Harry Fabian is the sort of sorry fellow you cringe upon hearing about; witnessing him up close may be too much. Fabian spends a too-great portion of his time inside a neighborhood tavern, Boxers, filing false injury claims on behalf of slow-witted clients, haltingly entertaining the boozing crowd, and ineptly wooing Helen (Jessica Lange), the wife of the bar's proprietor, Phil Nasseros (Cliff Gorman). The latter is the first of many bad moves, for Nasseros isn't someone to be trifled with. Nor, to an even greater extent, is Boom Boom Grossman (Alan King), the underworld boxing promoter and regular patron of the bar who gets wind that Harry is fixing to intrude on his territory (by organizing an event marking the return of club fighting) and who all but declares war when he learns that Fabian has sought the counsel of Grossman's estranged older brother, Al (Jack Warden), a retired fighter, for the promotion.
The woeful indignities proceed as fatefully and relentlessly as corpses immolating in a crematorium. The ever-borrowing Harry must first dig up $5000, which includes a visit to an infirm moneylender named Peck (played by -- who else? -- Eli Wallach), in order to get a commitment from Nasseros to cough up the bulk of the money for the event. Each loan pitch becomes more harried and hysterical. Meanwhile, Helen is itching to leave her abusive husband, open up a place of her own in the same neighborhood, and perhaps start life anew with Harry. Because she has a criminal record, Helen asks him to help her obtain a license from the State Liquor Authority and gives him the money to do it. Another bad move.
And so it goes, ad nauseam. Night and the City is the kind of movie that flatters the audience with intimations of superiority and prescience: The protagonists are such deadbeats that one is meant to feel relief never to have strayed so far off course; and each is so utterly stupid that one can see their tragic destinies landing on them like earthquake debris -- usually ions before they do. As a gritty portrayal of the Damon Runyon-style, scum-bucket element, Night and the City is too melodramatically predictable to affect. And as an example of hard-core-New-York-City filmmaking, it is singularly uncharismatic. In particular, the ending has a ludicrousness about it that almost raises its pathos to unintentional comedy, the single predictable thing that somehow manages to astonish, like an invalid falling face down on the floor while attempting to tango.
It therefore follows that the director is Irwin Winkler, an unrepentant Hollywood shlockmeister. Alas, the jarring realism that a Sidney Lumet habitually brings to his New York stories (or the whimsical hyperreality that John Cassavetes delivered in the wonderful Gloria) is quite beyond the barely tolerable Winkler. The peculiar pairing with Robert De Niro -- who, despite this showing and others like it, remains a great film actor -- had already reached a collective bottom in Guilty by Suspicion, Winkler's egregious McCarthy-era jeremiad, though I believe the new film manages to further indent the proverbial barrel.
As for the acting, it would be impossible to find a more powerful vessel to inhabit Harry Fabian's imperfections than De Niro -- not that many would care to. His performance is a spectacular array of actorish effects; it resembles an operatic diva effortlessly scaling her way up and down bel canto coloratura, a brilliant but barren spectacle. There is little sparkle in Harry's interaction with Helen, which brings me to Jessica Lange. I confess I never saw a lovelier nor more desirable woman than Lange ten years ago in Tootsie, but lately she has taken to playing soiled heroines, of which Helen Nasseros is the latest example. The character is based on a proprietor's wife the actress knew in the Seventies when she worked as a waitress at the The Lion's Head, a popular pub in Greenwich Village that serves as the inspiration for Boxers. (Based on my own experience while living in New York, there were more would-be intellectuals than boxing promoters at The Lion's Head.) Unfortunately, Lange's singular contribution is a wan smile and an alternately slatternly and sluttish appearance. If the real Helen looked like an unmade bed, give the lady an Oscar.
Conversely, the supporting actors are uniformly fine. Alan King, cast against type as a serious gangster, and especially Jack Warden, refining the curmudgeonly populist he's portrayed countless times before on the screen, are the standouts. Cliff Gorman could play sleazos in his sleep, and probably has to the best of my knowledge, but here there's a palpable charge in his acting. The intensity is present without raised decibels or grimaces. In each of these men the signs of experience and fast living on their faces have given them added resonance and weight. Only the eldest among them, Eli Wallach, seems like a trussed turkey at Thanksgiving.
There is one marvelous moment in this ephemeral drama, a moment so brief and fine it cannot go unmentioned. An elderly nun enters Boxers and begins collecting alms "for the children," ebulliently thanking all who contribute bills and coins to her cup. Nasseros goes crazy. Faster than you can screech "war" and tear up a photo of the Pope on the tube, the bartender grabs her, calls her a "cunt," and forcibly throws her out on her gluteus onto the street just as Fabian walks in. It's a brilliant nun joke, for this reason: The old lady is a foul-mouthed indigent lush in Mother Superior's rags. That's what's so frustrating about this picture: I'd love to see the unauthorized biography of that sister brought to the screen, and Night and the City just isn't it.
NIGHT AND THE CITY
Directed by Irwin Winkler; written by Richard Price; with Robert De Niro, Jessica Lange, Cliff Gorman, Alan King, Jack Warden, Barry Primus, and Eli Wallach.
Lange's contribution is a wan smile and a sluttish appearance. If the real Helen looked like an unmade bed, give the lady an Oscar.