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The Public Eye Reviews

The story of a 1940s tabloid photographer, THE PUBLIC EYE splendidly harkens back to old movies of the era. Writer-director Howard Franklin creates a film noir world only slightly weakened by confusing plot twists. Tabloid photographer Leon "The Great Bernzini" Bernstein (Joe Pesci) takes gritty, slice-of-life photos of New York during WWII. Through his aggressiveness and friendly relations with cops and mobsters alike, Bernzy always gets the "money shot." (The fact that his car comes equipped with a portable darkroom in the trunk doesn't hurt, either.) Bernzy's dream is to publish a collection of his work, but a top book publisher says his topics are too unsavory. Cafe owner Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey), the widow of a wealthy society figure, unexpectedly summons Bernzy to help her: a mysterious man named Portofino (David Gianopoulos) has claimed a stake in her business. Since Kay's husband trusted Bernzy, she hopes he can use his knowledge of low-life New York to investigate Portofino. Bernzy, infatuated with the beautiful Kay, agrees. Portofino's murdered body appears at Bernzy's apartment, however, and the photographer is questioned by the cops, FBI and Mafia. Bernzy realizes the murder involves two duelling mob families--Farinelli and Spoleto. He photographs Sal (Stanley Tucci) snitching on his Farinelli family to Spoleto's (Dominic Chianese) organization. Bernzy confronts Sal and the double-dealing hood says Kay's husband was involved with the mob in the wartime black market. Bernzy gets Sal to promise advance information on where Spoleto's massacre of Farinelli's group will take place. Bernzy plans to photograph the bloody event, but Sal is killed before he can reveal the site. Eluding a Mafia hit man, Bernzy makes it to the right restaurant. Bernzy takes the pictures of a lifetime at the massacre and becomes a public hero for exposing the Mafia. Although Bernzy finally has the acclaim he always sought, he is devastated by Kay's betrayal: she admits to telling Spoleto his plans. From the credit sequence of pictures developing in a darkroom to the final shot of a melancholy Bernzy riding through a cheering mob, THE PUBLIC EYE is a pleasure. Franklin, marking his solo directorial debut following 1990's QUICK CHANGE (co-directed with Bill Murray), deserves credit for bringing back the spirit, if not the substance, of the 1940s film noir genre. The early scenes are the most fascinating, as Franklin eschews plot considerations and simply shows Bernzy at work. The determined shutterbug--based, of course, on Weegee, the great tabloid photographer--doesn't hesitate to alter the scene for the perfect shot, throwing a dead man's hat next to his body. Later, he impersonates a priest in order to snatch pictures of a dying man in an ambulance. But this is a movie, after all, and Franklin must abandon his perfectly plotless opening for a less interesting gangster story. Kay Levitz's explanation of her late husband's feelings towards Bernzy is puzzling. She's a contrived character. It gets even worse later as the convoluted story about black market gas coupons and mobsters overshadows Bernzy's professionalism. Still, Franklin's shots, especially the gangster massacre as seen through Bernzy's lens, are stunning. One might have expected problems to arise from combining color footage with black-and-white photographs and montage sequences, but Franklin has no trouble; it's a well-planned blend. Franklin's screenplay includes many lines memorable for their simplicity. "Do you think a man like him can protect you from a man like me?" Spoleto asks Kay about Bernzy. The screenwriter also stays true to the 1940s period. "Kiss off!" a Mafia man tells Bernzy when he's pestered for a photograph. As Bernzy, Joe Pesci avoids the scenery-chewing that has marred some of his other work. Despite his assertiveness on the job, Pesci shows Bernzy to be a gentle man easily swayed by a woman's attention. You immediately believe in his interest in Kay. Pesci is funny as well as sympathetic, however. He tells a cop about a fresh corpse: "I killed him to get the picture." Physically, Pesci's short stature is perfect for the part, and he's well decked out in the requisite grungy trench coat, hat and cigar. Barbara Hershey (A WORLD APART, DEFENSELESS) plays the Mary Astor part from THE MALTESE FALCON with no irony. As soon as she starts her "I'm so helpless" speech to Pesci, you know she'll let him down somewhere along the way. It's too bad more couldn't have been done to make her character realistic. (Intriguingly enough, Hershey has stated that she based her performance on the late Cary Grant, who transformed himself from the lowborn Archibald Leach into the perfect, debonair Hollywood star.) Hershey's makeup is so thick, for example, she looks phony. Jerry Adler, who plays columnist-turned-Broadway-producer Arthur Nabler, has more chemistry with Pesci than Hershey does. (Violence, adult situations.)