The fight scene in Alan Rudolph's new film, "Trouble in Mind," was so carefully rehearsed that nobody could say why, when the cameras rolled, Kris Kristofferson's left hook landed squarely on Keith Carradine's mouth instead of slicing the air around it. But the thwacking sound of contact and the look of real blood were unmistakable.

Rushed to the emergency room in full punk regalia, Carradine took nine stitches in his lip. A few days later, Kristofferson was hospitalized with a seriously infected hand, an injury that he later assured everyone "would have killed a normal man." The crew teased Carradine for failing to receive distemper shots, while leading lady Lori Singer moaned in mock distress, "And I've been kissing him."

With two stars incapacitated halfway through filming on location in Seattle, everything ground to a halt for two weeks. Such an interruption could have sabotaged a low-budget ($2.8 million) production like "Trouble" (it opened Friday at the Outer Circle). Which explains why the real victim here was director Alan Rudolph, who spent the break in a barely concealed panic, desperate to find out what would happen next in this new wave Bogart movie of his.

Oh, he had a script, all right -- a love story with gangstermen and bimbos lurking at the edges. "You've finally written one that makes sense," a friend told him. "Don't screw it up." But for Rudolph, whose cinematic function appears to be that of a public dreamer, scripts are departure points. As a director, he is forever taking liberties with himself as a screen writer, creating a collaborative atmosphere with name actors whose regard for Rudolph is such that they accept comparatively low salaries to work with him.

"What makes Alan's films so special," says Carradine, a veteran of several, "are all the layers that get put on in the process."

By the time shooting resumes, Rudolph is busily densing things up again. "I'm the only one so far who knows what the ending will be," he grins, relieved to be back at work. "That's the fun of making movies at this level. You get to make your own film." With his strange stew back on the burner, he proceeds to toss in a measure of "Chinatown" here and a dash of "Hellzapoppin" there, amusing himself immensely with the contrasting flavors.

After years of making distinctive but neglected films, Alan Rudolph is, at 42, just now emerging as an assured, poetic voice. His darkly humorous obsession with romance flowered in 1984 with "Choose Me," a visually lush, decidedly contemporary farce that deftly suggests secrets of the heart beyond the reach of psychobabble. There's something both wildly funny and touchingly recognizable about Rudolph's characters, driven by their interlocking illusions, loneliness and desires.

Skilled at bending genres to accommodate his flair for woozy sensuality, Rudolph dips into film noir with "Trouble in Mind" and comes up with a vaguely futuristic world that has an atmosphere and mood all its own. Kristofferson is Hawk, an ex-con and ex-cop vying with Carradine's Coop for the affections of Singer, who plays Georgia, an innocent waitress working in the cafe' run by Genevie ve Bujold's worldly-wise Wanda. In his first male role, the transvestite actor Divine is Hilly Blue, the gangster kingpin of Rudolph's fictitious RainCity.

As might be expected with a filmmaker stepping beyond cult status, there's a certain amount of critical controversyattached to Rudolph's sensibility. "Trouble" has already been hailed by a number of reputable critics as something of a masterpiece and condemned by a few cloutful others as more of a mess. The film opened to rave reviews in Los Angeles and Chicago, prompting favorable comparisons with "Casablanca," but received a less-than-enthusiastic reception in New York, where Rudolph's intentions came under fire.

While he was making "Trouble," Rudolph seemed aware that the romantic and comedic left turns he was taking would not court anything like unanimous approval. "With this one," he predicted, "we're going to have to stand up real tall or duck real low."

More a fan of mystery than explanations, Rudolph claims never to know what his films are about until they're finished, "and only then when someone else tells me." Pressed to describe the true meaning of "Trouble in Mind," he comes up with this typically loopy summary: "It's about a Hawk who flies the Coop and Wandas through the Hilly Blues of Georgia." Later, he elaborates. "It's social realism, only we're not sure whose society or what reality."

But for all his charmingly evasive action -- this is a man who, when asked how long he's been married, replies, "Net or gross?" -- Rudolph has a pretty good idea of what he's up to. "As soon as you turn on a camera," he says, "you're trying to transmit a recollection of reality. I guess I'm interested in distorting that recollection to the point where it becomes understandable."

It first appears that Rudolph chose Seattle as the location for "Trouble in Mind" because that city's avid, independent-minded filmgoing population has consistently supported his films. "That's part of it," he says from the penthouse bar where "Trouble's" crew is headquartered. "But I've always chased the rain." As he watches the volatile sky over Seattle, a light drizzle materializes. Pretty soon, the streets are dark and wet, just as Rudolph intends them to be in his movie.

"I was born in Los Angeles," he continues, "so I was stuck with that weather, but I used to look at the weather map in the paper and want to be wherever there were hash marks. On really blue days, I would get in the car and drive up here."

Although obviously at ease with a small army of coworkers, Rudolph professes a loner's distaste for groups of people. "Maybe that's why nobody goes to my movies," he jokes, deflating talk of his "breakthrough" with the observation that "more people saw 'Beverly Hills Cop' in its first day than will ever see 'Choose Me,' and that's my hit, right?"

A waitress strolls by, notices Rudolph's nearly empty glass of red wine and asks if he'd like another. "Sure," he says, "I can crawl out of here." He leaves on his feet, but it seems the real reason for his extra drink is that he's about to have dinner with a group of people, one of them Divine, an actor with whom he's never worked before. "All I can tell him," Rudolph says, anticipating a nervous Divine, "is that if he works with me for one day, then he'll get it."

Among those waiting for Rudolph at the designated restaurant are Carolyn Pfeiffer and David Blocker, the producers of "Choose Me" and "Trouble," and Joe Morton, the "Brother From Another Planet" who plays the supporting role of a self-styled intellectual hood in "Trouble." As it turns out, Divine is too thrilled by the prospect of wearing beautifully tailored suits to require much in the way of artistic reassurance. Morton's experience was different.

"I read the script for 'Trouble,' " Morton recalls, "and told Alan there just wasn't enough to the character. He said I could do anything I wanted with the role and to please see 'Choose Me' before I decided." In the end, the bulk of Morton's screen time in "Trouble" consists of business he cooked up with Rudolph.

"Acting is the hardest job in a non-job business," says Rudolph, several days later. "You have to be yourself so you don't lose touch, you have to be real people so you don't get caught, you have to be a technician so you don't fall down, and you have to be successful so you don't get unemployed. It's just too hard."

From Rudolph's hotel window on this sparkling clear morning, it's possible to see the snowcapped peak of Mount Rainier, a sight that thrills Seattle-ites and tourists alike but depresses Rudolph. Life seems to be daring art to imitate it; throughout the production of "Trouble in Mind," Seattle has an extraordinarily dry winter and unusually sunny spring, forcing Rudolph to lay in the weather artificially and keep camera crews on perpetual rain alerts.

"Trouble" lived up to its name in other ways, too. A generator exploded late one night during shooting at the Seattle Art Museum, which serves as Hilly Blue's sumptuous estate. Island Alive, the budding independent production outfit that distributed "Choose Me," broke up just when it appeared Rudolph might finally benefit from its successes. "I'm never going to make a movie with 'Trouble' in the title again," Rudolph vows.

A second generation director, Rudolph's career bears little resemblance to that of his father, Oscar Rudolph, who directed such television series as "Batman" and "My Favorite Martian." Among the feature films directed by the senior Rudolph is "The Rocket Man," a 1954 sci-fi movie in which young Alan made his screen debut, speaking a single line: "Look out, Captain Zar, it's the planet pirates!"

Although he was named for Alan Ladd, with whom his father worked at the time of his birth, and there are photographs somewhere of him sitting on Bob Hope's knee, Rudolph describes his family as having "a good upper-working-class feel. My dad was a craftsman in an industry that has its own glamor, but he was really on the nuts-and-bolts end of things."

His own passion for filmmaking materialized after he graduated from UCLA with a degree in business, when an older brother gave him a Super 8 camera. Cranking out images to the accompaniment of rhythm and blues, Rudolph made more than 200 short films, some of which he lent to film student friends who submitted them as their own prize-winning projects.

Upon completing the Director's Guild training program 15 years ago, Rudolph became one of Hollywood's youngest and longest-haired assistant directors. Just when the money got good, he quit, uninspired by the directors he worked under. Left to his own devices, Rudolph thought in the sort of adventurous visual and thematic terms that made him perfectly suited to be a disciple of Robert Altman. Only Rudolph had never seen an Altman film until he was asked to work for the man, which prompted him to see "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."

"It was simply the best movie I'd seen of all the so-called new films," Rudolph recalls. "It had all the texture, all the dream, all the drama, all the comedy, all the craftsmanship and innovation that any movie should have. The mood of that movie could just change your life."

Rudolph worked with Altman on "The Long Goodbye," "California Split," "Nashville" (a critical and financial success that Altman gives Rudolph enormous credit for shaping) and "Buffalo Bill and the Indians," a rich pastiche of American myth, history and show business that Rudolph scripted (loosely based on the Arthur Kopit play). In turn, Altman produced Rudolph's first two films: the 1976 "Welcome to L.A.," a stylish look at free-form urban relationships that left a genuinely thrilled Oscar Rudolph saying, "I'm proud of you, son, but I don't know what for"; and the 1978 "Remember My Name," starring Geraldine Chaplin in a spooky, black-humored riff on love and revenge.

Still pegged by critics as Altman's prote'ge', Rudolph acknowledges that the label has always been as much a liability as an asset. "Bob did things the way I thought I might try, but couldn't quite articulate. It's a great association and I've never run from it, but Bob and I are totally different. I look at things more emotionally, and I think I'm more interested in details that add up, as opposed to the overview looking in. As stylists, we don't shoot anything alike. There are strong similarities, too, but it's really presumptuous for me to consider myself an equal. I mean, the guy's got 20 films on me."

Psychologically complicated movies are never easy to finance or make -- especially in an era when everyone seemsintent upon building space ships and blowing things up on screen. In the films that Rudolph has both written and directed, plots hinge on emotions and characters tend to emanate excess, just as likely to be knocked off balance by purity as by a twisted past.

Music plays a prominent role, too. Rudolph wrote "Choose Me" in one week after being offered the Luther Vandross song of the same name, sung by Teddy Pendergrass. "Trouble in Mind" takes its title from the unusually optimistic old blues song that promises "the sun's gonna shine in my back door someday," sung in the film by Marianne Faithfull.

But perhaps the most consistent threads running through all of Rudolph's diverse works are poor distribution and problems with studios. The three studio movies he's directed, "Roadie" (1980), "Endangered Species" (1982) and "Songwriter" (1984), all received stingy releases that practically guaranteed they'd never find their audiences. When Time listed "Roadie" as one of that summer's best comedies, it was nowhere to be seen. MGM yanked "Endangered Species," a sort of social protest melodrama about chemical warfare and mutilated livestock, after screening it to bewildered audiences in conservative cattle towns.

One critic has suggested that a raven once perched upon Rudolph's bassinet, casting a long shadow of bad luck. Certainly the biggest mystery is Tri-Star's burial of "Songwriter," a fast, loose and funny movie with Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Lesley Ann Warren. Although he receives no script credit, some of the best lines are obvious Rudolphisms. Trying to impress a gum-cracking cutie, a hustling musician muses, "I think it was Camus who said that truth is secondary to existence."

"Camoo the jungle boy?" inquires the cutie.

"Songwriter" was promptly relegated to the cable and videocassette markets, and Pauline Kael speculated that the film's send-up of smarmy music business executives struck to close to the bone at Tri-Star, a company that Rudolph refers to as "Tri-Stooge -- you know, Larry, Moe and Curly."

Rudolph took on "Songwriter" for several compelling reasons; he had a hole in the postproduction schedule for "Choose Me," he liked the cast and the bank was about to foreclose on his mortgage. " 'Choose Me' was the end of the line," says Rudolph. "I couldn't get any financing, it was hard to get people to understand what I was trying to do and there was no critical support out there. And yet," he shrugs, "I don't have any other skills."

But the raven's curse seems to be lifting. With "Choose Me," a deceptively expensive-looking movie budgeted at just $835,000, Rudolph was finally in complete control, beyond the subtle restrictions entailed by having a prominent mentor and above the interference of studio moguls. Even previously unsympathetic critics finally caught on to his bent humor. "Mr. Rudolph seems to have found his style," wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times, "or, at least, I think I'm finally beginning to get his point."

Last year, the Toronto Film Festival named Rudolph as one of 10 directors -- and the only American -- whose work will help shape the next decade of film, a roster that includes Bill Forsyth, Philip Borsos, Margarethe von Trotta and Paul Cox.

If the number of studio offers Rudolph's received since "Choose Me" are a measure, his place as a bankable artist finally looks secure. Rudolph's now directing Timothy Hutton and Kelly McGillis in a more cheerfully titled movie, "Made in Heaven," for Lorimar. Once again, he's working with a budget ($10 million) that dwarfs that of his independent films. Instead of actors who agree to sign on for a little money and a lot of participation, he's got stars who demand plenty of both. But no matter how the movie turns out, there seems little danger that Rudolph will lose himself in the studio process.

"If you're unfortunate enough to make a hit out of what they think you can do," he said when his first film was released, "then you're their commodity." Now, after a few slightly corrupting studio experiences, he says, "I won't turn down any work I enjoy, but I know what my strengths are. If you leave me alone, I can always be responsible to come up with something."

Currently shooting in Georgia, "Made in Heaven," though not written by Rudolph, already shows his hand in promising signs of weirdness. Debra Winger appears in a walk-on part as God, who happens to be a chain-smoking man, and the author Tom ("Even Cowgirls Get the Blues") Robbins shows up briefly as a toymaker in Heaven. In a move even truer to his quirky vision, Rudolph plans to work next on an independent production of his screenplay for "The Moderns," a story of art and commerce set in Paris during the 1920s that he's been trying to make for the last 10 years. Also on his agenda is another independent film, "The Far Side," an adaptation of Gary Larson's cartoon strip that Rudolph scripted.

Still, Rudolph scoffs at the idea, lately gaining credence, that he's "hot." After screening a rough cut of "Trouble" in Los Angeles last summer, he squelched his agent's compliments by saying, "It's not going to be a hit, you know."

"It's your version of a hit, Alan," his agent calmly told him.

For someone who thrives on making movies as risky and original as Rudolph's, it's probably just part of the lunch to be momentarily amazed when one of them opens and strangers begin flocking to see it. Four months ago, when "Trouble in Mind" opened in Los Angeles, a "Trouble" crew member joining the line for tickets spotted Rudolph sitting alone in his Honda across the street, drinking a beer and watching the line. Rudolph motioned him into the car.

"I don't know any of these people," Rudolph marveled, handing him a beer. "Do you?"