American films shown at the Cannes Film Festival this month and now on their way to theaters suggest there are still plenty of directors who relish taking a chance over the sure-thing formulas of the movie business.

Such films as David Lynch's "The Straight Story," Tim Robbins's "Cradle Will Rock," Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" and John Sayles's "Limbo" won considerable praise though no prizes during the competition. And three films that were shown but were not part of the official competition caused a stir: Steven Soderbergh's "The Limey," Kevin Smith's fantasy-comedy "Dogma" and Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam," one of the most eagerly awaited films of the summer.

Cannes has always had a special significance for Soderbergh, whose eighth film, "The Limey," will open in the United States this fall. It was at Cannes that his first movie, "sex, lies, and videotape" unexpectedly won the Golden Palm in 1989, launching his career. "It was impossible not to be thrilled by it," the director recalled, sitting at the Hotel Martinez. Dressed all in black, with close-cropped hair and an intense gaze, the 36-year-old Soderbergh projects a certain wariness.

Since "sex, lies" he has worked in a wide range of genres--from last summer's "Out of Sight" to "Kafka," a black-and-white horror film with an insurance agent at its center, and "King of the Hill," the unsentimental story of a boy during the Depression.

The director is forthcoming about the fact that the unpredictability of his choices has made the idea of a "Soderbergh film" difficult to pin down.

"I knew I would skip around and do different types of movies," he said. "But people looking from the outside were anticipating that I would make 'sex, lies' again, or follow in that vein."

"The Limey" fits into the crime genre, but its experimentation with past, present and future, its intimate look at one central character, Wilson (Terence Stamp), and its off-center humor set it apart.

How often does a hit man justify his profession by saying, "This is a lifestyle I embrace"?

Stamp's character is an ex-convict, a hardened criminal who travels from England to Los Angeles to find out who killed his daughter and avenge her death. He slowly begins to circle the man he suspects was responsible, a slick movie producer named Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda).

Lem Dobbs, who crafted the script, and Soderbergh had always envisioned British actor Stamp for the part of Wilson. Throughout the film, footage is used of Wilson's earlier days with his wife and child. That footage is actually taken from one of the earliest films that Stamp starred in, Kenneth Loach's "Poor Cow," where he played a dashing young thief. "As far as we knew, nobody had done this before," recalled Soderbergh, who secured Loach's approval to use the footage. "It's a character and an actor from a film 30 years prior, reprised and presented side by side with the present."

Talking about how Soderbergh aided him in understanding his character's implacable quest, Stamp said, "Steven told me, 'Imagine a person is like a mechanism with a lot of different wheels turning. But with Wilson, there's all the wheels turning, but then there's this very slow-moving wheel behind all the others.' " Besides the juxtaposition of the younger and older Stamps, the choice of Stamp and Fonda for the film is a celebration of the two actors' longevities. "Both characters come of age during the '60s," Soderbergh said. "So what the film required was two actors who had a very specific iconic value during that period. Terence and Peter are such perfect bookends if you're talking about American and British culture in the '60s."

For Spike Lee, the showing of "Summer of Sam" at Cannes is a continuation of the long relationship he has had with the festival. Both "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "Jungle Fever" (1991) screened in the Cannes Competition here; "She's Gotta Have It" screened in the Cannes Directors Fortnight in 1986. His "Girl 6" screened here in 1996.

This was the first time that Lee has shown the completed "Summer of Sam" to an audience. The film takes place during the summer of 1977 in New York City, when David Berkowitz, the killer who dubbed himself "Son of Sam," was on his killing spree. Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio wrote the film with Lee's collaboration.

Sitting on a deck chair overlooking the beach, wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses, Lee is like a breath of New York in the surreal playground of Cannes. He was a sophomore in college in New York during the sweltering summer of '77. It was a memorable time for him, not just because of the heat and Berkowitz, but also because "that was the summer I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker."

The actual killer forms only a small part of Lee's film. The director uses history as a jumping-off point to explore the effect that the killings have on a small Italian American neighborhood in the Bronx. In the intense heat and the paranoid atmosphere, people in the neighborhood begin to look among themselves for the killer, who supposedly lives nearby. The film is eloquent about the perilous ease with which we scapegoat those who are different.

Lee has depicted the roiling violence in a small neighborhood before: "Do the Right Thing" explored a neighborhood divided by ethnic tensions. But "Summer of Sam" depicts tensions arising from sexual and lifestyle choices, as well as the duel between disco and punk music that characterized the era. Vinnie and Dionna (John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino) are a young Italian American disco king and queen having difficulty with their marriage. Vinnie's childhood friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), moves back to the neighborhood as a newly hatched punk and invites suspicion from the local toughs.

The film has already caused controversy in the United States, largely due to early media notices that hinted at graphic violence and sexual content. In the version shown at Cannes, however, neither the violence nor the sex were graphic beyond an R rating. Lee is frank about the fact that he made certain cuts to ensure the MPAA's rating, as opposed to the more draconian NC-17.

"The MPAA never questioned any of the violence, only the sex," he said. Lee took pains, nonetheless, to make sure that what he depicted in the film was faithful to the era in question. "We were very keen that we not glamorize the violence," he said.

As for how Disney feels about it, Lee said, "This is the second film I did for [Disney studios chairman] Joe Roth; 'He Got Game' was the first. Joe and [Disney CEO] Michael Eisner have been behind me supporting the film from the get-go."

John Sayles is, like Lee, a director who concerns himself with questions of community. In "City of Hope," Sayles depicted the corruption of a big-city government. "The Secret of Roan Inish" was set in Ireland, while "Men With Guns," his most recent feature, was about the clash between Americans and armed factions in Central America.

"Limbo," Sayles's 12th feature film and his first in competition at Cannes, is a departure for the director. It opens with a whiff of social commentary--factories shuttered, workers cast adrift--and then shifts gears to become an intimate drama. It is set in the fishing community of Juneau, Alaska, and tells the story of a lounge singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) with a troubled teenage daughter. The singer falls in love with a former fisherman (David Straithairn) who is haunted by a boating accident for which he feels responsible. Eventually the three characters become isolated in a way that forces them to confront themselves and each other.

Sayles is a big, outdoorsy guy who looks as if he could just as easily be skippering a boat himself. But the physical world he portrays in "Limbo" is just a harbinger of equally perilous emotional territory.

"I wanted to explore here how Americans deal with failure," he said, stretching his legs in a suite at the Carlton Hotel. "In the case of my main character, this is a guy who has risked and lost big, and his reaction to it is to just close up and not take a risk again. And then there other people like Mary Elizabeth's character in the film, whose reaction is the opposite one. They've got to get back up on that horse."

The idea of risk also informed Sayles's choice of Alaska as a locale. "So many people have gone there to become or do something that they never could have in the lower 48," he said. "It seemed like a right place to set a story about people trying for this second chance."

The director's economical way of directing and his reliance on a small core group of collaborators (including his companion of 25 years, Maggie Renzi, who has produced all but two of his films) have enabled him to make most of his films outside the studio system. "Limbo" is one of the few financed by a studio; Sony Pictures Entertainment gave him a budget of $8 million. It seems entirely unlikely, however, that Sayles will ever change his fiercely uncompromising stance toward filmmaking. The ending of "Limbo," which opens in June in the United States, caused a great deal of talk in France and deliberately challenges many of the conventions of film storytelling. For Sayles, the provocative ending is yet another instance of the themes of vulnerability and risk within the movie.

"Most of our entertainment involves only the illusion of risk," he said.

CAPTION: Worth the risk: Some of the most uncompromising U.S. directors won praise in Cannes, and American audiences will soon discover why. Clockwise from right are Spike Lee ("Summer of Sam"), John Sayles (directing a scene in "Limbo") and Steven Soderbergh (whose "The Limey" features Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda.)