Fallen Angels

(various, USA, 1993)


Fallen Angels is a lavish, outstanding American TV mini-series based on six classics of short crime fiction, released to video in two parts. (Some years later a second series followed, with contributions from directors including Peter Bogdanovich and Jim McBride – and released on DVD in Australia under the title Perfect Crimes, perhaps to avoid confusion with Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels [1996].)

Like so many modern Hollywood attempts at film noir, Fallen Angels threatens at times to tip into chic nostalgia and wisecracking flip. But this effort comes up trumps.

Tom Cruise makes his flashy directorial debut with The Frightening Frammis, an intricate Jim Thompson story of grifting and cruel fate reminiscent of the classic Detour (1945). It stars Peter Gallagher and, in an indelibly unflattering role, Isabella Rossellini.

Since I Don’t Have You, from a James Ellroy story, is a colourful tale of a henchman (Gary Busey) torn between two demanding employers – powerful gangster Mickey Cohen (James Woods) and mad tycoon Howard Hughes (Tim Matheson). Jonathan Kaplan (Love Field, 1992) directs expertly but dispassionately.

Murder, Obliquely is a Cornell Woolrich story ingeniously adapted by Amanda Silver (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, 1992) and directed with admirable intensity by Alfonso Cuarón (A Little Princess, 1995). A masterpiece of chilling indirection and understatement, it portrays the sexual obsession of a woman (Laura Dern) for an enigmatic, brooding playboy (Alan Rickman) – no matter what foul crime he may or may not have committed in private.

Both video volumes of the first series of Fallen Angels exhibit the same mix of segments: one outstanding, one intriguing, one so-so. Linking the stories is an elaborate, MTV-style framing segment directed by Phil Joanou in which Fay Friendly (Lynette Walden) introduces the classic film noir themes of lust, betrayal and murder.

Joanou also handles Dead-End for Delia, from a story by William Gault, in his customarily energetic fashion – neither the camera nor the characters ever stop spinning in sinuous, labyrinthine circles. Gary Oldman is terrific as a grief-stricken cop investigating the brutal murder of his beloved Delia (Gabrielle Anwar), and the story arrives at a satisfyingly bleak conclusion.

Tom Hanks directs and gives himself a sinister cameo in I’ll Be Waiting, adapted from Raymond Chandler. This story of a little man (Bruno Kirby) watching over the languorous, marked woman (Marg Helgenberger) holed up in his hotel is the least engaging of the series. A parade of gnarled character actors (Dick Miller, Jon Polito, Dan Hedaya) provides some colour.

Anyone who has ever suspected that director Steven Soderbergh is the one-hit wonder of contemporary American cinema should hasten to see his extraordinary segment The Quiet Room, from a Jonathan Craig story. Pared down and implacably perverse like his sex, lies, and videotape (1989), this is a chilling account of the violent scam worked between two corrupt cops, played by Joe Mantegna and Bonnie Bedelia.

In thirty minutes, Soderbergh guides us superbly from hushed minimalism to wild melodrama.

MORE anthologies: Aria, The Blues, Inside Out, Lumiere and Company, Strangers, Tales from the Darkside Vol.1, Wild Palms

MORE Kaplan: Brokedown Palace, Heart Like a Wheel, Immediate Family, Unlawful Entry, White Line Fever, Project X

MORE Cuarón: Great Expectations, Y Tu Mamá Tambíen

MORE Joanou: Heaven’s Prisoners, Wild Palms

MORE Soderbergh: Erin Brockovich, Full Frontal, King of the Hill, The Limey, Ocean’s Eleven, Solaris, The Underneath, Traffic, The Knick, High Flying Bird

© Adrian Martin January 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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