"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, April 16, 2021


In 1992 alone,
My Cousin Vinny, Lethal Weapon 3, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, featuring Joe Pesci in some capacity, were all released. Needless to say, it was a very good year for the actor. One film that was sadly overlooked during this blitzkrieg of Pesci cinema was The Public Eye, a modesty-budgeted homage to classic film noir that also acted as a tribute to famed New York Daily News photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig who worked in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the 1930s and 1940s capturing the honest and sometimes tragic elements of life on the streets.
This is established over the opening credits with a montage of photographs, some of them Fellig’s, capturing people from all walks of life – in agony, bored, under arrest, and so on. We meet Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein (Pesci) taking photos at the scene of a crime before the police even show up and, more importantly, before his competition arrives. He will go to any lengths to get a shot – even if it means impersonating a priest to get a shot of a dead man with a meat cleaver stuck in his head. Bernzy even has a mobile dark room in the trunk of his car where he can develop his photos quickly.
He’s dedicated, always out there, wandering the streets in his car, listening to the police band radio, looking for the next photo opportunity. We see a few shots from his point-of-view and they are in black-and-white, suggesting that everyone is a potential photo for the man. He’s not married and doesn’t have time for anybody else as he is devoted to his work. That’s what makes him the best. It is an empty existence in a way as he is too busy capturing other people’s lives to have one of his own.

Bernzy hopes one day to have a book of his photos published and even has a meeting with an esteemed publisher (played with snooty relish by Del Close) who tells him, “This is, instead, a most admirable picture book about New York,” dismissing them as “too sensational” and “too vulgar,” which is kind of the point – they capture the beauty and the ugliness of life.
Like many film noirs, Bernzy is summoned to the lofty heights of high society by a beautiful woman – Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey) who asks him for a favor. She wants him to check out a man claiming to be her recently deceased husband’s partner and now co-partner of his nightclub that she inherited. He agrees, of course, partly because it allows him a foot in rarefied atmosphere and he is attracted to Kay, a rich, beautiful woman who wouldn’t normally give him the time of day. He tracks down the mysterious man only to find him dead.
Naturally, doing a favor for Kay forces Bernzy to break his code of neutrality, complicating his life as he takes sides for the first time, not just with cops, but the FBI who lean on him hard, painting him as a Communist sympathizer, and crooks, entangling him in beef between rival mobsters Frank Farinelli (Richard Foronjy) and Spoleto (Dominic Chianese).

Around the time he made The Public Eye, Joe Pesci was delivering broad performances in movies like Lethal Weapon 3 and Home Alone 2. The Public Eye saw him dial it back and deliver a more nuanced performance as evident in a scene where Bernzy comforts Kay about not being forthcoming about the dead man’s ties to the mob. He’s understandably upset but when she’s apologetic and explains that she picked him because her husband believed in his book of photos, Bernzy softens and Pesci shows a vulnerable side to his character.
Pesci also does an excellent job of showing how Bernzy channels his inner pain, his loneliness into his art, like when Kay snubs him in her club for some high society type and when she realizes what she’s done chases after him only to find the shutterbug outside in the rain taking a photo of some rich slob passed out in an alley.
Barbara Hershey is an atypical femme fatale. Initially, it seems like she is simply using Bernzy to further her own goals – wrest control of her late husband’s nightclub from mobsters – but then we see her defend Bernzy when she’s alone with her cynical doorman (played to jaded perfection by Jared Harris) and it appears that she really does have affection for him. She is in cahoots, however, with Spoleto, a mob boss who controls the west side of Manhattan. Hershey has an expressive face and she gives Bernzy a look that we see but he doesn’t that suggests Kay is falling in love with him. She actually looks at his book of photos in a wonderful moment and not just a quick flip through but studies them, lingers over each one and is visibly moved.

The film is populated with a bevy of wonderful character actors that make an immediate impact with the limited screen time they are given. Richard Foronjy (Midnight Run) and Dominic Chianese (The Sopranos) play the rival mob bosses that force Bernzy to take sides. Jerry Adler (Manhattan Murder Mystery) plays a columnist turned playwright who is also Bernzy’s closest confidante. Stanley Tucci, however, makes the greatest impact as Sal, a pivotal figure in the mob war. Initially, his relationship with Bernzy is an antagonistic one but then he tells the shutterbug about the beef between the two warring mob families in a powerful scene that Tucci delivers so well.
Howard Franklin, who has unfortunately directed far too few films, does a great job immersing us in 1940s New York City, getting the period details just right, from the yellow cabs to the vintage watch Bernzy wears to the Art Deco nightclub Kay owns, but without overwhelming us with it. With the help of David Cronenberg’s long-time cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, he pays tribute to classic film noirs but doesn’t lay it on too thick, doing just enough to capture the vibe of that era. The two men shot the film in very high contrast: “we wanted a crisp look with an edge” that tried to capture Fellig’s photos and avoid a “nostalgic feeling,” Franklin said in an interview.
Franklin first became interested in photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig when he saw an exhibit of tabloid photographs in 1982 at the International Center for Photography in New York City. Fellig was born in Poland in 1899, the son of Jewish refugees that emigrated to the United States in 1909, settling in New York’s Lower East Side. Growing up, he held every lousy job imaginable before discovering photography in his twenties when he started working as a freelance news photographer. He got a jump on the competition by obtaining his own police radio, which allowed him to be the first on a crime scene. According to Franklin, “When I saw Weegee’s photographs at the ICP, I was really fascinated and immediately began thinking about his images in terms of a movie.”

He wrote a screenplay in 1982 about an artist that was autobiographical in nature and as he got older and worked on it more, “it evolved into a story about the sacrifices you have to make if you’re serious about your work.” He tried to sell the script but there was no interest. Several directors and actors tried to option it with no success and he finally decided to make it himself. Franklin knew he wanted Joe Pesci to play Bernzy as the character’s “style of photography is similar to Joe’s style of acting in that both are very naked – there’s nothing between the viewer and the image.”
Pesci knew nothing about Fellig before agreeing to do the film. He read all the books he could find about the man and learned how to use the vintage Speed Graphic camera that was the hallmark of 1940s news photographers. The actor also studied Fellig’s books of photos and “figured what he would be thinking when he took the pictures; how he felt. I tried to make myself feel like him and look like him and take pictures and learn how to do everything.”
Franklin wanted to shoot on location in New York but the film’s $15 million budget and the union situation there made it impossible. The 13-week shoot begin in Cincinnati’s “Over-the-Rhine” district which resembled ‘40s New York. The production then moved to Chicago for a few weeks before landing in Los Angeles to complete filming where they shot on a soundstage at Santa Clarita Studios.
The Public Eye received decidedly mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, "Writer-director Howard Franklin is subtle and touching in the way he modulates the key passages between Pesci and Hershey. There is a lot that goes unsaid between them." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "The Public Eye never quite takes off, either as romantic melodrama or as a consideration of one very eccentric man's means of self-expression. The facts are there, but they never add up to much. The psychology is rudimentary." The Washington Post's Desson Howe wrote, "Despite the usual quippy, perky performance from Pesci, as well as cinematographer Peter Suschitzky's moodily delineated images, the movie is superficial and unengaging. It's as if Life magazine decided to make an oldtime gangster movie."

In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Peter Rainer wrote, "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." Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave the film a "C-" rating and wrote, "Attempting to breathe life into this hopelessly naive vision of a sad-sack artist-saint, Pesci is forced to rein in just about everything that makes him likable: his manic energy, the leering delight he takes in his own shamelessness." Finally, in his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, "Using all this artifice to illuminate the gritty world of a lonely shutterbug is an odd choice. Yet the tale's mournful B-movie romanticism-and Pesci's introspective, crablike performance-gets under your skin. In its moody, daffy way, The Public Eye gives off an authentic reek of artistic compulsion."

The Public Eye develops a fascinating character arc for Bernzy. For most of his career he chose not to take sides as it was good for business but finally he is faced with a dilemma that affects not only himself but people he cares about and this motivates him to take a side. He is tired of simply being an observer and is ready to get his hands dirty.
Having Robert Zemeckis as an executive producer I’m sure helped greatly in getting this film made but I wonder if Pesci used some of the juice from his Academy Award-winning turn in Goodfellas (1990) and his box office clout from Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) and Home Alone (1990) to help push this through the system. If so, I’m glad he did as this is the kind of off-kilter, personal passion project that is so excellently done.

Ebert, Roger. “Joe Pesci Moves Up from the Ranks of Supporting Players in Public Eye.” Rogerebert.com. October 11, 1992.
McKenna, Kristine. “Weegee’s Tabloid World: The very busy Joe Pesci finds a role he can’t refuse.” Los Angeles Times. December 8, 1991.