Nov. 28--TNT's "Mob City," premiering Wednesday, is such a perfect embodiment of film noir that you'll be tempted to shade your eyes during the occasional scenes filmed in daylight.
Watching two of the six episodes of the series is like returning to the great noir films of the '30s and '40s, "The Maltese Falcon," "Murder My Sweet," "The Big Sleep," "Little Caesar" and "Scarface."
The silvery gems of this era were populated with square-jawed mugs in big-shouldered suits who spoke without letting their lips part too widely. They were guys of few words, but when they did speak, it was often in a faux-eloquent patois of the city at night, where the pavement was perpetually wet from showers you never saw.
The women were dames, hard-boiled, as tough as the men on the outside, and often smarter. They perched on the edges of desks, crossed their long legs and bowed their heads to let some poor sap light their cigarettes, their eyes never leaving his face. They talked tough and cracked wise, but somehow, love always got them in the end, whether it was love for a guy or a pile of dough.
That pretty much describes the main characters in "Mob City," developed by Frank Darabont ("The Walking Dead"), based on the nonfiction book "LA Noir: The Struggle for America's Most Seductive City" by John Buntin, about cops and gangsters in the City of Angels in the '40s and '50s.
In the old movies, there were good guys and bad guys, but it wasn't always easy to tell who was in which category. Morality was as murky as a fog-shrouded city street. That moral murkiness is lovingly replicated in "Mob City."
Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal, "The Walking Dead") is a former Marine who's now a cop. He's got the face for the role -- punk-handsome in a kind of Robert Mitchum way -- and he's got the ever-cool, taciturn character down pat.
Pudgy, evil clown
In the opening episode, Joe agrees to help jittery burlesque house comic Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg, "Mission Impossible") put the finishing touches on a blackmail deal. Hecky's made a date with a couple of tough characters to meet in a deserted field where mantis-like oil drills nod slowly up and down, day and night.
Hecky is working for mobster Mickey Cohen (Jeremy Luke, "Desperate Housewives"), a pudgy, evil clown with a short fuse who got collared as a kid busting up a movie theater ticket box with a baseball bat. Hecky was in on the deal as well, but hot-footed it out of there before the cops busted him.
For a punk, which is what he is, Hecky doesn't do badly in the dame department. His current squeeze is the slinky, cool-eyed hostess at Mickey's Clover Club nighterie, Jasmine Fontaine (Alexa Davalos, "Angel"). Hard to figure what a class act like Jasmine sees in a third-rate comic with a gambling problem like Hecky, but then again, it's hard to know a lot of things about Jasmine. And that's just jake with her.
Teague is the strong, silent type, except when he has something to say, and then he's still the strong type. He's even stronger when he lets his standard-issue .38 Special or a tommy gun do the talking for him.
He's a cop, but that doesn't mean he's necessarily a good guy through and through. In fact, it's hard to peg him one way or another, which is why he's yet to earn the trust of Chief of Police William Parker (Neal McDonough, "Justified"), known as "Boy Scout Bill" for his crusading determination to rid the city of human vermin. Fortunately, for now anyway, Teague has Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn, "The Walking Dead") in his corner, the guy in charge of the department's mob squad.
But Teague isn't the only major character with what you'd call an elusive morality. There's also Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia, "Heroes"). The fact that he's a lawyer means about as much as the fact that Teague is a cop, because Ned works for Mickey Cohen as a fixer. He and Teague go back a bit. They fought together in the war, and they have a complicated friendship.
There are other interrelationships among the major characters, which may give the false impression that Los Angeles is a small town. But sometimes when it comes to cops and gangsters, every city is a small town. Mickey Cohen runs the town, but he's not the only gangster powerhouse. There's also a fella by the name of Ben Siegel. You may know him better as Bugsy (Edward Burns, "Saving Private Ryan"), but you'd be well advised not to call him that to his face.
It's the late '40s and Ben/Bugsy is already deeply involved in turning a nowhere berg in the Nevada desert into Vegas. By '47, he'd already opened the Flamingo, but business isn't so good. Later that year, he'll be closed down for eternity while he's sitting in his girlfriend Virginia Hill's Beverly Hills home. He'll be reading the paper at the time.
"Mob City" has taken its time getting on the air, and went through a few name changes along the way. It was first announced as "L.A. Noir," then became "Lost Angels," before finally arriving as "Mob City." The six episodes were filmed more than a year ago. Usually, all of that suggests a series with major problems. If there are any with "Mob City," though, they must be in the other four episodes, because what I've seen in the first two shows is classy and compelling, like something you'd expect to see on Showtime or HBO.
Great period details
The period details are exquisite, aside from a couple of stray modernisms that wander into the dialogue here and there. But really, who's counting? Everything else is dazzling perfection, from the sleek, big-grilled cars, to the fake stardust and tinsel of the Clover Club, the ever-present fog of cigarette smoke and the music score, a credible mix of actual songs from the era and period-correct compositions by Mark Isham.
But the brilliance of the series is the balancing act of the scripts, by Darabont and Buntin, executed with astonishing precision between the past and the modern version of the past. Despite paying homage to old movies, "Mob City" doesn't feel like a museum piece.
Period shows are tricky things. The lamentably canceled "Vegas," set in the early '60s, featured a lovingly created Strip built north of Los Angeles. But the exteriors never felt entirely convincing. Same with NBC's "The Playboy Club." On the other hand, the visual detail of "Mad Men" is one of the reasons we so willingly suspend disbelief that we're back in the '60s again.
It probably costs a ton of money to be as exact as "Mob City" is, but looks wouldn't be worth a dime without a great script and great performances, and "Mob City" has both. It's a "Mob" hit of the best kind.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
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