Guys look great in gray fedoras and snappy suits, which is probably what draws certain young men into lives of crime, or at least of moviemaking. Of course, young crime guys these days aspire to contempo Armani suits and don’t wear hats at all. But young movie guys still have an endearing fondness for the fashions and film noir of the ’40s, when men were men and spoke in a clipped, cynical code of slang, wo-men were women and knew the value of perfectly applied lipstick, and everyone smoked cigarettes without squinting or coughing.
As a what-I-did-on-my-hiatus anthology, the six half-hour noir mystery thrillers that make up Fallen Angels were clearly happy assignments for the stylish Hollywood talents who signed on. Drawing on bread-and-but-ter short stories of the era adapted by big-rep contemporary screenwriters, this playtime project is filled to the hat brim with cool directors, ginchy actors, and close-up shots of those halfcircle thingamabobs with the moving arrows that mark the ascent and descent of elevators heading toward danger. The series was shepherded by director Sydney Pollack’s Mirage Enterprises and the chic video outfit Propaganda Films (producer of videos for Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince).
One unintended result of all this happy, naughty cigarette-puffing, however, is that, at their weakest, these films look like the work of boys (and don’t be fooled, this is a boys’ fantasy production) dressed up in their dads’ big suits. Another result is that you come to appreciate just how easy it is to disintegrate into self-indulgent parody if the actors and directors forget for even a minute that the form requires a serious, unselfconscious understanding of the moral differences between good and evil.
”Dead-End for Delia,” the premiere film, displays variations on these cinematic sins. Phil Joanou (Final Analysis) directs from a script by Scott Frank (Dead Again), adapted from a 1950 short story by William Campbell Gault about a cop, Pat Kelley (Gary Oldman, of Bram Stoker’s Dracula), investigating the murder of his estranged wife, Delia (Gabrielle Anwar, who tangoed in Scent of a Woman). Joanou has a thing for headlights; Frank goes for lines like ”She was a girl headed for doom since the day of her birth.” Oldman overworks his way into the character of the cop. And every time someone barks an obscenity — oh, liberated cable universe, where four-letter words fill in for absent wit! — the mood is broken. (Another thing these fedora boys don’t get: Tough guys had clean mouths back then.)
In contrast, the cast of ”I’ll Be Waiting,” the second in the series, airing Aug. 15, is terrific. Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle) directs the 1939 Raymond Chandler story, adapted by C. Gaby Mitchell, and he’s got the goods with Bruno Kirby (City Slickers) as a hotel detective involved with Marg Helgenberger (China Beach), an alluring guest. Hanks puts in a cameo appearance too, and the rich talent includes Jon Polito (TV’s Homicide), Dan Hedaya (Cheers), and Hanks’ old Bosom Buddies costar Peter Scolari. But the director’s downfall is his pacing: This baby drags something awful as Hanks gets suspenseful silence all bollixed up with wordless tedium.
The others go along and get along. Joe Mantegna (Bugsy) and Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard) are a swell match in ”The Quiet Room” (premiering Aug. 29), directed by Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape), but the dialogue sounds like slow-motion David Mamet. Laura Dern (Jurassic Park), in eyebrow pencil and chiffon, couldn’t find her way out of a noir movie with a dinosaur hunter’s flashlight in ”Murder, Obliquely” (airing in September), but her costar, Alan Rickman (Die Hard), was born to play dangerous bachelors.
I suspect the real fun of Fallen Angels will be in spotting hot actors in cool small roles — look, there’s Isabella Rossellini! (in ”The Frightening Frammis,” airing in September and not yet available for review). Well, that and in watching men and women smoke and drink and make cat eyes at each other, like the movies once taught us grown-ups were allowed to do.
”Dead-End for Delia”: C
”I’ll Be Waiting”: B-
”The Quiet Room”: B
”Murder, Obliquely”: C
”Since I Don’t Have You”: B+
Entire series: B-