NBC has succeeded in building a better claptrap: "Rage of Angels," the four-hour, two-part movie airing tomorrow and Monday night at 9 on Channel 4. Based on Sidney Sheldon's novel about a female lawyer's victories and calamities in the New York jungle, "Angels" represents banality polished to a captivating shine.

As written by Robert L. Joseph and directed by Buzz Kulik, the film has zip, sizzle and a rich, plush texture; cinematographer Richard Lautore has shot New York, Paris and Acapulco very handsomely, too. Of course Jaclyn Smith, who plays the lawyer, is pitifully ill-equipped when it comes to expressing anything more substantial than vague concern or mild annoyance, but she's so criminally pretty, and so many of the other performances are so good, that a central deficiency becomes quite overlookable.

Smith plays Jennifer Parker, who leaves little Kelso, Wash., with her ailing father's words locked in her head: "Remember the law, Jenny; it's the only thing between us and the furies." Ah, but the furies are waiting in New York. Jennifer steps right smack into a hornet's nest and almost gets herself disbarred when she unknowingly delivers a dead canary, a nasty piece of gangland symbolism, to a mobster who had decided to turn state's evidence.

And then one thing leads to several others and soon Jennifer is caught between a good angel and an avenging angel: an ambitious, John Lindsay-esque lawyer running for the U.S. Senate, played by Ken Howard, and a fierce underworld consigliere, Michael Moretti, played with genuinely intimidating menace by Armand Assante--one of the best film performances he's given.

There's another man in Jennifer's life, a tattered old gumshoe who eventually becomes her law partner, underplayed to moving effect by Kevin Conway, who has a breakdown scene in Part 2 that's a killer. It is a portrayal of weakness done with dignity. All the men gravitate believably around Smith, whose lack of basic acting skills, including an acceptable emotive voice, proves much less an impediment than it might.

It would be nice if the script had made the character a bit less of a ninny, because at first the story seems like yet another of those Innocents in New York tales. When Assante punches out a bully at a hockey game, Smith has to gasp, "You just hit that man!," and when wrongly accused of delivering that incriminating birdie, she declines to fight back, choosing the stare-and-stammer defense instead.

But she wises up, and the story rushes along. Indeed, the Sheldon novel apparently has been so radically compressed that characters have to keep saying things like, "That was months and months ago," after a commercial break. Jennifer becomes pregnant by the senator, who can't leave his wife, and has an affair with Moretti, who is soon referring to her as "my property." In Part 2, her by-now 2-year-old son is kidnapped by a deranged psycho, who has to spout the film's loopiest dialogue, as when recalling the deaths of his wife and child: "It was like neither of them could afford to pay God's rent for staying here."

Composer Billy Goldenberg wrote a sleek, substantial main theme for the film; Sheldon himself was executive producer. It can't be called a class act, but it is a class trash act, engrossing straight through (straight through to the annoyingly equivocating ending, that is) and as hard to put down as a box of Godiva chocolates. And easily as yummy.