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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.