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August 01, 1993|JOE RHODES | Joe Rhodes is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

They first appear as descending silhouettes, framed by the sunlight at the top of the stairs. She has seams on her stockings, a lit cigarette in her hand and lips painted fire-engine red. He has a shoulder holster under his jacket, dark bags under his eyes, the look of a man too guilty to sleep. They are cops, both of them, moving deeper into shadow with every downward step.

"Johnny Cave," she says as they walk together to the corner of the Union Station underground garage, to his 1950 forest-green Ford, parked directly under a low-hanging light. "You can find him every afternoon except Monday behind the bar at The Inferno.

"What he likes," she says, leaning into the driver's-side window, "is a certain practice involving a length of knotted rope."

He knew how she knew. This was their racket. They'd been doing it for years. She'd pick up the streetwalkers and bring them to the station for some close-quarter interrogations, the kind that occasionally left bruises. A few well-placed questions and they'd give up the names of their johns, not to mention a list of their preferences. She'd pass it on to her partner, who'd visit the gentlemen, drop a few hints and come back with an armload of cash.

"You get rich," she says, reminding him why they'd gone into business in the first place. "I get 50% rich."

He gives her a look. "It's jake with me," he says.

From 20 feet away director Steven Soderbergh watches the scene play out on a video monitor, listening to the dialogue through a headset because he isn't close enough to hear the whispered words firsthand. He watches as the actors--Bonnie Bedelia and Joe Mantegna--exchange world-weary glances and then he sends them back up the stairs to begin another take. A remote-control Steadicam, suspended from the end of a teal-blue retractable crane, follows them once more from the daylight into the darkness, from the top of the stairs to the car.

It is, in some ways, the perfect film noir shot, all mood and shadows and streetwise talk, the kind of shot Soderbergh used to imagine himself directing when he was a kid, when pulp-fiction paperbacks were his literature of choice and the movies he loved most were full of tough guys, treacherous dames and murders behind back-alley doors. He used to watch them on television, late at night, resurrected classics from the '40s and '50s: "Double Indemnity," "The Maltese Falcon," "Kiss Me Deadly" and "D.O.A."

But they don't make movies like that in Hollywood anymore, at least not for theaters, which is why a half-dozen big-name feature film types (including Soderbergh, Phil Joanou, Jonathan Kaplan, Tom Hanks and first-time director Tom Cruise) jumped at the chance to spend part of their summer directing half-hour episodes of "Fallen Angels," a film noir anthology series on the Showtime cable channel.

"What's always fascinated me about the film noir genre is that it's about the primal aspects of everyone's dark side," Soderbergh says later, preparing for a morgue scene that will involve, among other things, a Santa Claus corpse, a snub-nosed revolver and somebody's blood running out onto a cold tile floor. "You're dealing with people who have desires that completely override any sense of morality or ethics. They desperately want something, usually money or a woman or power. And invariably they have an Achilles' heel that brings them down. The stories are almost Greek in that sense. So when I got an opportunity to do something like this, I grabbed it."

The dark vignettes of "Fallen Angels" also have attracted a number of actors who normally wouldn't go anywhere near television. Besides Mantegna and Bedelia, the series features performances by Gary Oldman, Isabella Rossellini, Gary Busey, Laura Dern, Alan Rickman, Peter Gallagher, James Woods and Diane Lane.

"I don't know, for me, it's the look, the language, the strong sense of visual style," Mantegna says when asked why so many actors seem drawn to the shadowy film noir world, even though as a genre it's had limited commercial appeal. "And I think we all like to look at that little bit of evil we have within us.

"It's like in Japan, where they have those special blowfish restaurants where the fish has to be prepared just right or it'll kill you, because it's poison," Mantegna says. "All of us like a little taste of the poison."

This is exactly what producer William Horberg had counted on when he came up with the idea several years ago to option little-known short stories by the best-known pulp fiction writers--such authors as Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich and James Ellroy--and turn them into a film noir series.

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