BY conventional standards, a film as dark and disturbing as Falling Down (showing at the Palace cinema) wouldn't exactly qualify as the ''feel good'' film of the season. Yet, when you watch the lead character throttling a store clerk for overcharging him or aiming an Uzi at a fast-food manager for copping an attitude, it's hard not to empathise and think, ''Boy, that must feel good''. Michael Douglas' character in Falling Down - an unemployed defence contractor - stands up for his consumer rights by victimising one person after another. His antics are the stuff of cult heroism. After all, who hasn't had his or her powers of self-restraint tested by a seemingly overzealous metre-maid, slow waitress or cautious secretary? ''This urge to harm someone comes naturally under extremely trying circumstances,'' says Dr Paul Toro, a professor of clinical community psychology. But Dr Toro insists that mimicking the behaviour of the Falling Down protagonist would only make mattersworse. What too few of us stop to consider, is that the checkout clerk doesn't set the prices; store executives do. The shoe salesperson doesn't determine whether the suede pumps come in red or not; the manufacturer does. The receptionist doesn't determine howlong we have to wait in the lobby; the boss does. Nonetheless, when bad news arrives, we're often overcome with the urge to kill the messenger. Dealing with people over the phone is Mr Richard Reid's occupation. And dealing with the public's temper tantrums is the Barden Cablevision customer service representative's preoccupation. He says cutting off customers' cable service often elicits the same response as cutting off their oxygen might. Reid says:''I don't respond to the negative things they say; instead, I try to be understanding or sympathetic even though they're in the wrong. I just let them release a little steam, and after that they're OK.'' Though he's been cursed at often, Mr Reid says he often manages to elicit laughter from even the angriest customers by the time a conversation ends. ''You give respect, and you get respect back,'' he says. When strangers approach metre-maid Veronica from behind, screaming, ''Hey, you - wait a second,'' she turns and immobilises them with the only weapon she has: a well-rehearsed, grim stare that could freeze fire. But at least once a day, Veronica says she encounters someone who seems determined to cause her emotional, if not bodily, harm. ''I understand people getting upset when I write them a ticket. But there's no sense yelling at me about it; I'm only doing myjob,'' says Veronica.