Ubiquitous, menacing-avuncular character-icon Robert Duvall has directed only four films in 28 years, but all evidence a sensibility virtually unique in American movies. Whether hanging out with Nebraskan family farmers (1975’s We’re Not the Jet Set), Gypsy vagrants (1983’s Angelo My Love), Southern Pentecostals (1997’s The Apostle), or low-rent Argentine tango divas, Duvall is actually interested in real people and real places; he defers judgment, implying that we should, too. He may be the most Cassavetesian film voice around, and typically, Assassination Tango often sidesteps its plot for long scenes in which Duvall—as a hood on a whack-assignment in Buenos Aires, but also, in many ways, as himself—simply interviews the dance-lusty natives.
The film is scrupulously posture-free. Duvall’s John J. is an unromanticized working guy with a dubious trade who supports his girlfriend (Kathy Baker) and her daughter, and whose neighborhood is the Brooklyn of pigeon-shit rooftops, bodegas, and sidewalk confabs. Sent to kill a retired general we’re told precious little about, John happily blends into the scenery, particularly once his mark is waylaid out of town, expanding his “in and out in three days” job into a waiting game. Duvall’s grungy hit man’s worldview, corrupt in the moment but passionately focused in the long term, is ever-present, but soon the pop-eyed exploration of tango clubs, and a particular bailarina (Luciana Pedraza), becomes the film’s focus. It’s as if Duvall, with a Wiseman-ic yen for time-sharing with the forgotten classes, devised the film as an excuse for intercultural inquiry. Dramatically lopsided, Assassination Tango is a spontaneous life-slice in which John J. (standing in for Duvall) fumbles like a besotted granddad toward empathic connections. That it doesn’t “work” is a measure of its sincerity.
On another page expressionistically, Jules Dassin’s epi-noir classic Night and the City (1950) reappears in all of its arabesque shadowiness. But is it an authentic noir? Richard Widmark’s self-deceiving dreamer is far from the prototypical, fate-slammed noir Everyman, London is positively anti-noir-ish in its touristy quaintness (only occasionally does the on-location shoot find Blitz rubble), and the supporting cast of elocutionist Brits (Francis L. Sullivan, Googie Withers, etc.) reek of Old Vic bit parts. However defined, the movie’s a moody piece of Wellesian chiaroscuro (shot by Max Greene, né Mutz Greenbaum) and an occasionally discomfiting underworld plunge, particularly when the mob-controlled wrestling milieu explodes into a kidney-punching donnybrook.
Handed to the young director by producer Darryl Zanuck as a vehicle to get him out of the country before the HUAC hammer hit him, as it did by way of warbler Edward Dmytryk a year or so later, Night is therefore the first Dassin film centered on a Yankee expat lost in an oblivious Europe. Tellingly, the film’s doomy final quarter rolls ineluctably on as if Widmark’s hapless, hunted club tout is already dead, an American ghost searching for an elusive Old World sanctuary.