WIDE ANGLE

The Eye on Film

There's nothing in Robert De Niro's history to suggest psychopathy. Born in New York's Greenwich Village to a couple of bohemian painters, the young De Niro may have bunked off school to act, but he spent his youth working the cosily middle-brow "dinner theatre" circuit and applied himself intensely to the rigours of Method.

The post-Godfather II De Niro may have been picked up at Rome airport once on suspicion of terrorism, but that had more to do with waggish paparazzi who told police that they were "chasing an important gangster" than any innate threat posed by the unnassuming 5ft 10ins actor. So why is it that De Niro seems stuck on a casting conveyor belt of psychotic stalkers, paranoiacs and assassins?

It may be that De Niro just doesn't have the looks for romance. In the 1970s when Redford and Newman were heading the ranks of leading men, De Niro was carving out his niche as a hood in films like Mean Streets. He's been a violent threat to audiences ever since, in The Deerhunter and Raging Bull, in the Untouchables as Al Capone, in GoodFellas and Angel Heart, and as Max Cady in Cape Fear. The actor has said that good or only positive characters are "unbelievable and boring", but every now and then he has tried to break free. Without much success. Who cares to remember Stanley and Iris, where Jane Fonda teaches De Niro to read, the risible Falling in Love or dreadful comedy We're No Angels? No, if it's psychos you want, De Niro's your man.

In this week's The Fan, De Niro plays baseball addict Gil Renard, a man obsessed with Wesley Snipes' sports star. This is Travis Bickle, the prototypical screen stalker of Taxi Driver, transposed onto a screenplay that exploits the current hysteria over fans and their celebrity prey. Tony Scott makes a dog's dinner of directing, but De Niro is electrifying in a peaked cap that would make most people look jaunty, but which acquires instant menace perched atop De Niro's combustible brain. Still, giving Renard the job of knife salesman seems to make the part somewhat overdetermined, pushing that most serious of actors towards self-parody.

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