving high profile jobs with military precision. Then there is the classic sixties soundtrack. At the top of the hit parade is the iconic ‘Runaway’ remastered by the original artist Del Shannon. Now that was when music was great; pre Beatles Rock.
A major factor in the enduring capacity to entertain is derived from sixties setting. This was a time when Rock and Roll has becoming the major musical influence. Back then women wore skin tight Capri pants with their hair piled high in structurally impressive hairdos that seemingly defied gravity and required a can of hairspray to construct. The men were not to be out done went for the style of hair demoted by elaborate peaks, ridges and awning like pieces at the front. Most first season ends with a bang and a cliffhanger but in this case they took it to a fantastic extreme. The adversaries are in Nevada during the time of nuclear testing. Season one concludes with an atomic bomb going off leaving fans wondering who will live.
The creator and show runner, Michael Mann, was already a pioneer in crime drama, his classic TV juggernaut ‘Miami Vice’ with its flipped colors, rolled sleeves and earth and color pallet devoid of earth tones literally redefined the cop series. Mann has become a driving force in the genre both in television and film. He was brilliant here in his casting bringing former Chicago detective Farina back together with a former criminal, Santucci. According to notes in the old days Santucci had been busted by Farina, now that’s realism.