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‘Night and the City’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 23, 1992

There are few finer pleasures than watching Robert De Niro when he's on. In "Night and the City," he lights up the board as Harry Fabian, New York City's biggest shyster. Using every smile, grimace and shrug at his command, he makes Fabian's evolution from quick-hit operator to big-time contender into an exhilarating experience -- one of the best performances of his career.

Radically departing from the 1950 Jules Dassin movie of the same name, screenwriter Richard Price creates a punchy, atmospheric story set in bars and boxing gyms around Greenwich Village, Soho and Little Italy. This New York becomes a claustrophobic, tightknit neighborhood where reputations are easy to waste, extramarital affairs are madness and making enemies amounts to suicide.

De Niro manages to commit all three sins at once. With six years of sleazy lawsuits behind him, the motor-mouthed ambulance chaser's name is a virtual joke around town. He's having an affair with bartender Jessica Lange, who's married to Cliff Gorman, the mean-spirited proprietor of his neighborhood bar. And worst of all, he's about to tread on the corns of dangerous boxing promoter-cum-gangster Alan King.

Yet, despite the self-destructive odds, De Niro's constantly hustling for the one big scheme to change his life. He wants to hobnob with the beautiful at Elaine's. He rehearses for future appearances in credit-card commercials. His methods may be murky but his desire is crystal clear.

"That's all I ever do -- take the money and run," he complains. "Why can't I have a piece? Why can't I be the man?"

His big chance comes when he launches a frivolous suit against a boxer-client of King's. When the case is thrown out of court, King gives De Niro a final warning. But De Niro is suddenly intrigued at the thought of being a boxing promoter.

He cops a license, borrows money for a multiple bout and enlists partner Jack Warner, a former prizefighter with a heart problem, who also happens to be King's estranged brother. On a spiraling descent to rock bottom, De Niro finds himself facing vengeful cuckold Gorman, vindictive King and loan shark Eli Wallach, with only Lange's meager funds to help him . . . .

Directed by Irwin Winkler, the movie's constantly full of big, all-engrossing moments. The performances -- minor and major -- are all superb, from Warden's hard-as-nails boxer to Lange's serene Helen. As De Niro's secret and devoted partner, with business-building dreams of her own, she exudes a graceful, happy-hour serenity.

King makes a phenomenal villain. In fact, his ease with unmitigated malevolence gets a little too good. In a tremendous scene, he walks menacingly up to De Niro at the bar, a cocktail jingling in his hand. He cups De Niro's head in his hands, then places a stubby finger on each temple, threatening to pop holes into De Niro's brain. Yet, even as the scene's victim, De Niro controls everything. His facial anticipation of the potential pain -- then his relief when it doesn't come -- has to be seen to be believed. As the movie makes all too clear, this is his night and his city.

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