Greetings, all and sundry!
It is not often that I am afforded the opportunity to heap praise and boat about a recent purchase. But just as I and others get the urge for something, anything chocolate. I also discreetly maintain the urge for “Good”. That level of existence that leaves others sadly and inevitably wanting. Whether it is selection and use of props, sets, dialogue, sense of time, acting and overall execution. An altogether common occurance in films, no matter how steep the budget. But to find it and savor it in a television series is worth noting. Though the quality of its cast may not be anywhere near as notable. Its sense of time is palpable and memorable.
To that end. Allow me to introduce one of the first and overall best television series to toy with and excel in the idea of “Film Quality Television”. A series conceived and produced by up and coming director, Michael Mann. Fresh from his previous outings in Manhunter and Miami Vice. Playing around his home town of Chicago in the fading Camelot, pre Beatles and Miranda Act days of the early 1960s. A cop show, to no ones’ surprise. Yet, a superlative one!
Crime Story: (Pilot)
The journey begins with Chicago at night. To the sounds of Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ as a camera slowly pans over a shiny black 1960 Impala from its chrome rear bumper. Over gleaming rear quarter panels to the two plainclothes Major Crime Unit detectives awaiting their rookie, Detective Joey Indelli (Bill Campbell, before Rocketeer) getting their dinner at a neon lit, classic car filled drive-in burger joint. A call comes over the radio. And it’s off to the races!
A crew of well dressed amateurs is taking down an upscale nightclub with shotguns, pillow cases and pull over ski masks. Party goers are panicked as watches, wallets and earrings are gathered. Someone resists and things head south in a hurry. The MCU Detectives arrive. With Lt. Mike Torello (Dennis Farina in world weary bad ass mode) taking the lead and discussing the developing hostage situation with debuting Michael Rooker. As a block away, the criminals’ getaway driver, Paulie Taglia (John Santucci) decides it’s time for his big white Cadillac to split. Just as the rest of the crew spills out the back entrance and police cruisers start closing in.
The crew retreats back into the club as Paulie deserts them and Torello begins negotiations. Backed up by Detectives Danny Krychek (Bill Smitrovitch), Walter Clemmons (Paul Butler) and hot headed Wes Connely (William Russ). Three bad guys and a hostage couple are given a police car to get to Northside airport, where a plane is waiting. Followed closely by Torello, Krychek and Connely in one car. And Clemmons and Indelli in another. Setting up what could be the most fluidly edited and executed freeway chase in years. As the bad guys decide to run for Milwaukee, instead. Weaving around Edsels, Packards, Fords and Chevys of that time. As Torello lags behind and Clemmons gets ahead for fender and door denting, hubcap sparking and flying game of Bumper Cars. The hostage car responds with pistols and shotgun before being knocked through a guard rail and winding up in the front yard of a middle income, suburban home. Where one bad guy, an American Indian decides to make a last stand, Torello gives chase. Shots are exchanged. A housewife watching the goings on while vacuuming follows the Indian back and pushes him into Torello and Clemmons’ line of fire with her Electro-Lux.
That, friends and neighbors, is an entrance! All accomplished before the episode’s first commercial break. A near perfect introduction of characters, surroundings, mindsets on both sides of the law and little reported action in what many dream about and call “The Good Old Days”.
With this lush stage set so deftly by director, Abel Ferrara (Ms. 45, King of New York) We learn more about Torello, his crew and the world that his MCU encompasses and deals with every day. Smash and Grab artists may not be top of the line, but it does supply grist. And leads to follow with the deceased Indian. Whose watering hole is deduced and its patrons asked questions. And a common thread is discovered. The cowardly, not too bright slob and ex con, Paulie Taglia. Who has a trial upcoming for Breaking and Entry and Assault that could go either way. Making him a prime target to lean on.
The leaning on can wait as another character is introduced. Up and coming gangster, Ray Luca. Just starting out Tony Denison (Wiseguy, JAG, The Closer). Whose often placid face and Brylcreemed, Fabian hair style hides a massive ego, explosive temper and pretty decent criminal mind. It seems that Ray bank rolled the previous night’s aborted night club shake down fiasco. And that Paulie had coaxed Luca to approve the dead Indian for the job. Ray is young, lean, lithe, arrogant. Perfect for this role and none too pleased with Paulie as he berates Paulie and tosses furniture his way. Ray has very lucrative plans and hates loose ends. Especially one that could lead back to a major score devised by his very clever friend and snot nosed, quick talking punk, Johnny O’Donnell. Well played by David Caruso, in a slimy, natural extension of his earlier role as leader of the Shamrocks gang on Hill Street Blues.
Johnny has his mind set on robbing a museum of its antiquities and jewelry stored in a vault when not on display. Ray knows it’s a fat score. Whose merchandise will take years to turn around. Even with an honorable, smart and well connected fence. The always reliable, gravel voiced Jon Polito (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink) playing minor crime boss and high end fence, Phil Bartoli.
Now that most of the players are on the field. we can return to the action. Paulie is in court for an evidentiary hearing on his B&E and Assault and defended by narrow tied Attorney David Abrams. Deftly underplayed by Steven Lang (Manhunter, Last Exit to Brooklyn). Who has a hard on for the strong arm and under handed tactics of the Chicago PD in general. And Lt. Torello’s MCU in particular. The back and forth of Torello being deposed by Abrams is wondrous to watch in the time before Miranda warnings and multiples judges signing off on warrants and wire taps. There is no love between Torello and Abrams, but Torello thinks David is on the wrong side.
Cut to a late night heist inside the museum. With scenes of cutting a smaller door in the vault’s huge steel door with phosphorus rods in Thief plays out. And a fortune in ancient stones, jewelry and bracelets is absconded with. Leaving Torello and his crew sucking hind wind and a rather physical late night intervention between Torello and Paulie in a dark, deserted alleyway. Where Paulie gives up not only Luca, but Johnny O’Donnell as well.
Torello is thunderstruck. Having thought of Johnny as a kid brother. The only son of the family whose corner candy shop Mike used to hang out as a kid and beyond. Bracing Johnny while pitching pennies with his street tough friends does no good. So Torello waits until Ray and Johnny see Bartoli. The only game in town. Bartoli low balls the coffe table full of glittering wonder. Which sets Johnny off. Pocketing a bracelet. Ray waits and intervenes. Calming Johnny first. Then Bartoli. Negotiating an increase in his and Johnny’s percentage. While cementing a path and rate for future scores and Ray’s “High Class Merch”.
Johnny is far from mollified and decides to start a small war with Bartoli. While detective Connelly follows Luca as pay off deliveries are tries to call the MCU from a phone booth and is shot in the back by Luca as Torello picks up the call. Unbeknownst to all, Johnny and his pair of penny pitches to do a Smash & Grab at one of Bartoli’s jewelry stores. Bartoli reacts by sending a pair of ski masked hitters to a local greasy spoon to take care of the penny pitchers. Torello and Krychek arrive just ahead of the ambulances, The beat cop says that it wasn’t a robbery. And one look at the bodies confirm that it was a message sending hit for revenge. The patrons don’t give up much information. Though a waitress remembers a third name. Johnny O’Donnell.
The walls start closing in on Johnny as his parents are beaten. Torello and his crew pull on ski maks of their own and and kidnap Bartoli. Take him and handcuff him to of the tallest and most accessible large structures in Cook county. With the warning to lay off the O’Donnells. Or else! After a day ot two to recover. Bartoli tells Ray to take care of Johnny.
I’ll leave it right there, lest I get deep into Spolier territory!
Now. What Makes Crime Story Good?
A fully developed pallet of characters. Some based on real cops and criminals. Dennis Farina had been a Chicago cop and Detective before being “discovered” by Michael Mann and given a small role as Robert Prosky’s protector, Carl in Thief five years earlier. John Santucci had been a professional criminal and ex-con, technical adviser and was given a decent role as a Chicago Detective in the same film. Tony Denison’s Ray Luca is based on Chicago gangster, Tony Spilotro. So there is a lot of grist in the mill to work with. Honestly and believably delivered.
And that grist is put to work in a two hour film shot entirely on location in Chicago. Which adds copious amounts of grit, feel and mood. Full of glitz and crowded glamor of night spots awash in Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis for Ray and David Abrams. Palatial estates for Phil Bartoli. And rainy, cramped and smoke filled crime scenes for Torello and company to contend with. Long before computers. When questions were asked. Notes taken. And Forensic Evidence was fingerprints, if you were lucky.
The soundtrack is completely of its time. And masterfully assembled by Todd Rundgren. And the cinematography by James A. Contner is deftly rendered. Lingering long and slow over waxed, polished and neon and street light reflective chrome adorned cars. Then pulling in close for conspiracy. The discussion of crime. Then pulling far back for the action. And there is a surplus of that!
What Makes Crime Story Great?
A producer who understood that something this large could only be told in a weekly series. Smart enough to sign on a master of dark, creepy alleyways and city scape in Abel Ferrara. Then assemble a splendid cast of relative unknowns to tell the tale. Leaving lots of room for soon to be rising talent like Ted Levine, Joseph Wiseman, Eric Bogosian, Gary Sinise, Ray Sharkey, Kevin Spacey, Darlanne Fluegel, Michael Madsen, Dennis Haysbert and Tom Signorelli to ply their fledgling craft in later episodes.
The splendid attention to detail for all involved, Torello and his MCU crew look like cops. Period, From their cheap Robert Hall and Goldblatt’s gray, blue or black suits. Fedoras, White shirts, black, lace up Broughams, narrow ties and white tube socks. Down to the wide rubber band wrapped around the grip’s strap safety of Torello’s Colt .45 ACP. Clemmon’s 12 double barreled gauge shot gun. And Indelli’s M-2 Carbine.
Then over to Ray Luca’s passion for tailored pastels and gold pinkie ring. Johnny O’Donnell’s pegged slacks, shiny, button down shirts and Fruit Boots, Duck Tails and Bouffants galore. Wide, slick, polished walnut bars with ash trays spaced strategically for customers who smoked. Even a can of Aqua Net hair spray used by Mrs. Torello (Darlanne Fluegel) before a cousin of Mike’s late night wedding reception.
The details heighten and add credence to the Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reinnger written words. Straightforward, not oblique and refreshingly clean.