THIS WEEK'S antique is a priceless oddity: first released in 1949, The Fountainhead is a great mad film about integrity and individualism, directed by King Vidor and adapted by Ayn Rand from her own novel. Gary Cooper stars as Howard Roark, an architect whose uncompromising talent is at odds with his time; his refusal to change a single detail of his bold modernist designs has made him virtually unemployable. After years spent labouring as a stonemason, hecrosses paths with an icy and implacable heiress named Dominique (Patricia Neal) and a ruthless newspaper tycoon (Raymond Massey), both of whom come to recognise and admire Roark's genius. Dominique falls in love with him but, out of a perverse self-denial, she marries the tycoon.
It's difficult to do justice to the strangeness of this movie, which opens with scenes of such unpromising bluster and bad acting that you may be compelled to suppress a groan. Rand may have written a best-selling novel, but she had no feel for the way human beings talked on screen. None the less, the fate of her architect - based on Frank Lloyd Wright and the tortured personal triangle into which he was sucked - exerts an inescapable grip. Dominique's first glimpse of Roark toiling in a quarry has an erotic charge which reverberates down to the last image of the film, and the riding crop which she twirls is clearly not intended for her horse.
Visually, the film is astounding; Vidor has an extraordinary eye for the drama of man within daunting architectural spaces, and of horizons dominated by verticals. Robert Burks's stark black and white photography lends everything an angular, unsettling look; one senses that collapse - physical, mental and mortal - is never far away.
The film falters again in the last reel, hijacked by courtroom pieties and a suspicion that Rand is offering not so much a defence of creative originality, as a tribute to a benign Nietzschean superman. But the film is magnificent, even in its misjudgements.
This week's other literary adaptation is a more sedate affair. No one will be affronted by director Bille August's careful, picturesque version of Hugo's Les Miserables, and no one will be much stirred by it either. Liam Neeson plays Jean Valjean, the former convict who, redeemed by kindness, becomes mayor of the town of Vigau and friend to the poor. He can never shake off the pursuing shadow of the moral zealot Javert (Geoffrey Rush), who has devoted his life to nailing his one-time prisoner. Their final showdown in Paris occurs amid the ferment of a republican revolution, allowing August full rein on both period finery and street-urchin chic. Claire Danes and Uma Thurman beef up the cast, though honours must go to Rush, who (following Elizabeth) is fast making his name as costume drama's villain of choice.
There are more ex-cons in The Eel, Shohei Imamura's enigmatic character study which won the 1997 Palme d'Or at Cannes. Koji Yakushoplays Takuro Yamashita, out on parole after serving eight years for the murder of his unfaithful wife. He sets up shop as a barber, goes fishing and lovingly tends his pet eel. His reclusive calm is broken, first by a comely young woman (Misa Shimizu) whom he saves from suicide, and then by an old cellmate who blabs about Yamashita's murderous past.
The reflective tone is only shattered in a finale which tries to resolve the storylines with a farcical barbershop brawl. What it all means is unclear, but hard-won redemption seems the predominant motif.
Dan Rosen's feature debut, Dead Man's Curve, has shades of the high-school black comedy Heathers, though that hardly qualifies as a recommendation. Two college friends, Chris (Michael Vartan) and Tim (Matthew Lillard), decide to bump off their room- mate and make it look like a suicide, thereby ridding the world of a charmless bully and scoring themselves a straight-A term average in the process, part of the college's compassion programme for the bereaved. But soon their scheme begins to unravel.
While Rosen sets up his story neatly, he overestimates the appeal of his young cast. Lillard, star of Scream, should have been told to underplay the frat-boy role, and the film folds in on itself in the final quarter as one twist tops another.
Angel Sharks is a determinedly art-house curio from France notable for a 14-year-old waif played by Vahina Giocante. She has a great movie face, reminiscent of a young Isabelle Adjani, and first-time director Manuel Pradal photographs it lovingly. Of editing and structure, however, he has no idea. This account of a teenage couple running foul of American sailors stationed on the Riviera has plot strands which seem to have been torn from another movie. When the projector broke down halfway through the screening, it was as if it was admitting its own confusion.
All films on general release from tomorrow