April 24, 1995 12:00 PM

Nicolas Cage, David Caruso, Helen Hunt, Samuel L. Jackson

Although based on the classic 1947 crime thriller of the same title, this grim and unfocused but strikingly atmospheric and absorbing bloody-nose fest shares only that title and its basic premise with the original.

More’s the pity. The ’47 version, for one thing, was directed by a master of subtlety, Henry Hathaway, while this one is directed by the pretentious, look-Mama-I’m-directing Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune). The original stars, Victor Mature as a crook turned informant, and Richard Widmark as a cackling, sadistic gunman, have been supplanted by the insubstantial Caruso and professional overactor Cage.

The new film was also written by tough guy wannabe Richard Price, whose idea of flaunting his street smarts is including at least one four-letter word in every sentence of dialogue.

The real star of this movie is production designer Mel Bourne, who creates a darkly convincing, seamy New York City crime subculture in a car-theft ring that operates out of a Queens garage and a topless bar run by the same crook, Cage’s emphysemic father.

Jackson, as a cop with an unreasoning grudge against Caruso, Hunt, as Caruso’s resourceful wife, and the underused Michael Rapaport, as Caruso’s manipulative cousin, do the most affecting acting. Price’s plot careens to a convoluted ending that takes a while to sort out—and isn’t too satisfying even then. (R)

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