(director/writer: Howard Franklin; cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky; editor: Evan Lottman; music: Mark Isham; cast: Joe Pesci (Leo ‘Bernzy’ Bernstein), Barbara Hershey (Kay Levitz), Stanley Tucci (Sal), Richard Riehle (Officer O’Brien), Gerald Becker (FBI Inspector Conklin), Jared Harris (Danny the Doorman), Gian-Carlo Scanduzzi (Cafe Society Maitre D’), Jerry Adler (Arthur Nabler), David Gianopoulos(Emilio Portofino), Dominic Chianese(Spoleto), Richard Foronjy(Farinelli), Bryan Travis Smith (Young Cop), David Hull (Thatcher, insider), Tim Gamble (Agent Chadwick), Patricia Healy (Vera Hickson), Del Close (H.R. Rineman), Timothy Hendrickson (Richard Rineman); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Sue-Baden Powel; Universal; 1992)
Plays as if a moody 1940’s noir film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director-writer Howard Franklin’s (“Quick Change”/”Larger Than Life”) crime drama pic is based on the celebrated New York Daily News tabloid photographer Weegee, who covered the city’s big crime stories during the 1930s. The Public Eye plays as if a moody 1940’s noir film. Joe Pesci plays Bernstein, also called Bernzy and the Great Bernzini, who is a middle-aged bachelor freelance photographer with a penchant for being first at crime scenes and of being the photographer to the celebs, politicos, gangsters, cops and the NYC low-lifes.

In 1942, trouble brews for Bernzy when the sexy recent owner of the fancy Manhattan nightclub called the Cafe Society, Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey), who inherited the place from her bootlegger hubby when he died, asks the photographer as a favor to find out who is Emilio Portofino (David Gianopoulos) and why he claims to be her club partner. The mystery man is a regular at the club and has shown her a legit contract signed by her hubby, something hubby never mentioned.

The slovenly dressed Berny, who normally wouldn’t be allowed in the front door of the ritzy club, falls for the smooth well-dressed but vulnerable social climber Kay, who leads him on even though he’s out of her league. His investigation, beyond the call of duty, leads him to a gang war between rival Mafia factions such as the Spoleto (Dominic Chianese) and Farinelli (Richard Foronjy) led gangs, and a mysterious government high-up who is involved with the Mafia. The warring boys create a bloodbath in the NYC streets, as their fight is for who gets the valuable stolen wartime gas ration coupons given to the mobsters by the crooked politician Thatcher (David Hull) with the inside connections in the OPA.

FBI Inspector Conklin (Gerald Becker), heading the investigation of the Mafia war, is pictured as a fascist-like copper who bullies those under him and is determined to coverup the missing gas coupons in the hopes of avoiding a government scandal. The fictionalized Cafe Society, a good imitation of the real-life Stork Club, is the celebrity hangout spot and the watering hole where the snobbish Maitre D’ (Gian-Carlo Scanduzzi) and the hustler street-smart doorman (Jared Harris) are viewed as catering only to those in high society.

Though good in parts and made palatable through Pesci’s riveting performance as an eccentric obsessed shutterbug seeking respect and recognition for his work as an artist the pic doesn’t holdup all the way, as the romance part was never made credible and the gangster part never resonates with the tension that should have made its melodramatics more pulpy and boisterous instead of so subdued. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, there’s still enough sizzle and pop to make this pic a keeper.

The Public Eye Poster