Public Eye: Howard Franklin’s Neo Noir, Starring Joe Pesci and Barbara Hershey

One of the encouraging developments of the Hollywood film industry of the last two decades has been a breakdown of the rigid classification of performers into stars, leading men, character actors, etc.

It began with Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, all brilliant actors who lacked the traditionally handsome looks of leading men, who, nonetheless were cast in starring roles in major movies.

And it continues at present with the immensely talented Joe Pesci, whose career has benefitted from this declining stereotyping. It is inconceivable that in the past the studios would have fought over Pesci or planned major movies for him.

Pesci’s Oscar Award for his delectable performance in Scorsese’s GoodFellas has been a miraculous boost to his career. He has been working non-stop, appearing mostly but not exclusively in comedies. You may recall his roles in The Super, Lethal Weapon 3, Home Alone, JFK, and the vastly entertaining My Cousin Vinnie, earlier this year.

In his new, compelling movie, The Public Eye, a noir thriller set in New York in 1942, Pesci is cast as Leon (Bernzy) Bernstein, an eagle-eyed shutterbug whose camera captures it all. The “Great Bernzini,” as he is called for his uncanny ability to arrive first on the scene of murders, is an unforgettable character: a magician behind the lens with an eye for the underside of life. But he is also a man with the soul of an artist. Armed with police radio and a portable darkroom, Bernzy hunts the nightclubs and alleys in search of a murder, a fire, a drunken celebrity–any lurid image he can quickly photograph and sell for quick bucks. Bernzy craves recognition, but the deeper he goes in pursuit of his art, the more society rejects him. He is an outsider par excellence–by his profession, appearance, and personality.

All this changes when he meets Kaye, the owner of a nightclub, portrayed with depth and subtlety by the stunningly beautiful Barbara Hershey. The recently widowed Kay is desperate to hold onto the “hot ticket” nightclub she has inherited from her husband. The dark, atmospheric thriller, which involves gang warfare and the discovery of a government “gas ration” scandal during the War, depicts Bernzy’s attraction to Kaye’s alluring but dangerous “high society” world. As expected, he develops amorous feelings for her, with profound consequences for his life and art.

Inspired by the lives and exploits of tabloid photographers (specifically the real-life Weegee), writer-director Howard Franklin vividly recreates Bernzy’s world, combining black and white vignettes (like tabloid photographs brought to life) with a rich and memorable cast of characters. From first frame to last, his original movie holds us, heart and soul, due to its tight focus on Bernzy’s relentless vision.

Franklin, who co-directed the comedy Quick Change with Bill Murray, makes his film debut with this charming and memorable tale. It is not Franklin’s first foray into film noir; in 1987, he wrote the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s stylized but hollow Someone to Watch Over Me. Here, Franklin successfully employs all of the visual vocabulary of the noir genre: dark and claustrophobic sets, close-ups of Hershey’s intensely expressive face. Like most noir films, The Public Eye is an indoor film set at night, and there is also a moody melodramatic score by Mark Isham.

Pesci has a unique penchant for showing the humanity and vulnerability of each character he plays–his interpretation of Bernzy is no exception. Hershey also excels in playing the femme fatale and black widow, a prevalent type in film noir. But in departure from the genre’s conventions, Kaye is not a predator in the manner of Barbara Stanwyck’s classic noir roles. Nor is there overemphasis on Kaye’s threatening sexuality, which is another motif of noir. The tender and ambiguous relationship between Hershey’s beautiful princess and Pesci’s frog is without a doubt the movie’s best aspect

It may not be a coincidence that younger American filmmakers are turning to noir–the genre is richer in thematic and stylistic possibilities than other staples of the Hollywood industry. Which explains the periodic revival and rewriting of film noir in contemporary American cinema, as opposed to such dying (or declining) genres as musicals and Westerns.