Robert De Niro acts up a storm in Night and the City at least, he looks as if he's acting up a storm. As Harry Fabian, a loquacious, sleazy-as-they-come New York lawyer who can't open his mouth without trying to launch a scam, he's like a man on an amphetamine jag. He spits out Richard Price's gabby dialogue as if someone had put a gun to his head and said, ''Take so much as a breath between words, and I'll kill you.'' De Niro certainly seems to be enjoying himself; he plays Harry the chatterbox hustler with a nervous downtown strut and a con artist's array of phony smiles. He has a few scabrously funny moments, as when Harry, in a restaurant, makes a fumbling attempt to sweet- talk New York TV host Regis Philbin (playing himself). De Niro lets us know that Harry is a self-deluding fool: The motor-mouth is running, but nobody's home. The trouble is, that's true of the performance as well-it's nothing but surface animation. De Niro is so mechanically relentless he's like a replicant.
Night and the City is a remake of the superb 1950 film noir (it's unavailable on video), which was set in London and starred Richard Widmark in a thrilling performance. With his bedazzled desperation, his layers of feverish neuroticism, Widmark, fluorescent hair flying off his forehead, seemed to presage an entire school of volatile urban angst. More intensely, perhaps, than even the young Brando, he brought the jittery spontaneity of Method acting to the big screen. The new version, which updates the story to contemporary Manhattan, makes the frazzled Harry an ambulance chaser instead of a generic huckster. Nevertheless, it sticks fairly closely to the original. Once again, Harry, humiliated by his small-time status, hatches a reckless plot to find backing for a grimy sports competition (this time it's boxing instead of wrestling). So desperate is he to prove himself that, in an act of suicidal audacity, he goes up against the crooked promoter Boom Boom Grossman (Alan King). As insurance, he allies himself with Boom Boom's older brother (Jack Warden), a former boxing champion who despises his gangster sibling.
The director, Irwin Winkler, has created a much sturdier pedestal for De Niro than he did in last year's moribund Guilty by Suspicion. Shot entirely on New York locations, Night and the City has a punchy, big-city vitality. Much of the movie takes place in Harry's local bar, where we meet an entertaining roster of supporting characters. They range from King (terrific) as the glowering Boom Boom to Cliff Gorman (ditto) as the bartender who double- crosses Harry by promising to front his deal. As Gorman's wife, who's seeing Harry on the side, Jessica Lange is a little blurrier (but then so is her role).
In Night and the City, we're basically watching a chintzy opportunist receive his comeuppance; the drama lies in the demonic intensity of his self- destruction. This is raw, fatalistic stuff, and to keep it from being depressing it's essential that we see the misplaced passion that fuels Harry's penny-ante dreams. Passion, though, is what's missing from De Niro's performance as, indeed, it has been from so many of his performances during the last decade. Unlike Widmark, De Niro never squirms; he just seems like a camp dufus. For all its promising elements, Night and the City confronts us, yet again, with one of the most dismaying paradoxes in contemporary movies: that the actor who once seemed the heir to Brando, Clift, and, yes, Widmark the actor who once got so far inside his roles that he just about detonated the screen now plays characters who don't seem to have any inner life at all. B-