Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Public Eye (1992) Sleuthing Shutterbug

Written and directed by Howard Franklin; director of photography, Peter Suschitzky; edited by Evan Lottman; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Marcia Hinds-Johnson. The film stars Joe Pesci (R. Leon Bernstein), Barbara Hershey (Kay Levitz), Jared Harris (Danny the Doorman), Stanley Tucci (Sal Minetti), Jerry Adler (Arthur Nabler), Farinelli (Richard Foronjy), David Hull (Thatcher Grey), and Dominic Chianese (Spoleto).

Set in 1942 The Public Eye, is inspired by one of the first of the paparazzi, the great Weegee, aka Arthur Fellig, whose B&W photographs of New York in the 1940-50's not only time captured the city, but has also been suggested as one of the influences of the look of Classic Film Noir. Weegee's nickname was a corruption of "Ouija" board. It was in reference to his magical appearance at crime, fire and accident scenes (he actually had a license for a police radio that he kept in his automobile). Weegee was the original "nightcrawler".

Consistent with the film's theme the  title sequence consists of a series of developing photographs similar to Weegee's work.

title sequence composite
Pesci is Leon Bernstein aka "Bernsy" and "The Great Bernzini" a notorious tabloid photographer, a shutter-bug. His rolling office is a 1939 Ford De Luxe Club Coupe, outfitted with a police radio, and a complete darkroom in the trunk. His tools of trade are various cameras, but primarily a Speed Graphic.

1939 Ford Coupe De Luxe Club Coupe trunk darkroom

Bernsy at work

murder victim

$3 dollar per photo

Bernsy's photo stash
He's a schlub who slinks around wearing a fedora and chopping on a stogie. He carries in his overcoat a light meter, film, and flash bulbs. He cruises the drags with a roving eye for depictions of street life and with one ear cocked for police squeals. He makes his living off of the denizens and dreggs of the city who mostly come out after dark. He takes pictures of fires, car accidents, hookers, mobsters, servicemen, meat packers, bums, politicians, fishmongers, drunks, crooks, firemen, gamblers, celebrities, cops, gangster whacks, robbery victims, and domestic murders. A lot of his subjects are at room temperature. Sometimes he gets there before the cops and he's not above rearranging the corpse to get a better more sensational shot. He makes $3 per photo, and gets his byline in the rags, but he dreams of bigger things, he wants his work published, he wants a show in a museum. When he gets an appointment with a big publisher the head man tells him that they only print fine art and that what Bernzy has submitted are mere pictures of New York. Your pictures are too sensational, too vulgar, not art.

Bernzy's art
domestic violence

meat packer

Bernzy is a loner. His almost ghoulish fascination with capturing death and depicting misery casts him as the ultimate outsider. He knows lots of people on a first name basis but has few true friends, and has no love life what-so-ever.

Kay's Club


Bernzy smitten

Kay, Bernzy's first sight
One day Benzey gets an invite to a hoity-toity club Cafe Society. He has a personal note from Kay Levitz (Hershey) the late owner's wife. When Bernzy meets Kay he is visibly smitten by her beauty and instantly under her spell. Kay takes Bernzy up to her private office. Lou Levitz, Kay's husband, once told her that Bernzy knows all the crooks and all the cops in New York and that he never took sides because that would get in the way of Bernzy getting access. Bernzy's motto is "don't get involved". Kay tells him that Lou's brother is contesting the will. Rumor has it that Kay was a gold digger who married Lou for his money. But Kay has bigger problems she points out a guy in light evening jacket and asks Bernzy if he knows him. Bernzy doesn't. Kay shows him a letter from an attorney. The man is named Emilio Portofino and claims that Lou owed him money and that he is now her partner. If she doesn't accept it he'll go to Kay's brother-in-law and help prove that the will is invalid. Bernzy tells her that he'll find out who he is for her.

Kay (Hershey)

Bernzy apparently gets a cop he knows to check NYPD files on Portofino, we segue to Bernzy at a cop shop he's passing cigars to the booking officer. The officer tells him that there are two guys named Portofino with records but not with the age and description that Bernzy gave him.

So Bernzy continuing his amateur sleuthing goes to pay a social call on Portofino. Portofino is past talking. Portofino is ready for a toe tag and the horizontal phone booth. Bernzy calls the police and reports the murder, and before he can give them the address they tell him they'll be right there. He next calls Kay and tells her the news and that it looks like a mob hit. When the cops show the FBI is tagging along. Bernzy is dragged downtown for questioning. They want to know who he's working for . They want to know how he knows Portofino. Bernzy feeds them BS. As soon as he's cut loose the mob braces him. They take him for a ride to Frank Farinelli. Big Frankie wants to know why Bernzy called the FBI. Wants to know who he's working for. Wants to know how he knows Portofino. Bernzy feeds him some BS. Frankie gives some advice forget about Portofino.

Portofino at room temperature

F.B.I. offices


Bernzy continues to investigate, creatively sneaking into the FBI offices after hours to look at their files. He discovers that Portofino is involved with "Black Gas". It doesn't take long for him to connect the dots, gas ration coupons are worth gold. The Farinelli and Spoleto families are at war the Portofino hit was the spark. Kay is involved through her late husband, and someone in the Farinelli family is ratting to Spoleto (Dominic Chianese).

Bernzy breaks into the Spoleto estate and takes snaps. The photos reveal that Sal Minetto (Tucci) is the informer.

Bernzy (Pesci) and Sal (Tucci)

Bernzy confronts Sal Minetti who spills that Portofino was a punk from DC who was fronting for Thatcher Grey (Hull) in DC who works for the OPA. He can't unload the gas ration cards because he knows nobody. The heads of the five families won't touch them directly since they are getting amnesty from the Feds because they are working with the Italian mobs against Mussolini. Portofino hears that Lou Levitz was an old time bootlegger so maybe he knows how to unload them. Levitz was interested because there were millions involved and all Levitz had to do was turn the stamps over to Spoleto for a fat percentage. When Levitz died Portofino went to Farinelli, signing his own death warrant.  Now Spoleto is gonna kill Farinelli's whole gang and Sal is going to finger it. Bernzy wants in on the location so that he can take photos.




I wish a bit more of Bernzy's work of photographing gritty New York would have been depicted, the Bowery,  the srtrip joints, the beer gardens, the arcades, the Broadway scene.

The Public Eye glides along never reaching iconic levels, and there really are no cinematic sparks between Pesci's Bernzy and Hershey's Kay, it's not quite believable, but maybe that's what Franklin was going for. There are, though, some great dialog sequences that will leave you chuckling.

Spoleto: (nodding towards Bernzy and Kay) Look it's like Quasimodo and Sarsaparilla.
Henchman: I think you mean Esmeralda

The film is beautifully photographed, again as in A Rage In Harlem (1991) Cincinnati fills in very adequately for New York City, other locations being Chicago and Los Angeles. The score by Isham is decent. It should have more recognition. The screencaps are from the Universal Vault Series DVD. 7/10

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