FILM / Sharing the myth: Sheila Johnston looks at the latest releases, including In the Line of Fire, which stars Clint Eastwood, and Blue

Where were you when JFK was shot? As Frank Horrigan, the Secret Service agent and former Presidential bodyguard of In the Line of Fire, Clint Eastwood was approximately six inches away and failed none the less to stop the fatal bullets. The result: the failure of his marriage and a personal guilt for the decline of a once-proud nation.

But now, 30 years later, he finds himself, like so many other Hollywood heroes before him, in that Second Chance Saloon poised to take his shot at redemption. Because a madman (John Malkovich) intends to assassinate the President and, deeming Clint a worthy adversary, has decided to keep him abreast, via regular telephone calls, of his intentions. Only Eastwood can stop him.

In the Line of Fire, effectively directed by Wolfgang Peterson, is a well-crafted, if slightly mechanical political thriller, but it excels on the performance front. As a star vehicle, it delivers handsomely: Clint is in there, right from scene one, and the camera remains glued to that iconic face, all the more watchable for being scarred with deeper fissures than the San Andreas Fault.

The script contains numerous references to his advancing years, though he is also allowed a convincing romance with a fellow-agent over three decades his junior: former model, Rene Russo, last seen measuring battle scars against Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 3. Here too, she's a strong and humorous presence - her scenes with Eastwood echo Bogart and Bacall's good-humoured sparring.

Eastwood has become a prototype of the tough but vulnerable American male, and his character in this film drinks too much, has a cheesy chat-up technique and is given to haunting late-night bars. Malkovich's phone calls, which are bugged and play live to throngs of Secret Service observers, dwell on the grubbier details of his past, and become rituals of public humiliation.

But they also have a markedly flirtatious quality. Malkovich, always a mannered actor, turns in a high-camp performance: 'I was worried about you,' he flutes to his adversary. 'We have so much in common.' And Eastwood takes it in good part - sometimes he rises to the bait but, more often than not (and one of this actor's more pleasing qualities is the inability to take himself too seriously), he can match Malkovich's playful banter.

It is becoming a Hollywood commonplace to hark back to the early Sixties and JFK's Camelot as a lost Golden Age of the American Dream - Oliver Stone is that philosophy's loudest exponent, but you can see it in other films such as Love Fields, This Boy's Life (both opening shortly) and the project Eastwood himself is directing, A Perfect World.

In the Line of Fire includes a risque reference to JFK's philandering, but, on the whole, it buys into the myth. In it, the current President is a bland stuffed dummy of a figure. His speeches are seamless platitudes; there's barely a sense of what, if anything, he stands for (he's also, incidentally, standing for re-election, and looking unlikely to win). He is, in short, a MacGuffin.

None of this is lost on Eastwood and Malkovich; they both know he isn't a man to kill or to die for; as Malkovich says, 'There's no cause left worth fighting for.' And this lends the film a refreshing lack of pretension; In the Line of Fire is stripped down entertainment, where the outcome is a formality, but the gamesmanship en route riveting.

Most films bombard us with spectacle to make the eyes bleed. Derek Jarman's Blue offers for our delectation a plain blue screen, no more no less, to contemplate for 80 minutes. And it, too, is riveting.

On one level Blue is a startling piece of abstract art in a medium that has always shied away from modernism. But is it art? Well, no less so than the big bold splashes of Mark Rothko or Yves Klein, the French painter whose monochromatic plain blue canvasses and special, patented shade of 'International Klein Blue' sparked off this movie.

Blue, in Blue, stands for Jarman's blindness (one of the ravages of Aids); it enables a mystical introspection that moves between anxiety ('a blue funk') and serenity ('a delphinium-blue summer's day). It also, although Jarman doesn't make this point, stands for the blue screen on which cinema's special effect technicians weave their magic. In short, it's a tabula rasa on to which he projects his visions and invites the viewer to share them. Like the best films its power springs from what one doesn't see.

If this sounds a bit spartan, it isn't; there is plenty happening on the soundtrack. Jarman mingles music and fragments of poetry with memories of happier times and entries from a daily journal (these mix gallows humour and pathos, but never self-pity). Jarman has described Blue as his Aids film, but it has a broadness of reach that makes it a universal meditation on dying.

At the same time, it's a very intimate, personal film, with the autobiographical, diary-like quality of The Garden and The Last of England. A fierce and dramatic battle is played out on this blank blue screen, because the text of the film is the enbrace of death and the slow, gentle slide into oblivion ('Our name will be forgotten in time,' it concludes. 'Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud'). But the subtext is the opposite: the struggle of one of cinema's strongest personalities to keep the light alive and, faced with tiny resources, financial and physical, to reach inside himself and create from next to nothing a complete imaginative world.

Le Samourai isn't quite as blue as Blue, but it's a close call. Everything about Jean- Pierre Melville's svelte gangster film inclines towards the chilly end of the spectrum: the overalls of the women selling tickets in the Metro, the packs of Gitanes lining the shelves of Alain Delon's otherwise empty bedroom, everything down to Delon's own steel-blue eyes. You could catch cold just by watching it.

The mood is frosty and cynical too. Delon plays a hired killer with scant moral scruples and bitten-back demeanour. His best friend is his budgie, which is rather chattier than he. The dialogue is minimal - it's the first time a subtitled print has surfaced in Britain, though this scarcely matters: Melville tells his story in laconic images.

But you gather - as so often in his films - that there's not much to choose between the bad guys (the hoods who hired Delon) and the good (the police who are ruthless in his pursuit). There might not be much in the way of overt emotion, but the film is suffused in love - the love the French have for the hard-bitten urban romanticism of American film noir.

Le Samourai was made in 1967, but looks more modern than the week's other revival, which was actually made three years later: Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell's paean to Sixties hedonism, Performance. But then the pleasure of that movie was the precision with which it distilled a period. It plays in a double-bill with Peter Whitehead's documentary Tonite Let's All Make Love in London.

Once upon a time an indispensible cliche of any film about sociopathy and alienation was the blankly flickering television set in the corner. Today, it is the video-camera. Perhaps this is down to the private and secretive nature of the medium (Henry, the serial killer, enjoying violence in the privacy of his home). Perhaps it's because so many crimes (Rodney King's beating, James Bulger's abduction, Crimewatch's regular parade of shoplifters) are captured on video that we make an unconscious link between the two.

Benny's Video, by the Austrian film-maker Michael Haneke, is the latest example. Benny, a lonely teenager, spends his days glued to his video set. His favourite tape: a pig being shot. He replays it until the slaughter seems unreal, and to reproduce it in cold blood with a girl he scarcely knows seems unreal too.

Haneke's slow-moving film sets this climax early - something of a mistake, you feel, because for long tracts thereafter not a lot goes on. Benny goes to a disco. He shaves his head. He gets in trouble at school. He goes on holiday to Egypt (a long, tedious segment that appears there mainly to provide the film crew with a few days in the sun).

Haneke declares his intent, rather ponderously, to chart 'the emotional glaciation of my country', and the main point seems to be a Teutonic pessimism about modern society. Late in the game, he delivers up a couple of sharp plot-twists involving Benny's parents, which should be show-stoppers but come too late to have the impact they should.

The week's light relief is supplied by The Night We Never Met, a featherweight, Neil Simon-esque romantic comedy about three people time-sharing a New York apartment. Annabella Sciorra is the unhappily married housewife who spends her two nights of the week there painting and finding herself. And Kevin Anderson plays the frat hound who spends his two nights getting drunk with the lads in front of a baseball game.

Matthew Broderick is the wimpy New Man who spends his two nights cooking up delicious little titbits for his flatmates. There are the usual complications, and the usual resolutions. The film feels a little stiff and stagey (it was written and directed by a playwright, Warren Leight), but offers an ephemeral charm.

In the Line of Fire (15). . . . Wolfgang Peterson (US)

Blue. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Derek Jarman (UK)

Benny's Video. . . . . . . . . .Michael Haneke (Aus)

Le Samouri (PG). . . . . . . . .Jean-Pierre Melville (Fr)

Performance (18). . . . . . . . Nicholas Roeg, Donald Cammell (UK)

The Night we Never Met (15). . .Warren Leight (US)