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With: Dennis Farina, Anthony John Denison, John Santucci, Stephen Lang, Bill Smitrovich, Bill Campbell, Paul Butler, Steve Ryan, Ted Levine, Joseph Wiseman, Johann Carlo, Darlanne Fluegel, Ron Dean, Jon Polito, Eric Bogosian, David Caruso, Michael Rooker
Written by: Chuck Adamson, Gustave Reininger, etc.
Directed by: Abel Ferrara
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 96
Date: 18/09/1986

Crime Story [Pilot] (1986)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Choosing Sides

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

How many television pilots hold up a decade later as a full-length movie? How many of them still seem vital? I can think of only two: David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990) and Abel Ferrara's Crime Story (1986), the latter of which has just been released on DVD thanks to Anchor Bay Entertainment.

What Twin Peaks and Crime Story have in common is that they were both made by artists at their peak, flushed from previous successes. David Lynch had stunned critics and audiences with his Blue Velvet (1986), a film that had been voted one of the best of the 1980's by the time Twin Peaks aired. Michael Mann, the producer of Crime Story was hot off the success of his first series, Miami Vice. Both men were given the freedom to create whatever they wanted. Both Twin Peaks and Crime Story pleased the critics and a small legion of fans, but not the public at large. Both were canceled prematurely.

But something about them endured. Perhaps fans recognized them as the real thing. Demand was strong enough that each of them would get a second life in reruns, on cable, and on video. And now 14 years later, Crime Story lives again on DVD.

The success of Crime Story depends on the collaboration between producer Mann and director Ferrara. Both are outstanding filmmakers with singular visions. Mann has a little more business savvy perhaps, and is able to add a little more gloss to his gritty visions of life on the street. Ferrara uses no such shield. His view is unfettered and unobscured. Sometimes he is able to look directly into a man's soul. By 1986, he had only made three feature films, The Driller Killer (1979), Ms. 45 (1981), and Fear City (1984), all very violent, but somehow soulful. You could tell that the man behind these films wasn't out for a cheap bang. Mann had been brave enough to bring Ferrara on as a director of Miami Vice, then recognized that he was the man to direct the Crime Story pilot.

Crime Story tells of the rivalry between cop Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) and up-and-coming gangster Ray Luca (Anthony Denison with a killer ducktail haircut). The show, which is set in 1950's Chicago, kicks off with Del Shannon's "Runaway," a tune that would soon become permanently intertwined with the show. But though the music was still innocent, these characters were not. We see Torello in a bar drunkenly attempting to pick up a bar hag and in the courtroom lying his head off to keep a bad guy in jail. We see Luca thinking and planning on how to get ahead, slowly realizing who he can step on and who he can't. We see both cops and gangsters getting killed, and it stings each time. No one is a caricature.

Mann got all the details right. His cast at the time was made up of unknowns and first-timers, though many of them have gone on to other things. Farina in particular has become a hell of a character actor in movies like Get Shorty (1995) and Out of Sight (1998). The period detail on the show, cars, costumes, and sets, was all excellent, and well above the quality of your average television series. And above all, the writing felt real. It was complex and challenging, as opposed to dumbed-down, and it gave its characters heart and soul.

Overall the Crime Story pilot wasn't the original ground-breaker that Twin Peaks was, and it doesn't venture into any of that shaky-cam realism that other cop shows did. It's just a solid, rock-hard start for a great show. And though the show took off into epic proportions, the pilot remains, on its own, a small classic.

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