Harlem Nights (1989)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

USA, 1989. , . Screenplay by Eddie Murphy. Cinematography by . Produced by , . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by , .

Eddie Murphy makes his directorial debut (at the time of this writing his only time performing that duty) with this gangster tale reminiscent of 1930s crime dramas. It begins when a streetwise kid walks into a back-alley club’s game of craps and stops the owner, Sugar Ray () from getting killed by an angry gambler. Twenty years later, Ray is running a swanky after-hours joint and the kid has grown into his second in command, the still streetwise but much more swankily dressed Quick (Murphy).

Their establishment is doing so well that local fat cat gangster Bugsy Calhoune (), who owns a number of rival clubs, wants to take them over, getting the cop he has in his pocket, Cantone () to inform the boys that they will now pay him a generous cut of their weekly income. Ray and Quick know that there’s not much they can do to prevent it happening, but they can pull a heist on the bad guy and skip town, so they set about coming up with a plan to have Calhoune lose big money at an upcoming boxing match. The only threat to the smooth execution of this scheme is Quick’s attraction to Calhoune’s moll () and his own youthful, spontaneous temper.

Much as the plot is brilliantly executed, Murphy’s comedic tone is all over the map, sometimes re-enacting a retro gangster picture with pinpointed accuracy while other times indulging himself (particularly in his performance) in goofy caricatures; there’s an eccentric vibrancy to the beautiful production and costume design (the latter earning Joe I. Tompkins a deserved Oscar nomination) that feels like Murphy wants to make something magnificent after a series of crowd-pleasing concept comedies, but then he throws in a silly caricature or one of his own (admittedly very funny) modern expressions that we have come to love from him, as if he doesn’t trust himself to really pull off his own version of Once Upon a Time In America.

This is felt most strongly in the contradiction between the star’s performance, which is among his weakest, and the star power being delivered by Pryor, who is magnificent, but Murphy also doesn’t have a feel for the dialogue or behaviour of the period. The execution of the narrative is tons of fun and the whole cast of characters are all gems (especially as the club’s madam, as Ray’s blind croupier and as a VERY emotional gangster), all of them given plenty of opportunity to shoot off hilarious, rapid-fire dialogue throughout the many ensemble scenes.

Academy Award Nomination: Best Costume Design

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