CINEMA : British noir, American-style

EVER since Erich Von Stroheim, cinema has grossed out on greed. Greed fed a whole avaricious genre: film noir, with its lust for money, lust for power and just plain lust. Von Stroheim's 1924 Greed is more topical than ever: it told of a friendshi p blown apart by the windfall of a lottery win. Many will read the new Brit- ish thriller Shallow Grave (18)

as a lottery fable too, a gen- tle cautionary tale. But it is darker, deeper and nastier. Its characters - who one morning find a suitcase of money lying beside the corpse of their new flatmate (Keith Allen) - are not needy at all. These are Edinburgh-based yuppies: a journalist (Ewan McGregor), an ac- countant (Christopher Eccleston) and a doctor (Kerry Fox). They are haves; and the question is whether they want to have more - much more.

This being film noir, the result is never much in doubt. Director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge have caught the inexorability of the genre. As the consequences of the trio's decision become grislier (the body has to be hacked up and buried), qualms spring up, to be scythed away like weeds. Several times someone says: "I can't do it." In the next shot, we always cut to them doing it. There is a dreamy noirishness, too, in the surreally spacious and brightly coloured flat. What makes the film fascinating, and exciting, is its marriage of British setting and American, B-movie format. It is as if Edgar G Ulmer or Robert Siodmak had been reborn in Scotland.

True nastiness is as hard to come by in the movies as true love. Shallow Grave opens with someone talking, in a forlorn voice-over, about believing in trust. But the film suggests that trust is an outmoded creed. We live in savage, standardised times, itseems to be saying. "This could have been any city: they're all the same," the voice-over continues, and Boyle's camera goes on a speedy, contemptuous tour of Edinburgh streets. As the true - though hardly legal - owners of the loot are revealed to be gangsters, the movie turns inventively vicious. Unpleasant use is made of a plastic bag and a crossbow.

As well as stoking up the plot, screenwriter John Hodge unravels his three unsavoury characters, expertly dissecting (Hodge is a doctor by profession) their cynicism. The film's opening scene shows the trio auditioning new flatmates: a one-sided game of one-upmanship which allows them to vaunt their own smug superiority and shared, callous values. But Hodge shows the different, wounded psyches from which such contempt springs. In Christopher Eccleston's accountant, the film's most fully realised character, there is clearly a bored desire to break out of conventionality. But Hodge also slyly suggests how accountancy, the humblest of professions, might accommodate megalomania - in a belief that it is the central cog in the system. "The whole world needs accountancy," one of Eccleston's colleagues claims.

As the crisis deepens, Hodge strips away his characters' cynicism, to leave them emotionally naked. With Eccleston he unveils something very frightening indeed. The movie may sound relentlessly negative, but it is possible to retrieve a moral from the wreckage. Not so much the obvious one (directed at overpaid heads of large British corporations) of the dangers of greed ushering in a fantasy life that can easily turn into a nightmare. But a sense that the seething existence that the three lead - with its repressed sexual rivalry between the men - can only find release in appalling violence and destruction. A world without sympathy is no world at all.

Shallow Grave has been creating a big buzz in the industry for about a year. It arrives trailing plaudits, which are largely deserved. There is too much solid achievement here to talk of mere promise. But the film does have flaws. Kerry Fox's part is badly underwritten, slightly spoiling the piece's symmetry. The film-makers have been saved by Fox's marvellously intuitive performance, which makes much of little. More crucially, for me, the film was surprisingly unfunny, the humour often not so much black as invisible. We could h ave done with the aphoristic wit that grounded the cynicism of Billy Wilder's scripts. Shallow Grave's model is clearly the Coen brothers' Blood Simple, and you can hear echoes of Barton Fink (in Eccleston's listless response to police questioning) and M iller's Crossing (in the haunting wasteland where the body is buried). The Coen way is an exciting route to ride, though also rather an arid one. At least Shallow Grave brings a new, American-style energy to British film-making. It may not be the answer to our industry's prayers, but it is a good start.

Ironically, this success will bring Boyle, Hodge and their talented young producer, Andrew Macdonald, their own temptation. They can expect soon to wake up to find a suitcase of dollars in their spare room, left there by that old corpse called Hollywood.

Somewhere out there, at an oblique angle to the real world, stands Hal Hartley, philosopher king of his own pained and drolly ironic universe. In Hartley's new movie, Amateur (15), the ideas are bolder and the comedy broader than ever before. The plot sounds like a joke - and is partly. It's the one about the virginal nymphomaniac former nun (Isabelle Huppert) who befriends a caring sort of chap (Martin Donovan) who, after a bang on the head, has forgotten that he is a vicious gangster. There's also a porn star (Elina Lowensohn) whom the nun claims she has had a sign from the Virgin Mary to save. Religion ends up scrapping it out with the underworld. It's a sort of Reservoir Dog-collars.

For all the appearance of farce, this is a beautifully precise essay on personality, and its relation to experience. Are we merely the sum of what we do and what befalls us, or is there some non- empirical basis to our selves? The question takes on a particular fascination with regard to Donovan's amnesiac, who has forgotten his heinous past. Detached by his forgetfulness from his crimes, he lives a decent life. Is amnesia then a form of absolution, purifying the soul as it blanks the memory? Donovan's dilemma is reflected in that of Huppert, finding its wittiest expression when Donovan asks how she can be a nymphomaniac if she's never had sex. She replies: "I'm choosy." That is not a paradox but an insight: our identity is not entirely bound up in ouractions. This idea ties up with a network of questions that Hartley is asking about the relation of language to the world, how words correspond to the objects they describe. He is also developing his own theory of knowledge: finally asking what it takesto know a person - and witholding his answer until the film's final line.

If all this sounds abstruse, rest assured that Amateur is also highly entertaining. Hartley has described it as a "thriller with one flat tyre", and the balance between suspense and parody is just right, with Hartley milking the humour of placing two effective innocents in a seedy milieu.

Huppert gives a touching, chameleonic performance, ranging from raddled to ravishing. Hartley's alter ego, Donovan, has never been better. With his narrow gaze, he has always looked as if he had just woken up in an alien world - here it fits. Amateur is in some ways the opposite to Shallow Grave. Hartley starts with philosophical ideas and sets out to explore them; the Shallow Grave team set out to entertain, and see where it takes them.

Each approach is equally valid, equally entertaining.

Which is more than can be said for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (15), Gus Van Sant's tale of a hitch-hiker (Uma Thurman) with usefully outsized thumbs. Despite a few ecstatically beautiful sequences, it continues the wayward pretentious streak of Van Sant's last film, My Own Private Idaho, but not its affecting characters. Uma Thurman heroically struggles to hold the whole crazy thing together, confirming her huge potential without being allowed to go any of the way to fulfilling it.

The 1995 line-ups of the major studios threaten a glut of genre movies, especially in horror and science fiction. This week there's an advance fusillade. Time Cop (18) is a passable, sub-Terminator, time-travel adventure, with Jean-Claude Van Damme beating up the past to save the present. Wes Craven's New Nightmare (15) is a gust of fresh air in the stale crypt of the horror movie: a Pirandellan exploration of imagination and nightmare in which Freddy Krueger returns to haunt the actress (Heather Langenkamp) who played his adversary in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The story-telling is lucid and there's a restraint, for all the earthquakes and mutilations. And Stargate (PG) starts promisingly, with James Spader as an Egyptologist investigating an ancient portal to a universe light years away. But it then turns into an interminable exercise in special effects and not-so-special fisticuffs. The mercenary, multimedia-oriented mind of the enterprise is revealed in the closing credits, which tell us to: "Readthe Signet Novel. Play the Electronic Games by Acclaim. Learn about the making of Stargate on the CD-ROM." Just make sure you miss the movie.

Cinema details: Review, page 82.