Friday, January 15, 2010

"Some will live and others die..."

It was my dad who awakened my love for crime fiction. He was the one who, for years, kept pushing this book called Mr Majestyk under my nose. Now, sure, the first Leonard novel I actually read was Get Shorty, but I like to think I came to the author because of my dad’s near fanatical love for his work (something which soon passed on to me).

I mention this because it was my dad who introduced me to a lot of great authors (and a lot of great music) as I got older. He had a kind of instinct for what I’d dig (and if my mum is to believed, its because we’re essentially the same person, but one of us has more grey in his beard).

Which is a roundabout way of telling you how this Christmas he got me Crime Story on DVD.

Crime Story, for those of you who don’t know, was a cult 80’s crime show starring Dennis Farina (and his ever brilliant moustache) as hair-trigger Chicago cop Michael Torrello. Which doesn’t sound too unique until you consider that what Mann and the show’s other creative forces were trying to do was tell a story over the course of a TV show.

Does that sound surprising?

In the pre-Wire world?

Hey, shouldn't all shows be doing that now?

In the eighties, of course, it just wasn’t something you did. You reset the show week after week to try and catch a new audience. You didn’t expect them to remember what had happened, didn’t expect them to cotton to changes in the characters.

This was the era, after all, that was to give us The A-Team.

All the same, Crime Story was ambitious for its era as it attempted to tell the dual story of Torrello’s obsession with catching criminal thug Ray Luca while at the same time detailing Luca’s rise to the top of the American Mafia (while never answering the question of how Luca’s hair so consistently defied gravity episode after episode).

Now, I’m a fan of Mann’s work but I’d never come across this show before, so I was intrigued to see it. Of course, I came in fully prepared for the limitations of 80’s network TV, and in some cases, I was right to prepare myself. There are some bizarre and unlikely resolutions to certain cases, and sometimes you can see the censors stepping in, but on the whole Crime Story is surprisingly gritty, particularly in its presentation of the Chicago Police Department of the 1960’s. Torrello and his boys get drunk, get laid, make mistakes, beat up on suspects, fly into rages and do all kinds of shit you just don’t expect from a network show of that era. Torrello himself is a particularly complex character and while you can chart Farrina’s finding his footing as an actor, he brings a kind of raw intensity to the role that works surprisingly well.

And then there’s the fact that the bad guys seem to get away most of the time with the shit they do. Sure, there are stand alone episodes like the TV killer that play out like a particularly dark version of almost any TV cop show, but when the focus is on Luca and Torrello’s back and forth, there’s a real sense of danger and that the balance of power could shift in either direction.

The show is packed to the brim with actors who were either already famous (the wondrous Pam Grier appears in a brilliant subplot that deals directly with racism and mixed-race relationships as well as the unique nature of the American “ghettos”) or would become so (David Caruso, Julia Roberts, Gary Sinise, Michael Madsen and Ving Rhames all pop up over the course of the show), and the sixties setting means the soundtrack is absolutely incredible, with particular love going to the title theme, Runaway, a song I’d heard before but never really appreciated.

But yes, there are problems. A mid season slump kicks in around Paul Guilfoyle’s appearance as a hostage-taking psychopath with a particularly implausible plot to sleepwalk through (it is one of the shows weakest episodes and nearly made me give up) while the plot recaps reach ludicrous proportions – nearly six minutes in one episode to get through the “previously on” while one particular mid-season episode is nothing more than a recap of the story so far. But then the show kicks back into high gear as it focuses on the Torrello/Luca dynamic and moves the action to Las Vegas. From there we get a string of brilliant episodes including a particularly surprising instalment which deals directly with a man raping his teenage daughter-in-law and does so in a way that deals with the issue as upfront as it possibly can given the restrictions of the time, and re-affirms Crime Story as the fore-runner to complex and gritty dramas such as Homicide and NYPD Blue and then, of course, The Sopranos and The Wire.

I’ve just kicked into the end of season one this evening, with a particular WTF moment on the very last disc. It’s an insane plot twist, I think, utterly out of left field (if you can avoid spoilers and haven’t seen the show before, it’ll really kick you in the nuts), but by this point I was so invested in the characters and the snaking arc of the show that I was just going with it, and trust me, I’ll be slipping season two into the player tomorrow.

Of course, if my agent’s reading this, only after I’m done with that work I should be doing…


David Cranmer said...

Mann is so good. THIEF, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, HEAT etc. Tops for sure. And I enjoyed Dennis Farina and CRIME STORY in the day.

Paul D Brazill said...

I'm not a big fan of Mann- Heat was a bit too cheesy even for my taste- but I love Thief and Crime Story. farina is great in it.

Dana King said...

CRIME STORY was a good show, well ahead of its time. Farina was still learning how to be an actor, but he knew all about being a Chicago cop, and that made all the difference.

John McFetridge said...

Crime Story was really good. It did follow nicely the longer story arcs started in Hill Street Blues.

Next thing, we'll be talking about that other 80's show Wiseguy.

But what really got me from this post was a father passing something down to his son. This is not the first time I've heard it (and it was Elmore Leonard last time, too) and I like it.

It seems to me there was a cultural break between what are now boomers and their parents and not much got passed down - there was a loss of continuity there for a while with the obession over the "new."

This feels better.

Steve Weddle said...

Never seen that show. Will now. Thanks

pattinase (abbott) said...

From the first chords of MY LITTLE RUNAWAY, I loved this show. It finally seemed like TV was catching up with the movies in terms of production values, acting, plots. It just stood out--especially if you were there to hear those first chords.

pattinase (abbott) said...

And in reading John's post, that is so true. The generation gap between those two generations was huge. We rejected all of our parents' music, movie tastes, books. (Not to mention politics)

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Can't all agree to just leave The A-Team out of this.

Sandra and I are watching Crime Story right now. I haven't seen it in years and she hasn't seen it at all. The influence on The Wire is immediately noticeable. From the long story arcs, to the gray area that both sides comfortable work in. Even down to Torello and the guys working in a major crimes unit and the actors John Poilito and Jim True Frost being in it.

Yes, it's problematic at times but all in all its pretty solid