PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 November, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 November, 1993, 12:00am

REFRESHED by the success of Unforgiven at this year's Oscars, Clint Eastwood gives one of his best performances in, In the Line of Fire, as secret service agent Frank Horrigan.

Unusually, Eastwood didn't choose to direct himself in this one - as he has done with nearly all his recent work - but pressured the studio into giving the job to German director, Wolfgang Petersen, whose submarine saga, Das Boot (1981), Eastwood has long admired.

Consciously or unconsciously, this has resulted in Eastwood, at 63, giving a stunning performance in a role well written for him by Jeff Maguire.

Horrigan is a patriot. In 1963 he was on duty guarding John F. Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas.

He believes that he was close enough to the president to have altered the course of history - if only he'd reacted, he ''could have taken that shot''.

Instead, his remorse has haunted his own life for the past 30 years. Now he is back guarding a younger president, one whom he doesn't even respect, but for whom he is prepared to take the bullet - possibly to expiate that day in November 1963 he cannot rewrite.

The probability of this happening is higher than usual. Horrigan is telephoned at home by a crazy man (John Malkovich) calling himself ''Booth'', who announces his intention to assassinate the president.

A disillusioned former CIA man, he makes a succession of calls to Horrigan and tries to brainwash him into the notion that he is protecting a cause that is no longer worth upholding.

It may not be a wholly original scenario, but it is a wholly absorbing one. The two men, in many ways, are reverse sides of the same coin.

What makes Eastwood so powerful in the part is the way he imbues the action of the present with the presence of his past. He is a man who has lived and won and lived and lost but, above all, lived to tell the tale.

He has a nobility which puts him above hierarchy, and a sense of commitment that brings its own moral code. It is as if all his experience as a cop and a cowboy is rolled up in this character.

In Malkovich's opinion, Eastwood ''enjoyed the picture, largely because he didn't have the responsibility of directing''.

''I think he gets better at acting - more comfortable, more relaxed, more at peace with himself,'' Malkovich said.

And, as a follow up to In the Line of Fire, Eastwood has just finished directing Kevin Costner and Laura Dern in A Perfect World (in which Eastwood plays a Texas ranger tracking down Costner, who plays an escaped convict).

A Perfect World is in the cutting rooms, but if In the Line of Fire is anything to go by it should be another winner.