From the Archive: Night and the City

This is one of those films from the old reviewing days that I remember only vaguely. Clearly I liked it fairly well. In fact, this review kind of makes me want to watch it again. I guess that means, for all the writing weaknesses I see throughout — led by opening and closing sentences that both make me wince a little — the review does its job.

When he’s really cooking, Robert De Niro is an actor that can instantly electrify the screen. The latest film to boast the talents of De Niro is “Night and the City,” and, as usual, he delivers an acting job that is a delight to watch. But unlike previous efforts that usually find him focusing on the barely suppressed rage and inner torment of his characters, this film finds him reveling in the role of an eternal loser who’s hopelessly optimistic.

De Niro plays Harry Fabian, a two-bit attorney who specializes in chasing ambulances and cheap schemes. Fabian is ready to break away from the tawdry life he’d led and thinks he’s found the perfect outlet when he begins planning a local boxing tournament featuring fighters from the gym in the middle of his battered New York neighborhood. Fabian sees it as a way to make a quick buck, but there’s something more to it, as well. This is his bit for respectability, for a small sense of honor.

Based on a 1950 film which starred Richard Widmark, “Night and the City” has the look and feel of modernized film noir. The locales are dingy, the characters are all incredibly tough, and the mood is usually grim. Plus there’s a sleekness and a very welcome rapid fire pacing that marks it as a film of the nineties. The movie’s breathless pace matches the character at its center. Harry Fabian is a fast-talking, frantic salesman whose most troublesome product is himself. De Niro injects the character with astonishing vitality. Fabian always seems to be handling a dozen problems at one, plugging holes in the flimsy dam that holds back the tides of failure even as new ones are bursting open. It’s an infectiously energetic piece of acting.

That intense drive helps the movie coast over some of its weaker points, including some annoying plot holes and a few vaguely sketched out characters and relationships. But even if the screenplay sometimes falters on storyline points, it always delivers sharp, funny dialogue.

The supporting cast makes a strong impression, as well, especially comedian Alan King as a menacing rival boxing promoter who is angered by De Niro’s attempts to move in on his territory. Also fine is Cliff Gorman as a fierce bartender who De Niro looks to for backing, and Jessica Lange, playing Gorman’s wife, who eventually abandons him in favor of De Niro’s dreams. That’s the key to success of the movie. No matter how dismal the lives of these characters are, they are always striving for something more: finding a boxing tournament or a new business to cling to as their ray of hope that will lead to redemption and happiness. And no matter how shady the character is, we’re rooting for them all the way.