Robert De Niro is a wuss. For all the gas about his Tribeca Productions bringing back the glory days of New York City moviemaking, one of the company’s first releases is a remake with the guts cut out. Night and the City isn’t terrible, just compromised. It might have even passed muster with the average video renter if FoxVideo hadn’t decided to release the original Night and the City (1950) to tape on the same day. Yes, the earlier film is in B&W — the kiss of death as far as home-video retailers and most of their customers are concerned. But that’s their loss: Where the remake is flabby, the original is mean; where the remake loses focus until you feel as if you’re watching a blur, the original remains more vivid than almost anything that comes out of Hollywood — or Tribeca — these days.
Both films are about Harry Fabian, and you know his type. He’s the guy at the corner of the bar, and he’s selling you a line on-well, it doesn’t matter what he’s selling, just that you check your wallet afterward. In the 1950 original, Harry (Richard Widmark) works as a ”steerer” for a London club run by fat Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) and his venal wife, Helen (Googie Withers); his gig is pointing male tourists toward a night of watered-down champagne and cheap dates. In the remake, Harry’s a New York attorney, an ambulance chaser too low-rent even to buy space on a matchbook; he holds office hours at the bar run by Phil (Cliff Gorman) and Helen (Jessica Lange). Both Harrys are spinning constantly with fast-money schemes, but they’re fooling nobody, least of all themselves. Their smiles shift on weak foundations.
In both films, Harry sees his chance to score big when he meets an ex- fighter who happens to be related to the town’s big-cheese promoter (read: gangster). Using the fighter (the kingpin’s father in the 1950 film; his brother in the remake) as a shielding partner, Harry figures he can break into the fight business without getting his legs broken. First he needs backing money, though, which he gets in a double con from both Phil and Phil’s wife — who also happens to be Harry’s lover.
Night and the City is about the ways catastrophe waits grinning for losers who dream too large. And obviously, a story that dispiriting needs to be told in a way that keeps you watching. The original film doesn’t give you a chance not to watch; from the opening shot of Widmark fleeing down back alleys to escape a creditor, director Jules Dassin ushers us into a skewed, stylized London underworld. Physiognomies are grotesque — Widmark’s taut death’s head, Sullivan’s gross bulk, Withers’ predatory stare — and shadows creep at vertiginous angles. This is film noir drunk on itself. But for all the baroque touches, the movie’s never effete. There’s a fatal wrestling match toward the end that’s daringly prolonged and played out in near silence; you wince at the sheer physicality of it.
By contrast, De Niro’s Night and the City seems to play through a haze. The movie has two things going for it: a script full of New York vinegar by Richard Price and a lead performance by mini-mogul De Niro. This Harry Fabian is cousin to King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin — slicker and smarter, but still showing the sweat of panic and never, ever, shutting up. Price has written his star some marvelous fast-ball monologues that sound as if every survival impulse in the man’s brain were hot-wired together. Unfortunately, nothing else in the movie feels that alive.
The direction by veteran producer Irwin Winkler (Rocky and sequels) is peppier than it was in 1991’s dire Guilty by Suspicion, but to quote George Bush, Winkler doesn’t quite have the ”vision thing.” New York never becomes a character in its own right, the way London does in the original; you don’t get a sense of terrain. In fact, this Manhattan feels small-time. Why does everyone in town seem to hang out at the same restaurant?
Worse, Winkler, Price, and De Niro sell out the original film’s bleak soul. They’ve made the plot twists depressingly predictable: the fate of the kingpin’s brother (Jack Warden) might just as well be stamped on his forehead. And after letting the sky rain down on Harry throughout the film, the filmmakers give him a last-minute reprieve that sends him off into the sunset with Helen. I’ve got nothing against happy endings when they’re earned, but this is a bait and switch worthy of Harry Fabian. And it’s just about as effective. 1950 version: B+ 1992 version: C-