It’s the middle of the night near Cermak and Canal, and the police lieutenant is angry.
There’s a dead body, fresh out of the South Branch. But before beginning to unravel the homicide, he has to handle a federal prosecutor who’s on the scene, trying to get past the police barricade.
The cop, who’s had run-ins with this particular fed before, breaks, unloading right in the guy’s face with a Chicago accent as sharp as the hot peppers on an Al’s Italian beef:
“Listen to me, you pompous bastard: This is the city of Chicago—politically the most potent city in America. And you are a third-rate political opportunist. You wanna get in a dogfight with me? I’ll eat you alive. You’re trying to climb the ladder. I am the ladder.”
That’s Crime Story, the spectacular police drama that ran on NBC from September 1986 to May 1988, long before Dick Wolf settled on our shores. From the locations to the dialogue, nothing quite as quintessentially Chicago—save, perhaps, 1993’s The Fugitive—has been filmed here since.
Set in the early 1960s, Crime Story was a neo-noir starring former Chicago policeman Dennis Farina as Mike Torello, a CPD lieutenant trying to pinch Outfit hood Ray Luca. The modern cop show owes a debt to Hill Street Blues, but the vig on that loan is payable to Crime Story, among the rare earlier TV dramas to serialize story lines and mix violence with gallows humor.
“Looks like a Jackson Pollock,” says Torello, inspecting a blood spatter on a wall inside a diner near Milwaukee and Damen after a mob hit.
“Is he an Outfit guy?” a passing detective asks.
“No, an artist,” Torello says. “He used to paint stuff like this.”
“Well,” the detective says before walking off, “he’s got a sick mind.”
Created by Chicago-born director and producer Michael Mann—hot off the success of Miami Vice—Crime Story kicked off with a two-hour pilot sleekly directed by Abel Ferrara, who would later make King of New York and Bad Lieutenant. Their Chicago is dark and violent. Cops. Gangsters. Guns. Pompadours. Neon. Rain-slicked streets. Big black Fords prowling the city like dinosaurs.
There’s a diamond heist in the Field Museum. A mobster lives lavishly in a Jetsons-meets-the-Flintstones house in Park Ridge. Janson’s Drive-In in Beverly shows up. Luca tunes in to real-life 1960s black radio jazz DJ “Daddy-O” Daylie.
Chicago Film Office director Rich Moskal, who was a location scout for Crime Story, says the crew mined everything from old magazines to Chicago History Museum archives in its search for extant 1960s locations. “And when those places turned up as long gone, they retrofitted,” Moskal says. “Dry cleaners and bank lobbies turned into snack shops and jazz lounges.”
Watch now on DVD and the show is a revelation, beginning with Farina. He’d begun his acting career only five years before Crime Story‘s premiere, playing a henchman in Mann’s 1981 Chicago-set thriller Thief, and he delivers in his first starring role. And so does Tony Denison as the scary-as-hell Luca, based on mobster Tony Spilotro.
“Hey you,” Torello tells a stick-up guy. “You hurt anybody else, when this is over, I’m gonna find what you love the most and I’m gonna kill it. Your mother, your father, your dog. Don’t matter what it is. It’s dead.”
Crime Story loses its punch when the story shifts to Las Vegas near the close of the first season. The change of scenery reflected actual events: the Outfit sent Spilotro to Vegas to watch its gaming interests. Still, the 15 Chicago episodes are pure gold, certainly worthy of a restored Blu-ray release with commentary (although it would be incomplete without the voice of Farina, who died in 2013). Or a remake. Don’t matter what it is. It’s time. v