WE'RE SAFE, now. Clark Gable has been dead almost 20 years, along with the notion of manhood he epitomized for us. He died in 1960, two days after shooting ended on "The Misfits," a brilliant, poignant epitaph to precisely the persona he'd helped create in the American psyche. (But no more poignant than the tombstone motto he used to joke about: "He was lucky - and he knew it.")

He's been a ghost whose ease has been slow in coming, unlike other templates such as Bogart, who had a cult to exorcise him with his devotions. Or Jimmy Stewart, who is doing the job himself as talk shows. Or Gary Cooper or John Wayne, who never seemed, like Gable, to know the price you have to pay in the real world for that brand of unrelenting ride-the-tiger heroism.

Anyhow, we can take the long, cool - albeit nostalgic - look that Gable deserves in the 27-film retrospective that opened Thursday with "San Francisco" at the American Film Institute.

"Well, sister, what's your racket?" says Gable's Blackie Norton to Jeannette MacDonald at the opening of "San Francisco."

You see the screenwriter establishing the Gable character with the deliberateness of a ritual.

"I'm a singer," says the shy MacDonald, playing a preacher's daughter looking for a job at Blackie Norton's nightclub.

"Let's see your legs," says Blackie.

"But I'm a singer."

"Let's see your legs."

Gable strides around that movie like he strode around all of them - in his big, feet-apart, workingman's ramble he somehow reconciled with terrific grace. On the way out of a gym, he raps a punching bag and nearly tears it apart. In case you don't get the message, the bit player behind him takes a swing, and scarcely moves it.

Of course this was 1936, when Hollywood was just emerging from an era in which "a man couldn't be both good and overtly masculine - there was no such animal," as Lyn Tornabene writes in "Long Live the King," her 1976 biography.

But there was, after gable. In fact, you can see him depicit the metapmorphosis in one head shot, as he watches Jeannette MacDonald sing. That famous smile grows under the moustache, easy but tight; cheeks rise to tug the brace of dimples into place; eyes squint to mull a distance both exterior and interior - eyes that have seen it all for better or worse.

Such a look: It shows the brute is not immune to beauty; in fact, it hints at a pride of passion so powerful that his tough-guy gruffness suddenly seems like modesty and caution. With it, Gable attains the impossible, becoming "both good and overtly masculine."

This look sustained movie after movie as Gable watched, listened and reacted - he was a far better reactor than actor, a persona rather than a player, a masterful presence in all his 67 films.

The look came in emotional wrapping for every occasion: high drama in "Mutiny on the Bounty," Joe Average comedy in "It Happened One Night," the devil-may-care "Test Pilot" or the taut "Command Decision" (not included in the AFI series.)

Consider the fireworks in "Gone With the Wind" (another omission from the series): bemusement, despair, furious astonishment, delight, suspicion. All of it had the added Gable dimension of wittingness - you sense that he saw the foolishness in his anger, or the brutality in his wryness; that Rhett Butler understood both the value and the price of experience.

And in his most famous moment - when he walks out on Scarlett O'Hara ' he's forced to surrender that wittingness to make the necessary but nasty and one-dimensional decision: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." And you believe him, because the rest of the time, he always does.

Gable was entitled - he came up the hard way. He was born in Cadiz, Ohio, on Feb. 1, 1901, as William Clark Gable. His father was a farmer and oil driller. His mother died of epilepsy when he was 7 months old.

He quit high school after his sophomore year and went to Akron to work in a tire factory. There he saw a play called "The Bird of Paradise" and took a non-paying backstage job with the company. His father objected violently, ultimately taking him to the Oklahoma oil fields, but Gable fled after his 21st birthday, joining another troupe which left hin stranded in Butte, Mont., with three dollars in his pocket.

He hitched a ride to Oregon, worked in lumberyards, then sold neckties in a department store until he found another acting company.

A picture taken in 1925 shows him gat-teethed (he later had them capped) and wearing an uncertain smile under dark eyes. By now he was acting as an extra in silent films, and had married Josephine Dillon, who was 14 years older than he. (His next wife, Ria, was 17 years his senior.)

In an age in which masculine sex appeal in the movies meant being poetically, hypnotically intense, Gable was too hulking. He was 6 feet 1. He wore a 44-long suit, had mammoth hands and feet and the trademark loving-cup ears. He decided: "Definitely, there was no future for me in Hollywood. I was no Valentino or Gilbert. I was somewhat of a roughneck."

He went back to the stage, getting to Broadway, then returning to Los Angeles in a hit play that won him his first featured movie role in 1930 as a tough cowboy in "The Painted Desert."

He'd play a series of tough guys and gangsters, becoming, strangely enough, a hero to movie audiences. They'd realized before MGM had that times had changed - the common man was the hero of the Depression, "the working stiff," as they used to say.

After director Clarence Brown had Gable manhandle Norma Shearer in "A Free Soul," in 1931, and the public loved it, MGM publicist Howard Strickling began the creation of the Gable we'd have for the next 29 years.

"Gable you visualized as a real heguy," Stickling said. Tornabene writes in "Long Live the King": "The first time Clark posed for publicity pictures he found himself . . . at Griffith Park astride a horse. Soon he would be photographed half-buried in fishing equipment, then leaning against a fireplace cleaning guns, then resting on the fender of a roadster . . . And within a remarkably short time, the horse, the fishing rods, the guns and roadster became part of his life. 'He liked the image and fit into it,' says Strickling. 'He was willing to be molded. He wanted to be a star.'"

Women rioted across the country when he went on a publicity tour in 1935. In "Broadway Melody of 1938," Judy Garland sang "You Made Me Love You" to his picture.

"This power over women that I'm supposed to have," Gable said, "was never noticed when I was on Broadway. I don't know when I got it. And by God, I can't explain it."

Ed Sullivan crowned him. "The King" of the movies. He moved into his peak years, 1935 to 1940.

The biggest publicity bonanza of all was Gable's marriage to actress Carole Lombard, a wisecracking blond who was killed when her plane crashed in 1940 on a mountain outside Las Vegas. It was said you could see the flames from 50 miles away.

He returned to MGM after a World War II stint in the Air Force, but times were changing, and by the 1950s the studio system had fallen apart.

In 1960 he agreed to do "The Misfits," with Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach. Arthur Miller, a scrupulous and hard-eyed student of the American dream, wrote the screenplay about the desperation of trying to live up to the demands of rugged individualism, of just the promise that Clark Gable had held out for 29 years.

Gable, Wallach and Clift have been reduced to paying for their freedom by rounding up wild horses and selling them for dog food. Monroe, appalled, talks Clift into setting the mustangs free. Gable singlehandedly wrestles one to the ground, thereby taming Monroe as he'd tamed so many heroines, and proving his manhood as he'd done so many times - but here it's for naught, and he finally sets the horse free.

Perhaps, the movie implied, you can be the American man of experience; you can test yourself, see everything, do it all, without losing your soul, Faust-like, in the bargain. But ultimately it means nothing. That knowledge is the ultimate price you pay for being a hero to yourself - and who else, in America, can judge?

Gable insisted on doing alot of the stunts himself. His fifth wife, Kay, claimed they killed him, on Nov. 16, 1960.

The '60s and the '70s took care of the person Gable had kept alive. Even existential dramas, such as wrestling of the stallion, became unfashionable. Strength came to be seen as force; sex appeal was a myth; emotional modesty meant your were "out of touch with yourself." Powerful heros, such as Clint Eastwood, had a touch of the psychopath about them, and John Wayne seemed naive.

Years after Gable's death, David Frost asked Joan Crawford who the most exciting actor of them all had been, according the Tornabene.

"Clark Gable, of course," said Crawford.

"Why Gable?"

"Because," said Crawford, "he had b -."