Movie studios carry on like nervous mothers, constantly taking the temperature of their writers, actors and directors -- and maybe the "hottest" director in Hollywood today is 33-year-old Marty Brest. Brest's new comedy, "Beverly Hills Cop," stars Eddie Murphy as a Detroit detective investigating a crime in Lala-land; it was being talked about as the hit of the Christmas season before anyone had bought a ticket.

"Why don't we put the 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the door? I saw that in a Cary Grant movie once," Brest jokes. A slight, bespectacled elf grinning through a stubbly beard beneath hair increasingly sparse, a smart aleck in a tweed jacket and sneakers, Brest talks and swears animatedly, often rising from the couch to act out a scene. His hands flap around with quick precision -- you feel as if you're watching a tai chi instructional videotape stuck on fast-forward.

But to find the skepticism underlying Brest's pleasure in his success, you have to know his career: how a kid from the Bronx, the son of eastern European immigrants, came to Hollywood and, at the age of 28, directed "Going in Style," Warner Bros.' big Christmas release in 1979. And how the same Wunderkind, three years later, was fired from "WarGames" after three weeks of shooting -- the kind of black mark that can leave a director with a career in beer commercials.

"Marty's a sort of Jewish pessimist," says his fiance', 41-year-old producer Lisa Weinstein. "There's a certain kind of Jewish personality that tends to look on the dark side of things."

"Worried about screwing up?" Brest says. "Deeply. It's a driving motivating force in my life."

"My parents were both eastern European born, and there are values in those life styles that I find difficult to get satisfaction on that level in Los Angeles, where they eat their old," Brest says, trimming the ash of his umpteenth cigarette of the morning in a Hotel Carlyle saucer. "I remember, when I was a kid, my father was sitting at the table reading the Jewish paper and I was watching television in the kitchen and a dog-food commercial came on. And he looked up and he saw that not only did they make a special food for dogs in America, whereas any one of his family would starve to death under millions of circumstances, but they advertise it. And my father looked up and he said in Yiddish, 'Das ist Amerika.'

"I still feel like a foreigner in America -- I feel like an immigrant almost, and I view it with foreign eyes. What America is to my father, Los Angeles is to me. I've never been able to quite click in out there. When Don Simpson told me the story of 'Beverly Hills Cop,' I said, 'Wow, that's a great idea,' because I'll identify with anything that involves a schlem coming to an environment he can't quite figure out and has to survive it somehow."

Two years ago, Brest came perilously close to being the schlem who didn't survive. When Larry Lasker, one of the original screenwriters of "WarGames," was looking for a director, he turned to Brest -- Lasker's brother Alex, another screenwriter, knew him from the American Film Institute. For over a year, Lasker and his partner Walter Parkes had been developing the script with Lisa Weinstein for producer Leonard Goldberg.

Almost from the start, the project was troubled. Some say Brest and Lasker disagreed on key story points and tone -- Lasker's sunny California disposition didn't jibe with Brest's New York morbidity -- so Brest fired the writers; Brest himself was fighting with the producers over casting (he wanted comic actors who would "take the edge off" the thriller plot). Meanwhile, Universal thought the budget was too high, so it put "WarGames" into "turnaround," a sort of waivers; it was picked up by United Artists, which was headed at the time by Paula Weinstein, Lisa's sister.

Rumors spread that the studio was looking for a new director even before shooting began; when the daily "rushes" were shown, the air was clogged with disappointment. "I was very up front with Marty," says Goldberg. "When we started shooting, I told him I don't think the film was very exciting that he was shooting. 'Frankly, Marty, I think the film is flat. Do you want a helicopter or something? Is there anything we can do?' He said, 'When you see it cut, you'll see it be very exciting.' And I said, 'Well, Marty, that'll be $14 million later.' "

Brest was fired by Paula Weinstein, who, three weeks later, was fired herself; and Lisa Weinstein, who had nurtured the project for three years, quit in protest: "I had survived the original writers; I didn't feel like surviving Marty."

"It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen," says Brest, and he's not exaggerating -- Weinstein, a first-time producer trying to break into the business, gave up her production credit and her chunk of the profits on what became a big commercial success. Worse, although only two or three of Brest's scenes remained in the final edit, neither Brest nor Weinstein got credit for making the crucial preproduction decisions (like casting Matthew Broderick) that helped make "WarGames" a hit. Brest emerged with a reputation for being impossible to work with.

"The thing that made me nuts," Brest says, "was making a lot of enemies fighting to make the movie have elements that were eventually responsible for its success. And then to be an outsider and see the success of the movie happen while hearing all these bad and untruthful stories about me. In Hollywood, what you hear becomes the truth. And the stories I heard -- they're fact now."

Brest began reading scripts again almost immediately, but he became something of a recluse. "I didn't want to go to a Hollywood event," Brest says, "because being fired off of a movie is tantamount to having AIDS at a Hollywood party."

When Don Simpson left as Paramount's head of production to become an independent producer in tandem with Jerry Bruckheimer, he brought along "Beverly Hills Cop," a story dreamed up by Simpson and Paramount president Michael Eisner; the movie had been in development for almost seven years by the time they turned to Brest. Simpson claims that he didn't investigate the "WarGames" rumors: "We always liked Marty, and if he had killed a 13-year-old dog, we'd still have hired him."

And to their credit, neither the producers nor Paramount worried that Brest's characteristically languorous camera style wouldn't jibe with a cop thriller. "Your basic Hal Roach technique" is how Brest describes it. "In film school everyone was talking about Antonioni and this one and that one and moving the camera, and I was very insecure. I said, 'Why do you, like, move the camera?' It seemed like the only things I used to enjoy watching when I was a kid were 'Little Rascals,' which technically are horrendous, bad angles, terrible editing. And I almost couldn't shake that sort of dopey technique."

But trouble started that must have given Brest an idea of a vengeful God. Sylvester Stallone was originally slated to star in the picture, but when he rewrote the script, Paramount decided his hard-edged version was not what it wanted for Christmas. The studio insisted on going back to the original and, two weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin, Stallone bailed out.

Replacing Stallone with Murphy involved retailoring the script for the new star; much of the rewriting took place each day as the film was shot, with Murphy and the rest of the cast frequently improvising. "Doing this movie was like doing 'Your Show of Shows,' " Brest says. " 'Well, uh, there'll be some kind of scene tomorrow in a bar.' 'Is it a black bar or a white bar?' 'I don't know, like, a bar.' Eleven weeks of that. The fact that the movie makes sense is a miracle."

Brest's inclination to repeat several "takes" of a scene, and print even botched takes, became a standing joke among the cast. "There were some people shaking their heads because Marty would say, 'Perfect! That was perfect! One more!' " remembers Judge Reinhold, one of the stars. "There was a scene where Eddie was supposed to walk through a door," remembers Brest, "and something went wrong and I printed it. So next time he walked through the door he said, 'Yeddayeddayeddayedda -- I'll bet you'll print that too. "At Brest films we print everything." ' And so of course I said, 'Print it!' "

Marty Brest's interest in film began at Stuyvesant High School, one of New York's special schools for students with high test scores. "It was like 'Stalag 17.' You know, nobody would bathe, everybody was horny as hell, all these very, very ultraextraordinarily bright working-class to lower-middle-class kids, all of whom were schlepping in from the Bronx, Brooklyn, whatever, with their monster briefcases."

Brest's first love was photography; his brother-in-law worked for a radio station. "I thought, 'Radio's great too. How can I combine these two professions?' And somehow, film just seemed like the logical conclusion."

In 1969, Brest enrolled in New York University to study film. "People had to be outcasts to be in film then," remembers Jacques Haitkin, a cinematographer who became Brest's partner on his two student films. "You had to be nuts. To some people it was like doing nothing. It was like basket-weaving or something."

"All the time I was in college," Brest says, "my father was trying to get me to become an apprentice in the sheet-metal workers' union. Local 28. He said, 'Journeyman makes $400 a week now, and it's steady.' And I said, 'Papa, I wanna be a directah. GAAAAAAHTA DANCE!' " he sings.

In that bell-bottomed, work-shirted era, Brest stood out -- he strutted around campus in jacket and tie and wing-tipped shoes, long tweed coat and beret. "He was the coolest," remembers director Amy Heckerling, who entered NYU when Brest was a junior and later became his sweetheart (and later still cast him in a small role in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"). "There were a few people that everybody knew were going to make it, and he was one of them."

While a student, Brest directed "Hot Dogs for Gauguin," an anarchist's comedy about a down-and-out photographer who blows up the Statue of Liberty -- if he's on the spot to capture the disaster on film, it will make his career. Danny DeVito played the mad bomber. "I just recently had the revelation that what that movie was about was about me at the time," says Brest. "About some pigged-out, really ambitious lunatic who would do anything to crack through to the next level. It's almost embarassingly obvious when you think about it in that way."

The reception for "Hot Dogs" encouraged Brest to apply to the AFI in L.A. for graduate work. The application, Brest says, asked for your " 'Biography and Philosophy of Film,' and I wrote, 'I am hopelessly addicted to all forms of nicotine and I hate the idea of writing my philosophy of film, it's totally absurd.' Hahahahaha -- how clever of me!" Haitkin was accepted; Brest wasn't

But when the film was shown in a student film program at the AFI in Washington, the curator was impressed enough to go to bat for Brest. So he and Haitkin drove cross-country together. "Two New York messes who were broke came into L.A., which was spanking clean at the time," says Haitkin. "Reagan was governor. The police were everywhere. There was no dirt in the street. And we drove up in our old zhlubby car with the tire on the roof up to Greystone mansion.

"We weren't two ascetic artists," Haitkin says. "We looked at all the goodies and said, 'Yeah, we want it.' "

While at AFI, Brest had the idea for "Hot Tomorrows," a movie about a philosophy student who thinks life is a joke until his friend dies in a car accident; just when he's revising his vision, the friend returns from the dead and, in a splashy musical number, tells him that he was right all along. The eerie coincidence was that, 20 minutes after Brest first verbalized the idea to a friend, he had his own accident. "Cars are really alien to me," he says. "I remember when I first went out to California -- you know how when you put the indicator on and it goes tick tick tick tick, I was amazed. I said, 'That's what that noise is.' So two months later I was like Andy Granatelli: 'Wow, this is great!' Vaaarrroooom!

"So we were carrying on, and we had all that sort of young art angst, and I just put the pedal to the metal, as they say, and in this sort of burst of enthusiasm I just wanted to start zigzagging up the street. I didn't get to zigzag, I just got to zig."

"Sometimes he does such stupid, self-destructive things that you just want to punch him," Heckerling says. "When we were going out I can't count how many broken bones he had."

Brest emerged from the accident with two fractured vertebrae in his neck. "They hadda put me in traction, so they hadda shave off all the hair on the sides of my head, so I had, like, this Mohegan," he says. "I had this ponytail, but no hair on the sides of my head at all. It's a popular look nowadays, but back then it was pretty weird. Particularly with this steel and leather neck brace, I looked like some kind of samurai accountant."

Healed, Brest teamed up with Haitkin again to shoot "Hot Tomorrows," which became an example of how a student film can make a director's career. Superagent Harry Ufland took Brest on as a client; and Paula Weinstein and Bob Shapiro of Warner's gave him $15,000, which he needed to finish the film, and invited him to do a movie for them.

The result was "Going in Style," a macabre farce about three elderly men who are so bored and impoverished they decide to rob a bank. As in all of Brest's movies, crime is a way to express yourself. Heckerling calls it "mischievousness." "I don't think of it as crime, but I guess when you're kids, you can throw water balloons, but as an adult, I guess mischievousness is criminal," Brest says.

Brest, 28 at the time, was called on to direct Art Carney, Lee Strasberg and George Burns. "George called me on the phone," Shapiro remembers, "and said, 'When you said he was young, I didn't think you meant that young. I've got ties older than him.' " Burns remembers that the three of them got together after the first day of shooting and decided the kid was okay.

"I've got a theory about that," Brest says. "If I was 45 and directing it, and I said something weird that they didn't go along with, maybe they would've given me some flak. But I was sorta like Gary Coleman going into the ring with Muhammad Ali. What's Ali gonna do, beat him up? Whaddaya gonna do? Because of my youth and cinematic virginity, I was treated almost as if I had more experience than anybody in the world, by some weird equation."

Brest's long, slow takes created an ideal environment for the three actors, who gave gentle, pastel performances; Brest sees his influences as Charlie Chaplin (his production company is called "City Light") and Laurel and Hardy. "I would love nothing more than seeing Laurel and Hardy both sitting there, and watching that symphony of concentrations, where you look at one guy thinking and then you look at the other guy and wonder what he's thinking. And that study of people fascinates me.

"Although I saw the movie on TV a little while ago and I started snappin' my fingers. 'All right, next, c'mon, great, they're lookin' and thinkin' and that's wonderful, next.' "

The failure of "WarGames" seems to have strengthened Brest as a director. In "Beverly Hills Cop," he was willing to allow the producers their glitz, something he apparently resisted in "WarGames," and the result is a movie that has the characteristic Simpson/Bruckheimer quick-cutting and thumping rock score while retaining Brest's old-fashioned comic touch. "Jerry and I are speed-heads," says Simpson. "We like movies to move along. Marty's much more relaxed since 'WarGames,' " he adds. "More specific and a hell of a lot more attuned to the complications of intra-moviemaking politics."

The obvious question, then, is whether success will spoil Marty Brest. The answer: probably not. "I'm reluctant to jump on the bandwagon of counting one's chickens before they hatch, for superstitious reasons if nothing else," Brest says. "But after everything else, it's just nice to let everyone know that I know how to make a movie."

"I think his background has grounded him to a certain extent," says Weinstein. "He wants a different kind of life, but it gave him certain values -- that you can have a good life but not have a lot of money."

"He's not interested in money," agrees Burns. "During 'Going in Style' I took him to 21 for dinner. I said you gotta wear a tie. He said he didn't have a tie. A great director who doesn't have a tie. He oughta be ashamed of himself."