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‘Night and the City’ (R)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 23, 1992
There's a cartoonishness about the nitty-gritty of "Night and the City," a rapacious remake of the 1950 film noir that finds Robert De Niro twitching like Roger Rabbit after a double espresso. De Niro, whose TriBeCa company produced the project, leads yet another tour of New York's most overexplored anatomical feature, its underbelly, as a boozy ambulance chaser with a sudden urge to trade his bar stool at a local tavern for a table at Elaine's. But lawyer Harry Fabian is a natural loser and his last desperate attempt to be somebody only confirms that he was born to eat knuckle sandwiches and suck up suds.
Basically, Harry's kin to the scamps who sell swamp land to pensioners in "Glengarry Glen Ross" and to Dustin Hoffman's antiheroic scam artist in "Hero." Perversely, just when the recession-weary nation could use a George Bailey, all the greats decide to play two-bit hustlers. Of course Harry isn't even worth two bits. His bank balance is $00.00, which is lucky when you consider he's held up at the graffiti-covered money machine in the colorful rush of the opening scene. No doubt about it, this is the scuzz-packed navel of the underbelly.
An eternal optimist and a tried-and-true New Yorker, Harry proceeds unfazed to his favorite watering hole, a Runyonesque sports bar called Boxers where everyone knows his name as well as his number; as one of the regulars says, "If Fabian saw a bird digging up a worm, he'd get the worm to sue for whiplash." The surly barkeep, Phil (Cliff Gorman), tolerates Harry even though it's obvious that Phil's sultry wife, Helen (Jessica Lange), has a thing for the diminutive blabbermouth. As Jessica Rabbit said of Roger, "He makes me laugh." Blinded by fondness -- Lange and De Niro don't exactly convey burning desire -- she doesn't see that Harry is incapable of love.
A man with no friends to speak of, Harry makes enemies easily. He foolishly antagonizes big-time boxing promoter Boom Boom Grossman (Alan King) by bringing a bogus personal injury suit against one of his fighters. Intrigued by his foray into the fight world, Harry makes matters far worse by trying to elbow his way into the fight game with help from Boom Boom's estranged older brother, Al (Jack Warden). Boom Boom threatens to kill Harry if any harm comes to Al, an excitable former champion with a heart condition. Given Harry's lack of good sense, it's all too easy to figure what comes next.
Richard Price, who also wrote "Sea of Love" and "The Color of Money," sets De Niro's cynicism against his naivete in this lighter reworking of the much bleaker 1950 film. Directed by Jules Dassin, it starred Richard Widmark as Fabian, a wrestling promoter in pre-World War II London. Time, place and occupation aside, the two Harrys have in common the need to be somebody.
Irwin Winkler, who made his directorial debut with De Niro in "Guilty by Suspicion," is behind the camera for the second time with "Night and the City." The producer of a slew of Oscar-nominated films from "Raging Bull" to "Rocky," Winkler is clearly comfortable with the muscle of the boxing milieu, captured so successfully by the camera of Tak Fujimoto. A film that gets in your face and stays there, it ultimately subverts all that effort with its improbably upbeat conclusion. Still, the performances are technically knockouts, the kind that leave your underbelly churning.
"Night and the City" is rated R for profanity and violence.
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