Jasper Rees spends an uncomfortable 30 minutes at a cliche-fest

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The Independent Culture
Fallen Angels (BBC2) thrives on the dictum that the lousiest novels make the best movies. These pulp fictions are only half an hour long and adapted from short stories, but copious bucks have been lavished on production values in the effort to make them look like noir classics. In last night's "Murder, Obliquely", cigarette smoke traced baroque curlicues across the screen at least once a scene; slatted shadows were cast by Venetian blinds at roughly the same rate. It was as if a massive sponsorship deal had persuaded the makers to throw in as many cliches as possible.

In this country, the only productions made for television that ever pay this much attention to detail are advertisements. The parallel is instructive because Fallen Angels, first shown on the Showtime channel two years ago, sets itself the task of unfolding a narrative in shorthand. Epigrammatic lines of dialogue, the type that tend to bunch together in hard-boiled crime-fiction, are asked to summarise whole chapters that have been deposited on the cutting-room floor. Props are roped in to help tell the story. A scratch of the neck, caught by a prying zoom, denotes the hot flush of sudden unease; a sideways flick of the eye conveys mistrust.

In Murder, Obliquely, adapted by Amanda Silver from a story by Cornell Woolrich, Laura Dern's narrator pithily introduces herself as the sort of girl who has "always been the fifth wheel of the wagon". So when she meets a wealthy romantic called Dwight Billings, played with the kind of serpentine charm that Alan Rickman can do in his sleep, it's been implicitly established by that one phrase that he won't be interested. Her competitor, played with terrific oomph by Diane Ladd, busts in on the evening - and bust is the word. With the narrative clock ticking over, it saves time to be a stereotype who'll do what's expected - this one is decked in plunging red satin, swathed in leopard skin and lassooed in pearls. When she rips it off and hurls it at her lover, leaving only her billowing cleavage tightly slung in a bodice (this is, lest we forget, American television, so she can't take that off, too), she's acting like a scarlet woman in a comic strip.

Later, when Dern goes back to Rickman's place to seduce him, we find out that he has murdered his lover from the shot of two unstrung pearls trickling out from under his bedroom door. The detail was in infinitesimal miniature, but deftly foghorned a larger event.

While the eye banqueted on sweetmeats, the ear had to make do with meaner fare. "The air was so thick with cheap perfume," Dern announced - you knew what she was going to say next but prayed she wouldn't - "you could cut it with a knife." Damn, she said it. The voiceover was so thick with cheap cliches it should have been hacked to pieces with a chainsaw.