FILM / The Last Detail

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THE gun. Whatever the category (revolver, rifle, pistol, bazooka, etc), and whatever the brand (Beretta, Browning, Winchester, Luger, etc), the gun remains by far the cinema's single most ubiquitous prop - its very first, rather than last, detail.

So ubiquitous has it become, it's hard to think of a totally 'gunless' director. Ozu? As far as the late, gentle, extremely static comedy-dramas are concerned, almost certainly - but there are several thrillers among his little-known silent movies. Rohmer? Not quite - muskets were visible in Die Marquise von O . . . Dreyer? No guns, to be sure, in his five supreme masterpieces - La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, Vampyr, Dies Irae, Ordet and Gertrud - but he would probably have to be disqualified for having scripted a film called Ned Med Vabnene, which turns out to mean Lay Down Your Arms.

What can be stated categorically about any such inventory is that, one, the absence of firearms is directly linked to a notion of visual and thematic austerity and, two, no American director is ever likely to figure on it.

Not even the maverick Hal Hartley, whose latest film, Simple Men, actually opens with an armed heist. It's a rather unusual heist, however, filmed in a serio-comic, almost clownish style that is clearly not designed to suspend our collective disbelief. In fact, it recalls nothing so much as the quasi-abstract heists associated with the early, pre-'68 work of Godard, a director whom Hartley has claimed as a major influence on his own work and who himself was influenced by the sort of violent and poetic Hollywood B-movie of which Simple Men is a contemporary paraphrase.

Such curious circularity is interesting enough in itself. Even more interesting is the fact that guns are quite marginal to the real narrative thrust of Hartley's movie, as they were of Godard's; they remain wholly decorative elements, comparable in a way to the ornamental Japanese screens that were such a fad in the late 19th century; they constitute, indeed, most paradoxically for an American-made movie, a kind of filmic americainoiserie.