December 7, 2007
One of the reasons I created my website is to promote the idea of methodical, granular scholarship in the field of television history and commentary, which too often seems to operate only on a popular (read: ignorant or lazy) plane. What I’ve written in the previous post are some not terribly original generalizations about Crime Story. It would probably be more useful for me to focus on the primary texts, which, in the case of TV episodes, are always the on-screen credits. If you write about television, you need a good eye for all those names and a good memory for what they mean.
Case in point: I’ve written a lot about “Michael Mann” in the last post. That’s a kind of shorthand that would be irresponsible without further clarification. Mann was the executive producer of Crime Story, but the show was created by two writers named Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger. Reininger was a former stockbroker with few credits when his spec script caught Mann’s attention. Adamson was a veteran Chicago cop, and some of the material in Crime Story is said to have been based on his own police career. Both, in other words, were Mann proteges. And when one considers that the actor playing Torello, the character based on Adamson, was also a former Chicago cop plucked from obscurity by Mann (for a role in his debut film, Thief), one begins to see how a producer with vision can shape the world of a television series without actually being the person who has created or even written most of the material.
Sometimes sorting through the names in a show’s credits can lead to the wrong conclusions. For instance, the incidental music for Crime Story was composed by Todd Rundgren (for a number of the early episodes) and Al Kooper. From that one would surmise that, certainly, Michael Mann’s taste in music is hip, since Rundgren was one of the most talented rock/pop producer/singer/songwriters of the seventies, and Kooper is a legendary session musician who played with Dylan and produced early Blood, Sweat and Tears and Lynyrd Skynyrd albums. One might also assume that Crime Story’s original music is terrific, but that’s not the case, at least to my ears; it’s awfully generic, neither richly sixties-period nor committedly eighties-synthesizer in the manner for which Mann’s films of the time are famous. Kooper also served as the series’ music supervisor, which means that he was – as the jokey credits for the clip show episode, “Crime Pays,” identify him – the “Guy Who Picks the Songs For the Show.” In that capacity, Kooper excelled, for the pop tunes that underscore many scenes are indeed well-chosen. At least, I think they are – there are contradictory reports from fans circulating that Anchor Bay, which released the DVDs which contain the only version of Crime Story I’ve seen, may or may not have replaced some of the songs with stock music. So it’s possible that I’m criticizing Rundgren and Kooper for something that might not represent their work at all.
One of the things that surprised me, but shouldn’t have, as I was watching Crime Story is that despite the show’s ready availability and relatively recent vintage, its writing and directing credits are not accurately documented anywhere on the many internet sites devoted to movies and TV shows. So I will reproduce them here:
(1) Crime Story (9/18/86). Teleplay by Chuck Adamson David J. Burke Gustave Reininger. Story by Chuck Adamson Gustave Reininger. Directed by Abel Ferrara.
(2) “Final Transmission” (9/19/86). Teleplay by Richard Christian Danus. Story by Chuck Adamson Gustave Reininger. Directed by Leon Ichaso.
(3) “Shadow Dancer” (9/26/86). Teleplay by Richard Christian Danus. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger. Directed by Leon Ichaso.
(4) “St. Louis Book of Blues” (9/30/86). Teleplay by Tony Castro & Carlton Cuse. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger. Directed by Leon Ichaso.
(5) “The War” (10/7/86). Teleplay by Chuck Adamson and Tony Castro & Carlton Cuse. Story by Chuck Adamson Gustave Reininger David J. Burke. Directed by Leon Ichaso.
(6) “Abrams For the Defense” (10/14/86). Teleplay by David J. Burke & Kenneth Michael Edwards. Story by Michael Mann. Directed by Aaron Lipstadt.
(7) “Pursuit of a Wanted Felon” (10/28/86). Teleplay by Eric Blakeney & Gene Miller. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger and Michael Mann. Directed by Aaron Lipstadt.
(8) “Old Friends, Dead Ends” (11/4/86). Teleplay by Loraine Despres and Chuck Adamson & David J. Burke. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger. Directed by Bobby Roth.
(9) “Justice Hits the Skids” (11/11/86). Teleplay by Clifton Campbell. Story by Chuck Adamson & Michael Mann. Directed by Mario Di Leo.
(10) “For Love or Money” (12/5/86). Teleplay by Chuck Adamson & David J. Burke. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger. Directed by Bobby Roth.
(11) “Crime Pays” (syndicated only). Teleplay by David J. Burke. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger. Directed by Mario Di Leo, Abel Ferrara, Leon Ichaso, and Bobby Roth. [Ferrara’s and Ichaso’s contributions appear to consist only of flashbacks from their earlier episodes.]
(12) “Hide and Go Thief” (12/12/86). Teleplay by Clifton Campbell. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger. Directed by Francis Delia.
(13) “Strange Bedfellows” (12/26/87). Teleplay by David J. Burke. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger. Directed by Francis Delia.
(14) “Fatal Crossroads” (1/9/87). Teleplay by Clifton Campbell and Chuck Adamson. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger and Michael Mann. Directed by Gary A. Sinise.
(15) “Torello on Trial” (1/16/87). Teleplay by Robert Eisele. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger. Directed by Gary A. Sinise.
(16) “The Kingdom of Money” (1/30/87). Teleplay by David J. Burke. Story by Robert Eisele & Michael Mann. Directed by James A. Contner.
(17) “The Battle of Las Vegas” (2/6/87). Teleplay by Eric Blakeney. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger. Directed by Aaron Lipstadt.
(18) “The Survivor” (2/13/87). Teleplay by David J. Burke and Chuck Adamson. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger. Directed by Alan Myerson [misspelled “Meyerson” in the credits].
(19) “The Pinnacle” (2/27/87). Teleplay by Robert Eisele. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger and Robert Eisele. Directed by John Nicolella.
(20) “Top of the World” (3/6/87). Teleplay by Peter Lance & Frederick Rappaport. Story by Chuck Adamson & Gustave Reininger and Peter Lance. Directed by Michael Mann.
(21) “Ground Zero” (3/13/87). Teleplay by Robert Eisele & Frederick Rappaport and Frank Megna & Peter Lance. Story by Chuck Adamson & Michael Mann. Directed by Peter Medak.
Of course, the writing (and even the directing) credits of a television series don’t always represent who really did what behind the scenes, but they’re the essential starting point in trying to sort the creative contributions of the people involved. To judge by their plenitude of story credits, Adamson (also credited as executive story editor) and Reininger mapped out the basic plotting of the series, with contributions from Mann and story editor David J. Burke (who was replaced by Robert Eisele late in the season). Then the teleplays were farmed out, at least in part, to be fleshed out by freelancers who appear to have been hired for two or three episodes apiece.
Some of those freelancers deserve further comment. The first name that jumps out is Carlton Cuse, who is now, as one of the showrunners for Lost, one of the hottest TV writer-producers in Hollywood. His writing partner on Crime Story, Tony Castro, is a fascinating figure in a different sort of way, a journalist, Angeleno scenester, and eventual ex-con, exactly the sort of larger-than-life character who repeatedly turns up in Mann’s circle. And I’m delighted that Castro’s foray into TV writing remains obscure enough that, as of this writing, he doesn’t appear to have an IMDb entry.
(Another important personage along these lines from Crime Story is actor John Santucci, who plays Luca’s wheedling sidekick Pauli Taglia. Santucci was a real-life Chicago safecracker and small-time mafioso who was the basis for James Caan’s character in Thief. His bug-eyed, psychotic stare is a key visual element of Crime Story, and probably an influence on the cartoonish, semi-comic secondary mobster characters of David Chase’s The Sopranos. But I think Mann’s obvious infatuation with Santucci turns into a major flaw, as the double-dealing Taglia’s ability to survive Luca’s wrath despite his obvious treachery becomes ever more hard to accept, especially in the ludicrous, slap-in-the-audience’s-face season finale.)
Among the series’ other writers, it’s worth noting how many appear to have gone on to major careers in television after scoring early credits, if not their very first TV assignments, on Crime Story: Eric Blakeney (21 Jump Street), Peter Lance (Wiseguy), Clifton Campbell (Profiler), my fellow Raleigh native David J. Burke (SeaQuest DSV), and Cuse. There were others with more experience (Richard Danus, for example, had co-written Xanadu) but Mann, very much an outsider working within the system, had the confidence to staff his show almost entirely with newcomers.
Crime Story’s directors were a more seasoned lot of rank-and-file episodic veterans, although even there one sees some odd choices. Gary Sinise, then a major actor/director in Chicago’s Steppenwolf theatre company, would have been a known quantity to Mann but a total nobody in Hollywood when he played a big guest role in one episode and then returned to make his debut behind the camera on the pivotal “Torello on Trial” episode (which engineered the move from Chicago to Las Vegas). An even more left-field candidate was Leon Ichaso, the Cuban independant filmmaker who helmed the first four segments following the pilot; Ichaso came full circle within the Mann realm decades later when he directed Pinero (2001), a biopic about the self-destructive playwright Miguel Pinero, another outsider figure whose biggest flirtation with the mainstream was a writing/acting stint on Miami Vice.
Finally, I want to comment on an episode that stands out a bit from the others, “Abrams For the Defense.” It was the first to center around David Abrams (Stephen Lang), a liberal defense attorney who at first seemed altogether tangential to the main thrust of the show (although eventually it became clear that the writers were positioning him as a crusading anti-mafia prosecutor). I’ll bet the show’s diehard fans hate this episode, because it largely ignores the mob storylines. Instead, the story is about Abrams’ defense of an angry black man (Ving Rhames) who punches out his criminally negligent slumlord. At the risk of seeming completely obsessed with the sixties social drama East Side / West Side, I’m going to posit a theory here: that “Abrams For the Defense” is an intentional homage to the most famous episode of that earlier series, “Who Do You Kill?”
Both shows open with a scene in which a tenement child is bitten by a rat, and both chart the various abuses the child’s parents suffer afterward at the hands of an implicitly racist bureaucracy. In “Who Do You Kill?” the baby dies but the show still ends on a note of very fragile hope. “Abrams For the Defense” spares the child’s life but ups the ante on despair, appending a grim fate for Rhames’ character just when it seems that Abrams and his white liberal friends (including the cops) have made a positive difference in his life. It’s as if someone behind Crime Story remembered how grim and uncompromising East Side / West Side had been and thought, “Well, I can top that!”
And here’s a corollary to my theory. The teleplay for “Abrams For the Defense” is credited in part to one Kenneth Michael Edwards. Edwards is the only writer from Crime Story’s first season for whom I can find no other credits on the internet, and who isn’t listed in the Writers Guild of America’s online database (at least not with that middle initial). Michael Mann’s middle name is Kenneth. I’m going to speculate, then, that “Kenneth Michael Edwards” could be a pseudonym of Mann’s, and that “Abrams For the Defense” is specifically his tribute to East Side / West Side.
Mann was twenty when East Side debuted in 1963, old enough to have seen it during his formative creative years – and 1963 is the year in which Crime Story is set. Was Mann a fan of East Side / West Side? Is there some connective tissue between Neil Brock’s growly broken-nosed swaggering masculinity and Mike Torello’s suave broken-nosed swaggering masculinity? If my guess is correct, that would make the atypical “Abrams For the Defense” the only Crime Story segment for which Mann is the primary writer, and therefore a key episode in his canon alongside the only one Mann directed, the climactic “Top of the World.” (Why would Mann use an alias for the teleplay and his own name for the story credit? I have no idea.)
In any case, it’s a riddle for future Mannologists to unravel.
December 7, 2007
Recently, over a long weekend, I finally tackled a project I’d been trying to get to for years. Or half a project, anyway: I watched the first season of Crime Story, the 1986-1988 period cops vs. mafia television series that’s had a devoted cult following for two decades, largely because its executive producer, Michael Mann, is considered the modern master of the urban crime movie.
I’m not the diehard Mann obsessive that two of my film critic friends are. One of them went to the lengths of renting the old VHS releases of the whole series from a legendary video store in the Valley, a few at a time, and dubbing a set of copies. (He still hadn’t gotten around to watching them by the time the DVDs came out.) But I am a middling-to-high Mann enthusiast, and I’d been guessing that this show might stand alongside St. Elsewhere and The Paper Chase as one of the best TV dramas of the eighties.
Another friend, a longtime TV collector who knows nothing about Michael Mann, chimed in with this blunt assessment of Crime Story: “The first ten or so episodes in Chicago are great. Then after they go to Vegas, it starts to suck.”
I tried to put those words out of my mind as I watched the twenty-one episodes from the first season. I was sure that, with my familiarity with Mann’s big-screen oeuvre, I’d suss out familiar Mannian themes and styles that my collector friend wasn’t hip to. There were some. But in the end, I couldn’t really disagree with him. After the pilot, a two-hour TV-movie directed with non-stop energy and real epic grandeur by Abel Ferrara, it’s a slow downhill slide.
I think I understand what went wrong. Mann, if what I’ve read about Crime Story is correct, was given carte blanche to develop his own show after turning Miami Vice into a huge hit for CBS. Anticipating (with a certain amount of hubris) a multi-season run, Mann plotted an epic story arc in which the showdown between Chicago supercop Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) and his nemesis, mobster Ray Luca (Tony Denison), would span most of the nineteen-sixties and seventies and eventually roam across much of the United States.
But Crime Story, unlike Miami Vice, was a moody, diffuse show, at a time when only a handful of prestigious dramas (none of them in the action genre) were beginning to work with season-long, multi-episode storylines. The ratings plummeted; the hefty budget was chopped. Instead of sticking with what they were doing right – gradually building the fascinating character of Mike Torello, a stone-faced cop with a complicated inner life, and charting his Melvillian (in the sense of both Herman and Jean-Pierre) obsession with Luca and its impact on his relationships with his wife and girlfriend – Mann and company hit the fast-forward button. Years worth of plot were crammed into the final ten episodes, at the expense of logic and continuity.
One of the later episodes, “The Suspect” (notable for Julia Roberts’ early role), is a model of clumsy exposition. Within the space of a few minutes, we learn that a) Torello has a girlfriend we hadn’t heard about before; b) she’s also the estranged wife of his squad’s FBI liaison; and c) said FBI liaison has been molesting his teenaged stepdaughter. Spread out over a whole season, this storyline could’ve same impact as the breakdown of Terence Knox’s character in the first season of St. Elsewhere – a spectacle in which a familiar, sympathetic figure unravels into a horrifying mess in what feels like real time. But in its extant form, “The Suspect” is a big non sequitir.
So is the final episode of the first season, “Ground Zero,” in ways I won’t ruin for anyone who hasn’t seen it. It follows upon a climactic showdown between Torello and Luca in the penultimate segment, “Top of the World” (directed by Mann), and was clearly meant to serve as a series finale. Even though I knew essentially what would happen in the bizarre final minutes of “Ground Zero,” I was shocked by the tone of what transpires. On paper, it sounds like laudable high-concept existentialism, but in execution the excruciating, Bowery Boys-worthy dialogue between Luca and the oafish stool pigeon Pauli is so jokey and flip that the ending plays as a gigantic fuck-you to loyal viewers. And I write that as someone who’s ecstatic to see chances taken with important TV moments like these, as long as the writing is up to the challenge: think of the last final minutes of St. Elsewhere, or Newhart.
I have no idea how the writers undid this mess to set the unanticipated second season in motion, nor am I in any particular hurry to find out. But I do consider it one of the funniest ironies in TV history that, a year later, the wild cult sitcom Sledge Hammer used up its last punchline parodying (cleverly) this nonsensical ending in its presumed series finale, and then found itself in the identical predicament – brought back from the Nielsen grave and with a whole lot of ’splainin’ to do at the beginning of the next season.