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Running to Sept. 14 at the American Film Institute

Corruption is pandemic in human affairs, and it’s often not very dramatic. That’s why filmmakers look for scenarios in which social or psychic rot leads someone to fire a gun. And so an unidentified someone does in Allen Coulter’s Hollywoodland, a “true” story that has the added glamour of transpiring in the shadow of showbiz. Yet for all its careful evocation of ’50s Los Angeles, the movie is hardly in the league of the week’s other period parable, 1970’s The Conformist, which is finally getting its local 35th-anniversary run. Bernardo Bertolucci’s fascist-era masterpiece doesn’t quite convince when it melds politics and sexuality to explain a killer’s motive, but its cinematic power accentuates the fact that the underwhelming Hollywoodland isn’t just about a TV star—it’s also made by a TV director.

One of the least compelling franchises in movie and TV history, the blandly invulnerable Superman has inexplicably thrived for more than a half-century. Long before such recent nonentities as Brandon Routh, the role belonged to second-rater George Reeves, who hated it. The star of TV’s The Adventures of Superman found himself typecast after the show was canceled and so put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. Or at least that was the official verdict, passed breathlessly from one youthful Superman fan to another in 1959. Hollywoodland scripter Paul Bernbaum has another theory or two: George might have been killed either by his fiancée or by goons working for his ex-mistress’ husband, who just happens to have been the head of MGM.

The movie needs someone to swallow these alternate explanations, so it creates extremely small-time private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). The detective is working on a dead-end infidelity case when he learns of the death of George Reeves (Ben Affleck) from his distraught young son, who lives with Louis’ estranged wife. Then Louis gets a tip that George’s mother, Helen (Lois Smith), is unwilling to believe that her son shot himself. Helen hires Louis, who pays a $20 bribe for an audience with Superman’s corpse. He talks to the body, thus summoning the first of many flashbacks that fill in the personal histories of the dead actor; the older woman, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), who partially supported him; and her indulgent if thuggish husband, Edgar Mannix (Bob Hoskins).

George had a modest part in Gone With the Wind, but he’s not getting much work when he’s adopted by Toni, who buys him a house, gives him the fateful gun, and expects his undivided attention. George takes the Superman gig, which his agent calls “a dirt-cheap kiddie show” and is shocked when it becomes a hit. Eventually, disgusted that his movie career has been derailed by the Man of Steel, George starts drinking heavily, breaks with Toni, and takes up with starlet Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney). Cross-cutting between the detective and the actor, Coulter charts the parallel decline of Louis (who on one particularly bad day shows up drunk to retrieve his son from school) and George. They hit bottom together, and when George is murdered—shown in two different possible scenarios—Louis imagines himself as a witness.

Coulter, who’s directed episodes of The Sopranos and Sex and the City, displays understandable interest in TV lore. His most amusing factoid is that Superman’s outfit, to suit the tonalities of black-and-white TV, was not blue and red but gray and brown. But the movie’s best effect is Affleck, who gained 20 pounds to resemble Reeves, an actor who made no physical accommodations to a role that required him to wear tights. Affleck’s performance isn’t all that persuasive, but it doesn’t matter. The very presence of a former rising star who had the wind knocked out of his career by an unfortunate on-screen dalliance with Jennifer Lopez is a Hollywood lesson in itself. While Lane, made up to look older, plays against her usually amiable type, and Hoskins does his characteristic growl with an uncharacteristic accent, Affleck just looks helpless and used. That may be accidental, but it’s perfect nonetheless.

In a different sort of film, Affleck’s lumpy passivity would have been the point, but not here. Perhaps because they’ve seen Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, Coulter and Bernbaum decided they needed a hard-luck gumshoe as their protagonist. Yet as written, Louis is a cliché, and Brody doesn’t bring him to life. Gallons of ready-made metaphor are wasted while Louis usurps the saga of the powerless Superman in favor of routine L.A. tough-guy business that fails to enlighten or even entertain. Somewhere along the way, this movie lost its original name, Truth, Justice and the American Way, and became Hollywoodland. That the latter title is even more generic turns out to be entirely appropriate.

Bertolucci’s most representative movies invert a well-worn axiom, revealing that strange bedfellows make for politics. Nowhere is that asserted more forcefully than in The Conformist, arguably the director’s best film (and one that’s still not available on an American-made DVD). Set in Italy during the 20-year advance and decline of Mussolini, this sumptuously designed and elegantly photographed fable follows an insecure young professor, Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), whose quest for normality leads him to deny his homosexuality, marry preposterously, and agree to arrange the assassination of his old mentor, Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), now an expatriate Marxist and an annoyance to the Black Shirts.

Scripted by the director from an Alberto Moravia novel, The Conformist uses the fractured-narrative techniques of the French new wave—Bertolucci was a Godard disciple, but this film’s structure owes more to Resnais—to unwrap Marcello’s psyche piece by piece. The events are presented as a tangle of memories but anchored by certain indelible set pieces, notably the assassination attempt on a remote forest road and the Parisian dance-hall tango of Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and Anna (Dominique Sanda), Marcello’s flirtatious wife and the professor’s slinky, much younger spouse.

This weeklong booking should be the first time The Conformist has been shown in Washington with the restored “Dance of the Blind” sequence, which suggests that Marcello’s homosexual experiences are not limited to a single traumatic childhood episode with the family chauffeur. (At the National Gallery’s Bertolucci retrospective six years ago, the long-deleted scene was shown on video after a screening of the expurgated film.) It’s good to see the movie that the director intended, but the sequence merely supports a glib thesis: that it’s Marcello’s gayness that leads him to seek the comforting oblivion of Mussolini’s anonymous crowd of followers. The film’s idea of erotic decadence—there’s also a lesbian connection between Giulia and Anna—is a relic of hip ’60s homophobia.

This miscue would matter more, however, in one of the films Bertolucci directed later, after he recast himself as a more conventional storyteller. In The Conformist, the themes are established as much with mood as with narrative. If the film’s structure derives from France’s new wave directors, Bertolucci rejected their scrappy visual style and embraced the sumptuous photography and production design of the ’30s, the period in which most of the movie is set. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s satiny images are the missing link between Citizen Kane and In the Mood for Love and would richly deserve the silver-screen treatment even if a DVD were an option. Yet the darting camera, intricate compositions, and swirling dance sequences aren’t merely decorative; they express the elusiveness of the central character, and the hopelessness of his desire for stability. Marcello’s world keeps shifting, which is his downfall but The Conformist’s triumph.CP