A winning performance from Joe Pesci and a distinctively different approach to film noir by writer-director Howard Franklin result in a most satisfying thriller for Universal. Debuting as an exec producer, Robert Zemeckis has backed a modestly budgeted pic that looks more expensive than it was. Intriguing tale of a tabloid newspaper photographer who accidentally becomes home-front hero in wartime could perform well following its debuts in Venice, Deauville and Toronto.
The title itself suggests a fresh take on the private eye genre, and that’s what Franklin delivers. But the almost-tyro director (he co-helmed, with Bill Murray, the disappointing “Quick Change” last year) obviously revels in the character of Leon Bernstein, popularly known in the trade as Bernzy, a role tailor-made for Pesci’s distinctive talents. Bernzy, a character modeled on a number of tabloid photographers of the ’40s, is, on the surface, a sleazy character who specializes in getting shots of corpses, fires and car crashes one step ahead of his rivals.
Looked on as a scavenger by the law, and told his work is “too vulgar,” Bernzy nonetheless has his own set of rules, and his pictures (like those of real-life tabloid photographers of the period) are startlingly beautiful.
Franklin’s well-structured screenplay takes this loner character and places him in a typical film noir situation when he’s asked by elegant widowed nightclub owner Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey) to investigate a man who claims to have inherited her hus-band’s interest in the club.
When the man is murdered, Bernzy finds himself caught up in a gang war and in a scam involving black market gas coupons as well. He also is attracted to the seemingly unattainable Kay.
Pesci, an actor capable of depicting rare vulnerability beneath a macho exterior, is in top form as Bernzy, with Hershey also effective as the ambiguous woman who may be simply using him for her own ends. A gallery of little-known thesps are well cast in supporting roles, standout among them being debuting Jerry Adler (the Broadway producer-director) as Bernzy’s sympathetic friend and ally.
This being a film about a photographer, it obviously had to have the right look, which has been achieved in spades thanks to the work of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, production designer Marcia Hinds-Johnson, and stills photographer and technical adviser Ben Glass, who provides the authentic-looking black & white shots Bernzy takes in the course of his work.
With street locations used in three cities (Cincinnati, Chicago and L.A.), the picture manages to evoke New York in the early ’40s.
As a suspense pic rooted in a classic cinema genre, “The Public Eye” delivers the right quota of mystery, suspense and top characterization.