From the opening titles - black-and-white shots of lipsticks, expensive lingerie and nickel-plated revolvers nestling in dainty handbags, overlaid with a smoky theme by Elmer Bernstein - it's obvious that this will be a classy affair. The first part of last night's double-bill was a Mickey Spillane story, starring Bill Pullman and directed by John Dahl who, with The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, has established himself as the leading modern exponent of the classic film noir tradition. It was followed by Steven Soderbergh directing a story by David Goodis. Goodis is not such a big name, but he inspired a number of classic films, including Fran-cois Truffaut's Shoot the Pianist.
You may wonder, given the pedigree, why this series has been buried away so late at night. One answer is that the BBC never knows what to do with sharp American imports, which is why Seinfeld and Larry Sanders have bobbed in and out of the schedules for years, and why Buffy fans so often find themselves confronting unexpected treats like dressage from Munich.
Another reason might be that this is very dark material, offering crassly direct connections between sex and violence. In Tomorrow I Die, the Spillane tale, Pullman played a fresh-faced stranger stopping over in a one-horse town, and being taken hostage by fleeing bank-robbers. The pretty girl who was one of his fellow hostages, and had recognised him as a minor Hollywood star, was so struck by his heroic refusal to run when he had a chance to that she let him do anything he liked to her (and you got the distinct impression that what he liked was pretty much out of the mainstream). The twist was that he wasn't a Hollywood type but the typical Spillane hero who knows there's no percentage in a pretty face, a stone killer only sticking around for a shot at the loot and a chance to dispose of all the witnesses, girl included.
Goodis's Professional Man wrote sentiment out of sexual relations in an even bleaker fashion. The central figure was Johnny (Brendan Fraser), by day, an ace elevator-operator, never missing his floor; by night, a cold-hearted knife-man, never missing his mark. But his tight control over his life was threatened by his lover, Paul. When the local Mob boss (a slimy Peter Coyote), frustrated by Paul's indifference, put a contract out on him, Johnny carried it out with barely a whimper (though he did miss a couple of floors on his elevator shift). You were left uncertain as to whether Johnny resented having to do the deed, but felt impelled by profess- ional honour; or whether he was relieved at being able to blot out a disruptive factor.
The stories jar in a way that authentic film noir never dared, though at the same time, their impact is damped by the period detail: costume- drama emotion is never as abrasive. All the same, Fallen Angels is a terrific treat.
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