FILM / The sincerest form of battery: Robert De Niro in Night and the City

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Night and the City (18) is the sort of remake routinely dismissed as 'unnecessary', as if films could be anything else. It's true that the scriptwriter, Richard Price, has taken away the two features that made Jules Dassin's 1950 original memorable - its London setting, unusual for a film noir, and its wrestling milieu - but he happens to be one of the most talented writers now working in the movies (he wrote Sea of Love) and the gains handsomely outweigh the losses. The film also offers audiences the bizarre opportunity of watching two masterclasses in progress simultaneously, one of them in reverse - Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange giving fine displays of film acting, while Irwin Winkler behind the camera pays insistent homage to the director he most admires while getting every borrowing wrong, tipping his hat so often that it falls over his eyes.

Price's screenplay is in no rush to reveal its tone, which turns out to be one of agreeably grungey comedy. New York in the movie is a city of great ugliness, but an ugliness that holds people captive. The film is set in and around Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, but the pleasure of city life is no more than the pleasure of being at the hub of a foul wheel. The people the city breeds don't have a lot of gloss about them. Harry (De Niro) the shyster lawyer and Helen (Lange) the bar owner's brutalised wife may be lovers, but they aren't above using each other. The closest they get to a romantic encounter is a knee-trembler in a doorway, but Smokey Robinson and the Miracles sing 'You Really Got a Hold on Me' on the soundtrack, and it becomes a moment of grubby soaring. Even when Helen at one point offers to make Harry breakfast, all she means is that she'll pick up the phone and have it delivered. This is a city of fast food and the fast buck, rapid turnover of people and emotions.

The film's first sequence, revolving round the bar where Helen works, is like the first scene of a play, a David Mamet play. The bar's name - Boxers - hints that Harry will be drawn out of his familiar dishonesties into trying his hand as a fight promoter, and all the parties to the drama are already in place. There's Helen, and her nasty husband (Cliff Gorman). There's Boom Boom Grossman (Alan King), whom Harry will antagonise any moment now, eating in the back room, and there's the bar crowd that Harry plays to when he phones people to set up phoney injury claims.

The element of theatre is appropriate, because Harry is only playing at being the heavy. There's a nice moment in this scene, where Harry pulls a friend's arm round his own neck, to give the impression that he's being held back from a violent outburst, so that he can mouth off on equal terms with the dissatisfied client who's being led off by policemen, and who really is being held back. Harry's aggression is all tactical, but he's forgotten that effective feinting depends on being able to land a real punch now and then.

Harry is full of nervous energy and compulsive rhetoric. 'Do you believe getting into a cab driven by that ton of bad brains?' he remarks, as if the person who had just sold the aforementioned ton of bad brains his dodgy cab licence was someone else altogether. Even before Harry admits to a lie, his way of protesting his truthfulness - 'I swear on my goldfish's eye' is a fine example - gives the game away. It's a shame that Price's screenplay gives Harry, in one speech, a bad conscience over a particular bit of finagling in the past, because the rest of the film makes it clear that he isn't seeing the light when he tries to go straight, he's just losing the knack of corruption. He's not righteous, just tired. When he's had his rather bogus moment of refusing to be bought off, Price has him ask, 'Just for the record, how much were you going to pay me?' From the audience's point of view, it isn't any sort of integrity that is Harry's redeeming characteristic, but something more comic - the falseness of his falseness.

When a man is six inches out of his depth, that can be tragic. But when he's six miles out of his depth, his situation becomes strangely funny. Robert De Niro takes this opportunity for some mild self-parody, and some touches of a striking lightness. When Harry realises that his bluff has been called on a phoney claim, and he'll have to make good his threat to go all the way to court, De Niro produces not his habitual Method-actor uncertainty - what-am-I-doing? - but a subtle ripple of pure disconcertedness.

Heaviness of touch is reserved by the director exclusively for the camera. Clearly, Richard Price's script has echoes of other films that Robert De Niro has been involved with - when Harry tries to schmooze celebrities in Elaine's, we're back in The King of Comedy, and as the disasters pile up exhilaratingly at the climax of the story there are reminiscences of the last stretch of GoodFellas - but it's still bizarre that Irwin Winkler should choose to borrow so many mannerisms from Martin Scorsese movies, and then mess them up. The opening shot of Night and the City, filmed at the level of Harry's knees, harks back to the image of De Niro's shoes that opened New York, New York. The soundtrack of classic rock tries to do a Mean Streets, without the careful planning and editing that would be required. Winkler even borrows the boom-cuts from Cape Fear - where a scene will start with an amplified boom on the soundtrack from a door opening or closing, or from a loud noise held over from the last scene - a film that many critics thought showed Scorsese's dynamism coming close to self-parody in the first place.

There is an infallible wrongness to the way Winkler moves his camera, to put things in italics that are already, thanks to a fine script, perfectly clear. He compares to Scorsese as a sedentary man on amphetamines would compare to an athlete or a dancer. The irony is that Winkler was one of Scorsese's producers on New York, New York, on Raging Bull and on GoodFellas. All those years, he stood behind Scorsese's shoulder and learnt nothing. There's a line in the screenplay of Night and the City that sums up Harry's character, but does double duty for the film's director. 'I'm like a shark. I stop moving, I die,' says Harry, and the veteran villain he's trying to convince says just three words. 'Sharks have teeth.'

(Photograph omitted)