Zen Pulp, Pt 5

Crime Story: Michael Mann's influential pre-Miranda police procedural
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted July 23, 2009
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This is the fifth in a five-part series of video essays on Michael Mann. Part 1 can be viewed here; part 2 can be viewed here; part 3 can be viewed here; part 4 can be viewed here.

One of the lesser known but more fondly remembered Michael Mann productions is Crime Story, a drama that ran on NBC from 1986 to ’88. Although it was packaged and sold as a period cousin of Miami Vice, the shows had little in common besides cops-and-robbers scripts, a fondness for reflective surfaces, and a deft sense of how to use pop music to enhance the mood. Where Vice was an internalized, at times abstract series set in a kind of dream space, Crime Story was more concrete—an epic cat-and-mouse chase pitting Major Crimes Unit detective Frank Torello (Dennis Farina) and his crew against an up-and-coming mobster named Ray Luca (Anthony Denison), who wanted to conquer the world of organized crime overnight and was talented and ruthless enough to pull it off. Set in early 1960s Chicago and Las Vegas and shot on location in both cities, the series was co-created by screenwriter Gustave Reininger and Chuck Adamson, a former Chicago police detective turned producer who was a close friend of Mann’s.

The characters and situations were composites drawn from life, and the show’s principal cast included some actors who had originally been policemen or crooks and who had previously worked with Mann on his 1981 feature Thief, in which the director perversely cast the cops as criminals and the criminals as cops. Farina, who had a bit part as a gangster’s henchman in Thief, was a former Chicago police detective before he turned to acting. And John Santucci, who played Luca’s dumb but loyal right-hand man, Paulie Taglia, was an infamous jewel thief who had been arrested many times by Adamson. Santucci made his big-screen debut in Thief as a crooked cop, a role that must have delighted him to no end.

Yet despite the peculiar specialness of Crime Story, it bears the dramatic hallmarks of a Mann production, starting with its two-sides-of-a-coin approach to its hero and villain. On first glance, Torello and Luca seem as different in their ways as Detective Vincent Hanna and thief Neil McCauley in Heat: strong antagonists marked by their respectively hot-blooded and ice-cold approach to their lives and jobs. But like Hanna and McCauley, Torello and Luca have similar weaknesses, including hair-trigger tempers. And both men are so obsessed with their jobs that they foul their nests, destroying the relationships that are theoretically most important to them.

Crime Story was a densely plotted, often grimly amusing serialized drama, like The Godfather: Part II flattened out into a comic strip. Each episode began with an extended recap of the plot up to then; but after a few episodes, there was so much to summarize that the recaps themselves became confusing; this, coupled with the show's brutal violence and period ambience, probably sealed its fate. Although it did OK in its original timeslot, Fridays right after Miami Vice, NBC moved Crime Story to Tuesdays to counterprogram ABC's Moonlighting, a series that had a similarly retro flavor but more comedy and sex appeal. With its ratings in free fall, Crime Story got a surprise second-season order from the network.

But that wasn't the end of its troubles. The show had reached a natural endpoint in its literally explosive Season 1 finale, which is so ghastly and funny that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for newcomers. It took a mighty display of pretzel logic to continue the tale; add in the crippling effect of the 1987-88 writers’ strike and the result was a sophomore season so inferior to the first that there's no point mentioning it here.

Nevertheless, the series had an influence far out of proportion to its ratings. Television had seen series with season-long arcs and interlocking episodes before, notably The Fugitive and The Prisoner. But Crime Story raised the stakes with its immense and constantly growing ensemble cast and the sheer complexity of its plot, which required a level of commitment 1980s viewers were unwilling to muster. Within a decade, however, the one-two punch of pay cable’s creative ambition and the arrival of DVD box sets demolished common wisdom about audiences’ short attention spans. The long-form narrative—long practiced in other countries in a form called the telenovela, or novel for television—became popular, even critically respected. The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, The Shield, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad walked a wide-open road that Crime Story had done much to pave.

Ultimately, though, Crime Story is less interesting as a TV milestone than as an unusually warm effort from an artist more often known for formal adventurousness and a trancelike intensity leavened by intellectual detachment. Mann was more actively involved in the writing of this series than on Vice, taking story credit on many episodes and directing the penultimate installment of Season 1, “Top of the World,” in which Torello finally places Luca under arrest. The series had all the hallmarks of a personal project. In its obsession with Chicago landmarks, period pop and slang, and the nuances of regional accents, it was equally a police procedural set in the skull-cracking, pre-Miranda era and a valentine to a certain time and place, capturing the last architectural traces of the postwar Windy City (and Las Vegas as well) before they were swallowed up by ’80s and ’90s glitz.

Most striking of all was a quality that runs throughout Mann’s work: not just an awareness but matter-of-fact acceptance of the world as a prismatic, multicultural place. From The Jericho Mile and Miami Vice to The Last of the Mohicans and Ali, Mann’s productions have always enjoyed showing the interaction of races, classes, and ethnic groups, and showing how their differences highlight their commonality. To that end, Torello's Major Crimes Unit included the cigar-chomping, shotgun-toting Walter Clemmons (Paul Butler), a black detective whose pioneering presence went largely unremarked on among perps for fear of getting their heads busted. The criminals’ ranks included Italians, Irish, blacks, and Jews (played by Jon Polito, Andrew Dice Clay, David Caruso, Ted Levine, and Michael Madsen, among others) who set aside ethnic hatred in the name of filthy lucre. Set on the brink of mass revolt against the status quo, Crime Story showed the American city’s tribal mentality giving way and the melting pot ideal being replaced by Jesse Jackson’s patchwork quilt metaphor.

Mann, Reininger, and Adamson didn’t sugarcoat the country’s growing pains, though. One of the most wrenching episodes, “Abrams for the Defense,” filched a plotline from an acclaimed episode of the CBS drama East Side/West Side to highlight the ghetto blight that would fuel the riots of the ’60s. Public defender David Abrams (Stephen Lang), a Jew wracked with guilt over being a mobster’s son, finds himself defending a black laborer (Ving Rhames) who attacked his Polish slum landlord and falling in love with a black reporter named Suzanne Terry (Pam Grier) who’s covering the case. Abrams finds unexpected allies in Torello and company, red-meat-eating badasses who know an underdog when they see one, and who display a cultural sophistication that can only be learned on the streets. Mann’s guiding artistic philosophy, that all of life is lived in the moment, finds its purest expression in the fleeting moments of Crime Story, when Reininger and Adamson’s sharply etched characters momentarily forget their obsessions and break bread, get drunk, tell dirty jokes, and dance to the music. 

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Courtesy Anchor Bay Entertainment
Crime Story, produced by Michael Mann
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THE AUTHOR

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

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Author's Website: The House Next Door