Film Review: The Public Eye (1992)


Arthur Fellig a.k.a. Weegee was one of the most prominent American photographers of 20th Century, best known for his work in street photography he had elevated into art. His life, which also included co-operation with some prominent film makers like Stanley Kubrick, served as an inspiration for The Public Eye, 1992 period thriller written and directed by Howard Franklin.

The protagonist, played by Joe Pesci, is fictionalised version of Weegeee under name Leonard Bernstein a.k.a. Bernzy. He is freelance photographer with great talent to capture goriest and most scandalous images from the streets of 1940s New York and sell it to tabloid newspapers. Bernzy considers his work art, but his attempts to publish book of photographs are unsuccessful. The plot, set in Autumn 1942, begins when Bernzy is approached Kay Levitz (played by Barbara Hershey), widowed owner of popular Manhattan night club that is frequented by city’s elite. Weegee, who belongs to lower class, couldn’t have hoped to get there but Kay wants him because of his good contacts in police and underworld. Her husband was apparently involved in some illegal business and Kay is subjected to attempts to turn over the club because of husband’s debts. Bernzy volunteers to help her discover what the affair is all about. Investigation gets complicated with involvement of FBI and Bernzy learns that Kay’s husband was involved in selling of counterfeit gas coupons, a very lucrative enterprise in country that had introduced rationing due to Second World War. The whole affair has also created dispute between two rival Mafia families which could turn very bloody. Although his life is in danger, Bernzy is determined to record the events, partially motivated by the feelings he had developed for Kay.

Howard Franklin has spent almost ten years trying to make the film. He turned the protagonist into fictional character only after failing to secure the film rights on Weegee’s life. The famous photographer’s work nevertheless appears in the film through authentic photographs that illustrate Bernzy’s work. Franklin also decided to honour Weegee by mimicking his style with the help of famous cinematographer Peter Suschitzky who alternated between colour and black-and-white photography, creating strong “noirish” feel. Film that takes place mostly at night and features dark streets and dark events that happen there has good atmosphere and there was a great effort to create proper period feel with props and costumes. Joe Pesci, one of the most formidable character actors of his generation, was obviously thrilled over rare opportunity to play proper starring role. His admirable work, in which he plays middle-aged protagonist dedicated to his unglamorous but fascinating work, yet faced with romantic feelings, is however compromised by Franklin’s clumsy script. The plot is actually weak and it is resolved in unsatisfying “deus ex machina” manner. There is also a significant lack of chemistry between Pesci and Hershey. The Public Eye, however, is a mostly solid work that could be recommended to the fans of Pesci and period thrillers and it could be good starting point for all those wanting to learn something about people that turned street photography into art.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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