The Public Eye (1992, dir. Howard Franklin)
Anyone who’s ever flipped through a Life magazine photo retrospective while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room most certainly has seen the work of Arthur Fellig, a photographer better known to the world by his nickname, Weegee:
Armed with a Graflex Speed Graphic camera, Fellig spent the 1930s and 40s prowling the streets of Manhattan’s in search of subject matter, taking stark black-and-white photos of urban life in all its extremes, from pure joy to violent death, from mafioso to the haut monde:
Although Weegee died in 1968, it wasn’t until decades later that writer-director Howard Franklin, inspired by a showing of Fellig’s photographs, decided to bring Weegee’s story to the big screen. Problem was, Fellig’s descendants weren’t interested in granting rights to his story. So Franklin did the next best thing–he wrote a fictional drama featuring a photographer very much in the mold of Weegee, a sad sack named Leon Bernstein, better known to friends, colleagues and enemies simply as “Bernzy” or “The Great Bernzini.”
Joe Pesci, hot off his Oscar for Goodfellas, was cast as Bernzy, certainly an obvious choice physically, but dramatically? That seemed a bit of a stretch; after all, Pesci’s niche was supporting roles, often portraying violent hotheads or laugh-generating schlubs (or sometimes a combination of both), the two personalities illustrated by these clips from 1990’s Goodfellas and 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2:
That said, I’m happy to report that, as the lead in The Public Eye, Pesci knocks it out of the park, flawlessly injecting real pathos (and a touch of humor) into this forlorn and conflicted man.
Director Franklin was similarly successful in stretching his chops–until The Public Eye his claim to fame had been a couple of produced screenplays (The Name of the Rose, Someone to Watch Over Me) and, in 1990, a co-directing gig (with Bill Murray) of the underrated 1990 comedy Quick Change. But Franklin, like Pesci, adapts to the dramatic tone of the piece quite effortlessly, announcing as much with his somber opening credit sequence (accompanied by a fine, plaintive score by composer Mark Isham) that features sheet after sheet of photographic paper slowly revealing their imagery–some of it tragic, some joyful–as they float in a bath of developing liquid:
Bernzy is introduced forthwith, seen plying his trade at a crime scene, arriving even before the police. Seems that, back in the day, timing was the name of the freelance game; show up second to a newspaper’s photography desk and you can forget about getting paid–no matter how compelling your prints, you’ve been scooped. And Bernzy, who listens to a jerryrigged police scanner 24/7 (in his car, in his apartment, while sleeping) is both renown and vilified for scooping everyone. Not only does he arrive first on-scene, not only does he have an innate knowledge of what makes a great, dramatic shot (at one point he tells one of the cops examining the body to nudge the dead guy’s hat into the frame, explaining “People like to see the dead guy’s hat.”), he’s also got a mini-darkroom set up in the trunk of his car to move along the development process:
Despite his sometimes lurid subject matter, Bernzy is an artist, his palette all of New York, both its grit and beauty. As such, he sees the things in a unique way, anything and everything a possible subject, a worldview demonstrated beautifully by Franklin and his cinematographer, the great Peter Suschitsky, by switching the film stock to B/W and cranking down the speed as Bernzy drives along, eyes out the window as his police scanner chatters in the background, his brain processing what might make worthwhile compositions:
Not everyone is ready to celebrate Bernzy as an artist, though; upon meeting with H.R. Rineman, New York’s premier publisher of high-end photography books (played by Chicago’s own Del Close, who–fun fact!–upon his death in 1999, bequeathed his skull to the Goodman Theatre to be used for Yorick in its production of Hamlet…or so the legend goes.), he’s told they will not be purchasing his portfolio, which, while demonstrating technical proficiency, is nothing more than “a most admirable picture book about New York.”
“No, you’re wrong,” says Bernzy, making his case. “Still lifes, naked women getting out of tubs, fruit on a plate–it’s a photo, let’s pretend it’s a painting–let’s face it, you’ve printed enough of those books already. No, this is the book. Come on, let’s show those guys.”
“May I suggest you’re not being fair to the photographers we publish?”
“Yeah, right. Of course, I’d like to see them get a shot like this one here, for instance, where the fire truck is in front of you and behind you have a burning building. So you have light coming at you from every which way. And you have these two poor women here, watching their whole life go up in smoke.”
“What I see here is a batch of pictures too sensational, too vulgar, frankly, to justify printing a book of fine photography,” says Rineman, finally revealing his–and the industry’s–bias. “Please listen, Mr. Bernstein. You know, the men who do what you do don’t usually feel the need rationalize like you, much less be celebrated for it.”
“Nobody does what I do…nobody.”
Yes, Bernzy, like so many truly talented artists, is a bit chesty about his skills. Deep down, though? It’s obvious he’s stung by the rejection.
And if the publishing rejection wasn’t bad enough, early in the film it’s also revealed that Bernzy is incredibly lonely, another trait artfully introduced via B/W and slo-mo when Bernzy, in a diner for a cup of coffee, stares at a soldier and his girl necking in a booth:
And while Bernzy’s interest is ostensibly in service of the beautiful photograph taking shape in his head, there’s little doubt he’s also haunted by real longing, which, much to his chagrin, he seems to have telegraphed to a fellow diner:
“That’s not very polite,” says a plain-looking woman, taking the stool next to his. “I know how it is. I works nights myself.”
Bernzy attempts to set her straight. “Professional interest. See.” He lifts his camera, takes a picture of the couple. “Tomorrow he sails. That’s the caption.”
The woman’s not buying; she knows a thing or two about loneliness herself. “How much you got on you?” she asks, revealing her calling.
“My wife wouldn’t like it,” says Bernzy, standing to leave.
“Honey, you’re not married,” she says. “And you don’t have a girl. I saw how you were looking at those two. Your socks don’t even match.”
Between his appearance, strange work hours and sad little apartment scattered with photographic equipment and dozens of boxes with negatives with labels such as “alleys,” “poverty,” “cops,” “stabbings,” “boxers” and “accidents,” landing a girl doesn’t seem to be in Bernzy’s immediate future.
What is in his immediate future is a meeting at Society, a glitzy, high-class nightclub, the kind of place New York’s elite go to have cocktails while listening to Cab Calloway, the kind of place a regular joe like Bernzy feels he doesn’t belong despite an invitation from the owner. The club’s doorman, Danny, shares Bernzy’s low opinion of himself, making Bernzy enter through the kitchen. (Those with sharp eyes will notice the aforementioned Danny as Jared Harris, son of famed Irish thespian Richard Harris and himself a fine character actor, more recently playing Lane Price in Mad Men, Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Ulysses S. Grant in Lincoln, among others.)
The club’s maître d’ is similarly disposed to treat Bernsy like crap, smugly asking if he has a reservation, to which Bernsy offers up this zinger: “No, but it’s obvious you do.” Society‘s beautiful proprietress, Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey, before too much plastic surgery transformed her into the Blob from Gigglesnort Hotel), is much more welcoming, leaving her guests to escort Bernzy to her office overlooking the main floor for a private meeting.
And it’s here she reveals that she’s being muscled for a stake in the club by someone who says he was partners with her recently deceased husband, Lou, the club’s founder. She wants a favor: Would Bernzy consider doing a little digging to see if the guy is legit? Bernzy, being nothing more than a photographer and a bit of a schlub, can’t imagine why she’d ask him for help. Kay intimates that maybe they share more in common that he thinks. Just as there are those who talk behind Bernie’s back about his distasteful profession, people do the same to her, whispering she’s nothing but “a cold-hearted girl who married and buried old man.” And, like Bernzy, she too had artistic aspirations, hers involving the stage, which, eventually, were quashed. Mostly, though, she has asked him to help because her late husband mentioned that Bernzy “knew everyone in New York. I mean, all the crooks and all the cops. And he said you never take sides because all you care about is taking pictures; taking sides might get in the way.”
Smitten, the lonely Bernzy agrees to dig around. Of course, The Public Eye being film noir, this proves to be an incredibly bad idea. Within a day the guy trying to muscle Kay is found dead by Bernzy, murdered by the mob it seems. Strangely, Bernzy is hauled away and questioned by the FBI. Even worse, Bernzy is muscled by the heads of various organized crime families who have mysteriously taken an interest in the case. Despite the hassles, Bernzy, driven by his unrequited love for Kay, continues to dig, eventually uncovering a scam involving the mob, a high-level politician and gas rationing, which could potentially affect the war effort (WW2, of course).
Although he’s based his career on staying neutral, Bernie’s now taking sides, which puts him in way over his head. Soon he learns of a major mafia hit, one that will change the power structure of two major New York families. Instead of being scared off, though, Bernzy has an epiphany: instead of taking pictures just before or after an important event, how about while the event is actually happening? Capturing the murders of the mobsters would not only expose the gas rationing scam but also be the photographic coup of a lifetime.
That’s as far as I’ll go in terms of synopsis. You’ll have to rent the movie to see how who lives, who dies. Unfortunately, and as a testament to how forgotten this movie is, Universal has never released a particularly good video transfer. Not only is it not available on Blu-ray, the Conflicted Film Snob’s preferred media, the DVD version looks pretty crappy. So it’s all about streaming if you want to check it out. Apple TV, YouTube, etc., carry it in HD.
Summing up, I just find The Public Eye eminently watchable, a terrific marriage of Franklin’s tight direction and screenplay, Suschitsky’s beautiful film noir-inspired low-key photography, the production designer’s great evocation of 1940s Manhattan, Isham’s music and all of the performances, from the two leads to a great number of solid supporting turns, including (beyond the aforementioned Jared Harris and Del Close), Stanley Tucci (in the kind of Italian mobster role he was so sick of being typecast in that it eventually would drive him to write and co-direct 1996’s classic Big Night), Jerry Adler, Dominic Chianese (who you’d recognize as Junior in The Sopranos), Bob Gunton (who you’d recognize as Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption) and Richard Schiff (who you’d recognize from a million things):
And then there are specific scenes that I find so indelible, scenes with no dialogue, just poetic imagery and the movie’s doleful score, scenes such as Kay chasing after Bernzy in the rain to apologize for how he was treated in the club only to find him–and watch him silently–in an alley as he photographs a passed-out drunk in a tux, Bernzy lovingly fixing the guy’s hair, adding an empty bottle to the pose:
Or when Kay, alone in her office, pages through Bernzy’s portfolio, the sordid, graphic and heart-wrenching imagery not only affecting her deeply, but also giving her some insight into what makes a guy like Bernzy tick:
And then, finally, there’s the ending, one of my all-time favorites, involving a crackling police radio (“You can’t turn it off.”) and an adoring crowd waving after a car, the image switching from color to B/W, just as Bernzy would see them:
Here’s the trailer. Frankly I’m not a big fan; it makes the movie look like a jaunty affair, which is misleading. My guess is the studio wanted to play off of the public’s preconceptions about Pesci, which was that he often lent humor to his previous roles. Anyway, here it is: