By 1992, Joe Pesci had been around for thirty years beginning with a small role in the 1961 film, Hey, Let’s Twist, a showcase for the then chart-topping rock and roll group, Joey Dee and the Starliters (Peppermint Twist). Pesci began getting some attention in the mid-1980’s with films like Easy Money and Once Upon a Time in America. But it was not until 1989 with Lethal Weapon 2 and 1990 with the double whammy of Home Alone and Goodfellas that Pesci became a name on everyone’s lips. Riding this success, Pesci had a series of important roles over the next few years. In 1992 alone, he appeared in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Lethal Weapon 3 and My Cousin Vinny. That same year he also had the lead role in the little-known film, The Public Eye.
Written and directed by Howard Franklin, The Public Eye is a film very loosely based on the life of tabloid photographer, Arthur Felig, better known as Weegee. Franklin apparently could not obtain the rights to Weegee’s story, so he wrote a fictionalized tale about a cigar smoking New York City tabloid photographer who had access to a police radio which always made him first on the scene. In the film, the character is called Leon Bernstein or Bernzy or as his byline reads, The Great Bernzini.
Like Weegee, Bernzy doesn’t see himself as a bottom feeder, the bloodsucker sort of photographer who captures the worst of humanity in his images. Bernzy sees himself as an artist who captures the dark human side of life. He has even put together a book of his photos that he’s been peddling around unsuccessfully to publishers. Like the publishers, most people see Bernzy as a vulture racing in his car with a police radio under the dashboard from one murder scene to another to capture the perfect photo he can sell to the tabloids before other photographers even arrive.
Bernzy is good at what he does, and he knows it.
His beat is the nighttime, that’s when his subjects come alive, at least some do; many are dead. It’s not just the bodies, Bernzy shoots, it’s the reaction of others at the scene: the police, the medics, husbands, wives, neighbors, and others all fill his lens. His shots capture the essence of life, lived, loved and lost. Bernzy, like Weegee did, develops many of his photos out of the trunk of his car right after shooting them. That way, he could rush to the newspapers and get the exclusive.
The story is pure noir. Substitute our photographer for a private eye and your back at Warner Brothers in its heyday. Here we have a beautiful nightclub owner, Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey), who wants Bernzy to help her out. She inherited the club from her now deceased husband. He was much older than her, and some folks think she married him for his money. Now she faces a threat of being muscled out by the mob who want to take over the club. There’s this one dangerous character hanging out at her club, and she wants to know who he is and what his connections are. When the guy ends up dead soon after, Bernzy who knows everyone, the mobsters and the police, finds himself in the middle of a gang war. For Bernzy, though he has feelings for the girl, the photos are always at the top of his list.
Bernzy’s apartment says it all. It’s filled with boxes and boxes of negatives and photographs cataloged by subject. Other photos hang on clothes pins running across an interior clothesline. Cameras are all over as is darkroom equipment and chemicals. Remember this is long before the days of digital photography where all you needed was a disc and a computer with the right software.
The relationship between Bernzy and Kay rings of a potential romance, but it’s subtle and never goes anyway except toward the end when Bernzy hurt by her lies tell her “you have no idea what I would have done for you.” He should have known better than to get involved; that was always his policy. Just take the pictures, and stay on the sidelines. That’s why the mob boys, and even the police like him. But Bernzy gets lonely, and when a beautiful woman tells you she needs your help, well you sometimes do things you know you should not do.
The film is surrounded with plenty of colorful characters: mobsters, vice cops, the FBI, and rival photographers. A supporting cast that includes Stanley Tucci, Jerry Adler, and Dominick Chianese add a nice flavor. But it’s Pesci with his 4×5 Graflex always in hand that dominates on screen as well as the cinematography of Peter Suschitzky who captures 1940’s New York as seen through the lens of the cold, unflinching black and white stark mages of murder and desperation in the urban jungle.
By switching to black and white at times, director Howard Franklin nicely shows how Bernzy, like most photographers, are always seeing, visually thinking, composing with their eyes even when the camera is not in hand.
This is a must see film for photographers, however others folks who like film noirs or crime films will enjoy this look at what the world of a tabloid photographer was like back in the days when newspapers were at there peak. It’s not a perfect film, but it seems to have been undeservedly tossed under the rug.