`Night and the City' Recalls Best of Film Noir

De Niro provides jittery momentum to this dark tale. FILM REVIEW

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`NIGHT and the City" is the kind of title movies used to have, in days when an evening of film noir meant two hours of mean streets, rain-drenched pavements, characters as unsavory as their crimes, and labyrinthine plots full of spider women and marked men.

It's no surprise that Robert De Niro's new picture with that title - now opening in theaters after its premiere at the recent New York Film Festival - is a remake of a noir classic. The original was directed by Jules Dassin in 1950, back when noir was still a major Hollywood style. It starred Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian, an American hustler in London, scheming his way to fame and fortune as a wrestling promoter.

The new version is different in some ways: It takes place in New York, it's filmed in dark-toned color instead of noirish black and white, and Harry's now a lawyer who dreams of earning a fortune by setting up a prizefighting enterprise with a broken-down former champ as the main attraction.

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What remains the same between the two pictures is the hard-driving power of the story, the occasional creepiness in some of its incidents, and the excellence of the supporting cast. Back in 1950 it was Gene Tierney, Hugh Marlowe, and Herbert Lom who gave Mr. Widmark a sparkling background for his star performance; in 1992 it's Jessica Lange, Jack Warden, and Eli Wallach who provide Mr. De Niro with the same sturdy support.

Also consistent in both versions is the high-energy appeal of Harry as the main character. De Niro plays him as a jittery, fast-talking trickster whose nonstop aggressiveness masks a vulnerable and insecure nature.

"I'm like a shark," he says to a money man whose help he desperately needs at one point in the story. "I gotta keep moving or I'll die."

"Yeah," replies the mobster. "But sharks got teeth. You got no teeth!" That hint of inner susceptibility is what makes Harry lovable even while he's driving you crazy with his endless tricks, cons, and flimflams.

The new edition of "Night and the City" was directed by Irwin Winkler, a veteran movie producer who also directed the recent "Guilty by Suspicion," about Hollywood's anticommunist witchhunt in the 1950s. "Night and the City" is leagues above "Guilty by Suspicion" in sheer filmmaking skill, telling Harry's story with a speed and momentum that almost match Harry's own.

Mr. Winkler also does a fine job of guiding the performances. De Niro is close to his best as the ever-present, ever-talking Harry, while Ms. Lange is daringly unglamorous as the bartender he loves. Cliff Gorman, who hasn't been around much lately, is perfectly cast as Lange's long-suffering husband.

Equally good are Mr. Warden and Mr. Wallach as the aging boxer and the mob-connected money supplier, respectively, and Alan King couldn't be better as the prizefighter's loving but dangerous brother.

The screenplay was written by Richard Price, based on Gerald Kersh's novel. The gifted Tak Fujimoto did the quintessentially urban cinematography - virtually all the shooting was done on Manhattan locations - and James Newton Howard composed the score.

"Night and the City" isn't a pretty film, and it certainly isn't genteel. But noir movies aren't supposed to be - and the hard-boiled energy of old-fashioned melodrama is what "Night and the City" is all about.

* `Night and the City' is rated r for strong language; it also contains violence and sexuality, and a rather sordid atmosphere pervades much of the story.

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