The real "Mad Men"? The cops, robbers (and mid-century design) of "Crime Story"

July 23, 2010

AMC’s “Mad Men” premieres this weekend. For three seasons now, the popular, dark, set-in-the-early 1960 drama about New York City advertising executives and their enigmatic leader, Don Draper, has made us reexamine the dress, style, mores–and design–of mid-century America. And it all seems so cool now.

But 24 years ago, NBC took on the same time period with “Crime Story," a show about the really mad men of the Chicago Police Major Crimes Unit, led by Lt. Mike Torello (former real life Chicago cop Dennis Farina) as they track hood-on-the-rise Ray Luca, a Tony Spilotro-like mobster played by Anthony Denison. The show was never as popular as “Mad Men”; the set-in-Chicago drama premiered in 1986 and was cancelled after two seasons.

Created by Chicago-born director Michael Mann on the heels of  “Miami Vice,” “Crime Story” was a tough, gritty show–especially its remarkable first season. But it was “Mad Men” ‘s equal, or better, when it came to the use of mid-century clothes, manner and architecture. The show used locales such as Janson’s, a space-age looking fast food place on 99th and Western; Marina City, St. Joseph’s Hospital and other modernist locations to create a cool violent world of cops, skinny ties, bebop, heists, scores, tailfins and mobsters.

There was a good dose of dark humor. In the pilot, a cop looks at blood spatters on a wall and muses, “Looks like a Jackson Pollock.” Another cop says, “Who’s dat? An Outfit guy?”

Here are the opening credits–a great montage of show footage and old clips of Chicago places. That DC-9 landing at Midway is priceless, as is the shot of motorcycle cops spilling out onto LaSalle Street:

 

Look at the screen grab at the top of this blog, taken from two-hour pilot. Mobster Phil Bartoli (played by Jon Polito) totally chills in his incredible post-war house ( I think this is on Dee Road in Park Ridge, but I'm not sure) while talking to hoods Tommy O'Donnell (played by a really young and wired David Caruso) and Luca. Especially dig the TV with the Calder-like antenna/stabile on top, the pink low-to-the-ground furniture and the room divider. It was that kind of show.

And this: Torello street-interrogates Pauli Taglia (played by John Santucci, himself a former Chicago jewel thief!) to get the goods on a heist Luca is planning. The heist goes wrong, but this is pretty good stuff for 1980s tv:

"Crime Story" shifted to Las Vegas for its second season and went downhill from there. Still I think the show was 20 years ahead of its time. Watch it now and you can see elements of "The Sopranos," and the movie "Casino," of course. I've wondered lately if "Crime Story" could be recast and reborn as a set-in-Chicago cable series where the darker themes and violence that were hinted at in the original show could be fleshed out. We often play casting director here on this blog; I think Vince Vaughn, who still has a Chicago accent, could be a perfect Mike Torello.