There are lots of corpses in "The Public Eye" (citywide) but the biggest stiff is the movie itself. A great subject--tabloid photographers in New York City in the '40s--has been turned into a glum, incoherent mess.
Joe Pesci plays Bernzy, a.k.a. Leon Bernstein, a pipsqueak, cigar-chomping shutterbug who often gets to the scene of the crime before the cops. Toting his bulky Speed Graphic camera, he covers the seamy New York nightworld. Bernzy's an artist, though, and, what's more, he knows it.
Problem is, almost nobody else does. His raw, vibrant, harrowing photos run counter to the posed salon photography considered art in his day. His dream is to have his own book of photos, and to be represented at the Museum at Modern Art.
When a widowed nightclub owner, Kay (Barbara Hershey), asks Bernzy to investigate a man who appears to be muscling in on her territory, he complies because (a) she's beautiful and (b) she also thinks he's an artist. Since Bernzy knows everyone in the underworld, and just about everyone above-world too, it's not long before a trail of corpses leads him to the heart of the mystery.
It's something of a mystery for us, too. The film noir skulduggery in this movie (rated R for language) has something to do with a scam involving wartime black-market gas coupons. (This is the kind of film where someone is always recapping the plot by saying, "Let's see if I got this straight.") What does this cloak-and-dagger sub-Chandleresque falderal have to do with what these photographers did with their lives--or with their art? It's insulting to make a movie about someone like Bernzy and then turn him into a valorous, stumblebum Hardy Boy.
Bernzy, of course, is loosely based on the great photographer Weegee, whose photos are predominantly featured throughout the film. Writer-director Howard Franklin is unwise to showcase them: Their hair-raising force obliterates the rest of the movie. And since the film's production design is so arranged and studio-ish, with carefully placed shadows and spotlights, we seem to be wrenched into an anti-world every time we shift from Weegee's caught-in-the-moment dramas to this movie's studied blandness.
The blandness even extends to the performers. Pesci does his nattery-winsome bit but it's a demeaning role: He's playing a Chaplinesque loner entranced by a woman he feels too humble to possess. (It's his only trace of humility.) A gangster, observing Bernzy with Kay, refers to them as Quasimodo and Esmeralda, and that's also the filmmakers' attitude.
Hershey, who has become a first-rate actress in the past half-decade, sinks into a somnambulistic stupor in "The Public Eye." With any luck, both performance and film will sink into oblivion.
'The Public Eye'
Joe Pesci: Leon Bernstein
Barbara Hershey: Kay Levitz
Jared Harris: Danny
Stanley Tucci: Sal Minetto
A Universal Pictures release of a Robert Zemeckis production. Writer-director Howard Franklin. Producer Sue Baden-Powell. Executive producer Zemeckis. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Editor Evan Lottman. Costumes Jane Robinson. Music Mark Isham. Production design Marcia Hinds-Johnson. Art director Bo Johnson. Set decorator Jan Bergstrom. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language).