Michael Mann has always enjoyed drawing things out, Ali, Heat, The Insider, none of these are briskly moving stories, and that could well be attributed to the amount of time he spent in the ‘80s making TV series. Not only did he produce one of the series of the decade – Miami Vice – but also Crime Story, a series that may not be as famous, but has probably left an even bigger mark on television.
Envisaged as 22 hours of television that would make up a single movie, Crime Story is a very early example of a TV series with truly epic scope. Twice as long as all the Godfather movies combined it tells the story of organised crime in a way not often seen – from both sides of the law. Lieutenant Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) heads up Chicago’s MCU – the Major Crime Unit, it’s 1963 and units like this are few and far between in America, but Chicago is a city that can’t shake the legacy of Al Capone, and Torello is well aware that most of the serious crimes in the city can be traced back to a handful of men. Ray Luca (Anthony Denison) knows it too, and he wants to be one of those men, although when we first meet him he’s a nobody on the Chicago crime scene he’s got his eyes on the top spots and the big money, and luckily for him he knows all the right people to make friends with. Unfortunately though, after shooting a cop that was following him in the back of the head, he’s managed to make himself a rather large enemy in the shape of Mike Torello who’s going to stop at nothing to see him brought to justice.
The structure will probably remind you of more recent TV series, The X-Files immediately comes to mind, as although some episodes deal with tracking down mass murderers or catching jewellery robbers, the force of Ray Luca is always present – much as The X-Files had their ‘monster of the week’ episodes, but were always searching for the keys to the larger conspiracy. What this really feels like however, is a TV series of Heat, whilst it’s well known the Mann based Heat on his earlier TV movie L.A. Takedown, it seems that both were a refinement of the characters of Crime Story. There are even scenes lifted directly from this in Heat, when Torello arrives home to find his wife’s lover waiting for her to get ready he proclaims “You can sleep with my wife, you can sit on my couch, but you’re not watching my TV.” He storms out of the apartment with it, only to pistol whip the TV and throw it out of his car as he waits at a stop light. Towards the end of the series he even sits down for a little one on one with Luca, over a cup of coffee no less, it’s almost as if Mann had been trying to perfect one idea over the course of a decade, but the cat and mouse game here – due to the huge scope of the series – is far more elaborate.
Luca isn’t some invisible figure from the law, everyone knows he’s the bad guy from day one, and they’re out to get him – they even try a few times. Before the series is over Luca will have seen the inside of a courtroom more than once, and so will all his closest people. The most notable of which is Frank Holman (Ted Lavine), he’s not too bright, but more than willing to get his hands dirty, and a man Torello feels is key to bringing down Luca. After Torello links him with a brutal murder from a home invasion gone wrong he knows if he can get his hands on him he’ll spill his guts to save himself from the electric chair, but Holman proves to be even more slippery than Luca, repeatedly escaping Torello’s grasp. The series also boasts a surprising number of stars in smaller roles, most appear for only one episode, though Michael Madsen’s turn as the outfit’s guy in Vegas, and a guy that really doesn’t like Luca very much, is a highlight and one of the few recurring roles. You’ll also see Gary Sinise, Ving Rhames, Pam Grier, Julia Roberts, Debbie Harry and David Caruso looking rather more fresh faced than you’re used to seeing them.
The series really kicks into high gear when Luca makes a move to Vegas, heading up the Starlight Casino it’s a licence to print money, naturally there are a hundred crooked scams a guy like Luca could pull here, but oddly he doesn’t have designs on any of them. Aside from skimming from the slot machines to keep the bosses happy Luca wants to run a clean casino, much to the chagrin of the higher ups. As adept as he is at the criminal lifestyle Ray isn’t happy being under the constantly scrutinising eye of the police, his plan is to completely legitimise their operations within ten years, seeing as they own so many profitable businesses as it is, there really isn’t any point continuing to flirt with serious jail time. That isn’t a view that everyone agrees with though, most of the bosses feel that they are untouchable, they may get all the money but they keep their hands otherwise clean, so some major power struggles ensue.
While Mann had creative control over the series as producer he only directed one episode, with the series using many different directors, including Abel Ferrara who directed the two hour pilot episode. His influence is clear, the pilot is somewhat darker than the rest of the series, and it’s obvious he was pushing the limits of what was acceptable for television then along with striving to get the most from his budget. A series like this made today would obviously be more brutal, and the tight reign kept on Torello’s language is in rather stark contrast to the rest of his character, but this isn’t a series that pulls too many punches. A lot of characters aren’t going to make it to the end, and even our heroes aren’t the most law abiding men, Torello in particular is a man who’d clearly be a crook if he wasn’t a cop – never feeling the need to flash his badge to get a little cooperation when flexing a muscle or two will get the job done. Not just when he’s dealing with criminals either, the poor soul that refuses to deliver his dining table on time only just lives to regret things, along with waking up to a molatov cocktail or two on his doorstep.
Crime Story is an impressive series, according to the sleeve notes the New York Times called it ‘one of the best television series you’ve probably never seen’ and they’re right, I hadn’t heard of the series before its release, which seems strange given how much influence it has had over both Mann’s movies and many popular TV series today. They certainly weren’t wrong about the quality either, as Crime Story manages to pack just as many gripping story elements into its series as the likes of NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street, along with being an intriguing examination of the thin line between the two sides of the law.
Presented in its original 4:3 fullscreen ratio, sadly Crime Story was never going to look fantastic, standards of television recordings in the ‘80s weren’t a patch on today, and its very evident here. Whilst the transfer isn’t bad – the picture is impressively clean – the original elements have left Anchor Bay with a tough task. The image is very high contrast, and although that leaves you with very dark blacks, with areas of shadow becoming black holes where any glimmer of detail consumed. The series’ odd look doesn’t help, with its clear ‘80s production values and ‘60s style it looks rather like a gritty version of Happy Days. The darkness makes t a difficult encoding job, and it does sometimes struggle, and that – along with some grain – can leave some obvious artifacting in the image. You have to wonder if Anchor Bay had added just one extra disc if the problems would remain, as apart from the first – which only carries the pilot – they hold more than four hours each.
Available with either its original Dolby Stereo Soundtrack, or with a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, Crime Story still always sounds like television material. Obviously this isn’t a bad thing for the stereo track, but not much effort has gone into the remix, with it sounding rather similar to the stereo track filtered through my amplifier on Pro Logic settings, so there hasn’t been a large effort to remix the original elements or bring anything new to the track.
Sadly Crime Story arrives with nothing more than a small booklet giving some background to the series. Worse that that though, the episodes contain no chapter stops – which is a real pain if like me you experience a power cut 5 minutes from the end of an episode. It’s an odd decision to exclude such a rudimentary feature from the discs, it may not be one often needed on a TV series, but as I’ve learned it is one that can be sorely missed even if only needed once.
Whilst Anchor Bay may not have released this set with a huge fanfare, or even put a large effort into its presentation, it’s good to see it one DVD at all as Crime Story is an excellent series that will have passed most people by. The very reasonable price point also makes this a tempting purchase, and I for one am hoping this sells well enough to warrant Anchor Bay bringing us the second – and sadly final – series of this top quality drama.