In 'Night,' a small potato gobbled up in Big Apple

October 23, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Harry Fabian, attorney at law, has the gray pallor of a life lived DTC in the shadows of buildings, breathing noxious fumes, dodging cabs and checking pay phones for quarters. He is homo New Yorkus, man of Gotham, a little rat in a city of big rats. In Harry Fabian, attorney at law, has the gray pallor of a life lived in the shadows of buildings, breathing noxious fumes, dodging cabs and checking pay phones for quarters. He is homo New Yorkus, man of Gotham, a little rat in a city of big rats. In his very accents are the discordances and jangled melodies of the city that invented him. His face is naturally asquint, as he computes angles, and he's a walking porcupine of hostilities as his feral nose sniffs the air for the tang of cash. He seethes: with resentments and frustrations, with hopes and delusions, but most of all with hunger -- he wants so much, as he puts it, to count. His cri de coeur has the majestic pathos of any of the world's approximately 2 billion little guys who'll never get there: "Why can't I be the man for once?"

If you have to ask, you'll never make it.

Harry seems to be played by the Rupert Pupkin who was played by Robert De Niro all those years back in Martin Scorsese's great "King of Comedy." He's the main character in "Night and the City," a title derived from a Jules Dassin film noir of the '50s but entirely too ominous for the lightweight pleasures to be found in the remake. It was directed by Irwin Winkler, trying hard to be the Martin Scorsese for whom he produced so many films, including "King of Comedy." In other words, everyone in it is trying to be someone else. Jessica Lange is trying to be Ida Lupino.

When first we meet De Niro's Harry, he's smoking up business off frivolous lawsuits to be settled out of court for nuisance fees. He even tries to lift a grand or two off Boom Boom Grossman (a nasty Alan King), the fight promoter. Boom Boom invites him to drop dead and the scam -- Harry's client was pushed in a bar by one of Boom Boom's fighters -- dies in court without a whimper; later, Boom Boom's glare melts Harry like a chocolate soldier under a sunlamp. It's a shark dismissing a guppy.

But in his brush with boxing culture, Harry gets his big idea. You almost see a light bulb come on over his head. He decides to "re-create" the heady days of local boxing, New York style. First he has to take out some insurance against the possibility of the primordial Boom Boom bangbanging him into the next world; he takes as his partner Boom Boom's brother Al (Jack Warden) whose rusty old heart may go into vapor lock at any second (in which case Boom Boom will really be ticked). He tries to promote the necessary money from his "friends," notably Phil the bartender whose wife he is not coincidently sleeping with. This fun couple is played by Cliff Gorman and Lange, though it would have helped if Lange's New Yawk accent had stayed in place permanently.

Basically, "Night and the City" is the story of a small-timer trying desperately to scheme his way into the big time where everyone knows he doesn't belong and can't survive. It's like watching a moth try and fly into a flame. When he finally makes it, you don't exactly weep with pity and terror. It wants to be tragedy played as low farce against a vivid sense of the world's busiest, most neurotic city, but it's really just an insect play.

Screenwriter Richard Price, who wrote the memorable "Sea of Love" and the most overrated novel of our time, "Clockers," has a good ear for dialogue, and the densely profane arias in "Night and the City," performed at high weaselly despair by De Niro, may be worth the price of admission. But generally, "Night and the City" doesn't really work.

Winkler crams his compositions with color and bustle and hustle; this is the least-still movie ever made. Every shot's a Bruegel masterpiece, New York style. But the story is both too busy (with melodramatic tropes from the '50s) and not busy enough -- no true character growth, no moment of self-awareness among any of the characters. The De Niro thing -- that fast-talking, delusionary New York shtick -- is amusing but by now archly familiar. He tries to give Harry a little bit of self-mockery, to let us in on how much Harry enjoys his scams, but somehow he's never able to make us care about Harry. The trouble with Harry is that the world doesn't care if he lives or dies. Include me in.

'Night and the City'

Starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange.

Directed by Irwin Winkler.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated R.

** 1/2 stars

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