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James Ellroy and Fallen Angels: Since I Don’t Have You

April 6, 2020

Between the commercial failure of the first big-screen adaptation of a James Ellroy novel Blood on the Moon (as Cop in 1988) and the Oscar-winning success of L.A. Confidential in 1997, there was another Ellroy adaptation which has been unfairly forgotten today.

Since I Don’t Have You

Ellroy’s short story ‘Since I Don’t Have You’ was adapted as part of the Showtime noir anthology series Fallen Angels which was first broadcast in 1993. All six episodes of the first season are standalone narratives based on the work of legendary crime writers: Chandler, Woolrich, Thompson etc. Only two episodes were adapted from works by authors who were still alive at the time. ‘Dead End for Delia’ was adapted from a short story by William Campbell Gault, who was by that time an octogenarian (he died shortly after the series aired). The other living author was James Ellroy, who was only in his forties but had already established himself as the leading crime novelist of his generation.

Several L.A. Quartet characters appear in ‘Since I Don’t Have You’: Okie transplant to L.A. Turner ‘Buzz’ Meeks (Gary Busey) is working as a security boss and troubleshooter for Howard Hughes (Tim Matheson) and a bagman for Mickey Cohen (James Woods). He considers both his employers to be ‘world-class shitheels’. But Meeks owes money to the quick-tempered hoodlum Leotis, so he has no choice but to do what his bosses tell him and work his way out of a crippling debt. Both Hughes and Cohen have fallen for the same woman, Gretchen, and Meeks has to find her and bring her to a party thrown by schlocky grade-Z producer Sid Weinberg. Weinberg is carrying a torch for a starlet named Glenda Jensen who vanished into thin air fifteen years ago. Meeks finds himself in a dangerous conflict of interest and has to follow a trail of dead bodies before Gretchen makes her dazzling appearance at Weinberg’s Hollywood party.

Gary Busey as Buzz Meeks and James Woods as Mickey Cohen in Fallen Angels

‘Since I Don’t Have You’ is overtly comic, outrageous and packs in a lot of story into thirty minutes of television. It holds up fairly well, and is probably the best of the Ellroy TV adaptations. The first L.A. Confidential TV pilot filmed in 2003 is dismal, but that didn’t stop CBS ordering a new pilot in 2018 which has still not been aired. Adapting Ellroy for television has proved as difficult as adapting Ellroy for the big screen.

Fallen Angels

A second series of Fallen Angels followed in 1995. Looking at the two series as a whole, ‘Murder Obliquely’ is the most erotic story and Walter Mosley’s ‘Fearless’ is the bawdiest. ‘The Black Bargain’ tries to capture the surreal, nightmarish quality of Cornell Woolrich’s fiction but gets too heavy-handed with satanic symbolism. My favourite episode is probably ‘Fly Paper’. Adapted by Donald E Westlake from a short story by Dashiell Hammett: it is a gripping, fast-paced tale featuring a wonderfully hardboiled performance by Christopher Lloyd as the Continental Op. There are several other novelties of the show worth mentioning. A number of episodes were directed by Hollywood stars. Tom Hanks directed ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ and appears as a button man very similar to his later role as Sullivan in Road to Perdition. Tom Cruise gained the only directorial credit of his career on the show and it’s a belter of an episode. ‘The Frightening Frammis’ is adapted from a Jim Thompson tale and features Peter Gallagher as the wandering grifter Mitch Allison. Cruise alternates the tone of the episode between sinister and comic with directorial panache and it features a nice homage to noir classic Detour. Just imagine for a moment, if Cruise had turned to directing to salvage his reputation after the Scientology scandals of the early noughties rather than regurgitating the MI and Top Gun franchises.

A book companion to the TV series was published in 1993. It featured the original short stories that were adapted alongside the script for each episode. James Ellroy wrote the preface to the book. It’s a typically insightful piece of writing by Ellroy in which he diagnoses our ongoing fascination with noir as a form of Romantic escapism from the spiralling crime rates of contemporary life which are sensationally reported in the tabloid press:

Fallen Angels: an ambiguous title applicable to the characters who rage in these stories, their creators, and you, the audience – especially you, who share a bond with all of Hammett’s children.

You sense the darkness around you and want to know why. We have been haunted by that curiosity and wish to explore it with you for unfathomable personal motives and the near-paradoxical need to hold hands with a friend when night falls. You sense that the deepest human truths boil forth in fiction; we seek to render newscast body counts powerless through the alchemy of our horrific perceptions. We want to touch fire with you, to ensure both of us a tenuous safety from the flames.

Fallen Angels aired at a time when anthology series – Tales From The Crypt, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone – were in vogue. But most were rooted in the sci-fi or horror genre. Fallen Angels was the only one, to my knowledge, to offer viewers the seductive solace of film noir. If you are struggling with the boredom and frustration of quarantine, made worse by the media-saturation of ‘newscast body counts’ then seek out the show. It is viewable on YouTube.

A quarter of a century has passed since Fallen Angels was first broadcast on television, but more than ever we need it to ensure ‘a tenuous safety from the flames’.

 

 

 

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