Thursday, February 5, 2015

Crime Story: Epic 1980s Televison

Winter's the right time to revisit Crime Story, a time capsule of 1980s TV.  Before Michael Mann became a big time Hollywood director of movies like The Insider and Heat, he created two iconic TV shows during the 80s, the wildly popular Miami Vice and the lesser known Cult series Crime Story. While Crime Story never quite transcended the limitations of network TV, its pulpy, neo-noir style, propelled by Del Shannon's "Runaway," had atmosphere and style.

Starring Dennis Farina (Mike Torello), a real life Chicago police officer turned actor, as captain of the Chicago PD organized crime unit. Imagine a Popeye Doyle with a heart and moral compass.  Set in 1963, Torello and his crew are in an all out battle for the streets of Chicago with organized crime, personified by Ray Luca (Anthony Denison).  Luca began the show as a low level operator who had a meteoric rise into the upper echelon of a major crime syndicate setting its sights on Las Vegas.  Denison brought a silent menace and a comical wit to Luca.  John Santucci added comic relief as Luca's sidekick Paulie. 

Midway through season one the scene shifted to Las Vegas as  leaders of the organized crime syndicate have chosen Luca as their point man in taking over Las Vegas.  Torello and his crew follow in pursuit. The new setting allowed the story to go in more interesting directions exploring the military-industrial complex of the American West.  The political and social forces of the Cold War often obstructed Torello's quest for justice.

Unfortunately, Crime Story began to falter during the second season.  Too many stand alone episodes about the culture of Las Vegas stole the focus from the Torello-Luca conflict. A lack of character development and lack of compelling female characters both hindered the show as well.

Despite its limitations, there are many reasons to revisit Crime Story.  The look and feel of the show channeled the mid- 60s.  The music, fashion, dialogue, and cultural references all exude a cool authenticity  Also, Crime Story proved a showcase for up and coming actors including Julia Roberts, Gary Sinise, and Kevin Spacey to just mention a few. Andrew Dice Clay appeared in several episodes as Luca's partner in crime.  Joseph Wiseman, who played the original Bond villain Dr. No, is brilliant as the elder syndicate leader who mentors Luca. 

Many have credited Crime Story as an influence over serial shows like The Wire and Homeland.  Mann envisioned an epic story designed to unfold like a novel over several years. Unfortunately Crime Story arrived too early, yet left its own mark etched in neon lights and jukebox music.