Screenplay by Richard Price, based on the Jo Eisinger screenplay adapted from the novel by Gerald Kersh
Following in the tradition of Bloodbrothers, Streets of Gold and “Arena Brains,” Night and the City is the final Richard Price film to have never been widely released on DVD in America despite featuring impressive A-list talent both behind and in front of the camera. (Unlike Bloodbrothers and Streets of Gold, Night doesn’t seem to have ever been released in widescreen on any home video format–made-to-order, import or otherwise.) Like the others, it can’t really be considered a lost classic, but it’s probably the best of the bunch, and I’d guess the most likely to someday get resurrected out of VHS purgatory.
The movie is a remake of the 1950 film noir of the same name and stars Robert De Niro as Harry Fabian, a fast-talking New York hustler who makes a living as an ambulance-chasing lawyer but dreams of bigger scores. When he sets his sights on becoming a boxing promoter he not only draws the ire of a gangster-ish rival promoter (Alan King) but also risks alienating everyone around him–including his secret lover Helen (Jessica Lange) and her short-fuse bartender husband Phil (Cliff Gorman)–as he scrambles for the cash he needs to make his hare-brained scheme work.
Martin Scorsese was originally supposed to direct, though I’ve seen conflicting reports on who originally brought the idea to him; Price says the suggestion came from French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, while this Los Angeles Times article seems to imply it was De Niro who got the ball rolling. Either way, in 1985 Scorsese hired Price to write a draft of the script. Jules Dassin, the director of the 1950 film, never read the 1938 Gerald Kersh novel his movie was based on and apparently upset Kersh with some of the liberties he took, so this could’ve been an opportunity to make an adaptation closer to the source material. (The book’s pretty great in its own right, though it’s also soaked in the racism and misogyny of its time and place.) But, hilariously, Price says that he never read the book either until after he had written his screenplay. (He also says that he only watched the original film twice and “never thought [it] was that great a movie to begin with,” though I’ve got to disagree with him there.)
Scorsese ended up finding the script “too Scorsesean”–“like a compendium of Scorsese’s Greatest Hits”–and decided to drop the project rather than repeat himself, though he was impressed enough that he went back to Price when he needed a writer for The Color of Money. The project lay dormant for several years until Price’s Streets of Gold director Joe Roth became chairman of 20th Century Fox, at which point Price asked Roth to shop the unproduced script around. It ended up in the hands of producer/director Irwin Winkler, and the finished film finally hit screens seven years after Price had originally started working on it.
You can see why Price stuck with the project for so long, as it foregrounds themes and subject matter that have always been close to his heart. Harry doesn’t have the intense self-consciousness of the quintessential Price protagonist, but, like Kenny in Ladies’ Man or Peter in The Breaks, he’s a compulsive joker who can’t help trying to win people over with a constant stream of one-liners. (“No can do? What’s no can do, what’s that, a Chinese appetizer?”) And the movie’s seedy, rough-and-tumble NYC setting, which is emphasized heavily from the opening scene’s farcical mugging onwards, is also very much in Price’s wheelhouse.
The execution is a mixed bag. It’s got a great cast; apart from the perfomers I’ve already mentioned, it features Eli Wallach (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) as a politely menacing loan shark, Jack Warden (12 Angry Men and like a million other things, you’d recognize him, trust me) as an aging boxer Harry tempts back into the ring, and even a certain TV talk show host who plays himself in a fun cameo role. (Amusingly, the original script reserved that cameo for Alan King, who was apparently deemed too good of an actor and/or not famous enough for such a small stunt appearance.)
And Winkler’s staging has a lot of energy to it, often employing dramatic push-ins that suggest he’d been studying Scorsese, several of whose movies Winkler produced.
But the film tries to walk a fine line between comedy and drama, a balance it has difficulty maintaining. It starts out by setting an exaggerated, slapstick-y satirical tone defined mainly by De Niro’s performance, which involves lots of broad, theatrical movement and the frequent flashing of a Rupert Pupkin-esque shit-eating grin.
Everything works well enough in that mode, but the more serious dramatic moments, as when Harry delivers his monologue about why making it in boxing means so much to him, kind of feel like they come out of nowhere, though I can’t tell if the awkwardness of those transitions is due to Winkler’s direction or if it was inherent to Price’s script. And there are some choices that just seem odd, like the soundtrack’s focus on ’50s and ’60s rock and R&B despite the fact that the movie takes place in the present day–though, even more unfortunately, songs like “Woolly Bully” and “The Great Pretender” actually come off sounding less dated than James Newton Howard’s synth-tinged original score. Plus, as the film’s New York Times review points out, the sound mixing often drowns out the snappy dialogue.
Again, though, there’s a lot to enjoy in this movie even if it doesn’t all quite hang together. And it was apparently successful enough that Price would continue to be hired to work on similar film noir remakes, like Kiss of Death and Ransom, throughout the ’90s.
A few other notes:
• Night and the City offers yet another Obligatory Richard Price Cameo! This time around Price plays a doctor tasked with examining Harry’s fighters before a match.
• I have to make note of one of the film’s most memorable isn’t-NYC-awful scenes, in which a nun who tries to panhandle at Phil’s bar gets called a “fuckin’ cunt” before being violently thrown out the door, only to tell Harry “Go fuck yourself!” when he offers to help her sue. There’s a quick line of dialogue implying she’s only pretending to be a nun, but it’s easy to miss and doesn’t come until after we’ve already seen the poor woman get shoved onto the sidewalk. Bonus: Watch closely and you can see her give Phil the finger from outside.
• Harry’s line “Guy goes like this, five people die in Oklahoma!” was also used by the character Sean Touhey in Clockers.
• Like “Arena Brains,” Night and the City includes a VCR reference (Harry’s shopkeeper friend tries to get him to sell a shipment of them for him) that unintentionally emphasizes the movie’s current VHS-only status.
Next week: De Niro returns to join Bill Murray and Uma Thurman in the cast of 1993’s Mad Dog and Glory.