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‘The Public Eye’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 14, 1992

No photographer ever captured the rough-and-tumble of '30s New York, the raw everyday life on the mean streets of the big city, like the tabloid snapshot artist Weegee. And Leon Bernstein, the freelance shutterbug who's modeled after him in Howard Franklin's mesmerizing "The Public Eye," has the same unstinting instinct for the gutter reality that was Weegee's trademark.

Bernstein, who's played with great subtlety and restraint by Joe Pesci, also has Weegee's miraculous talent for being in the right place at the right time. When a crime or an accident has occurred, Bernstein is most often the first one on the scene, arriving even before the police. This uncanny knack seems almost like magic -- hence his nickname, the Great Bernzini. But, in truth, his "luck" is the result of nearly monastic dedication. Bernzy has turned over his whole life to taking pictures, living like an obsessive archivist in his flophouse apartment, his police band radio constantly tuned in to the action.

In 1942, when the movie is set, photographers like Bernstein were called shutterbugs, and considering the paltry fees they were paid for their pictures, they had to hustle to eke out a living. The shutterbugs were a breed unto themselves, and most of them cared far more about cash than art. But Bernzy, who covers the same squalid beat, brings a sense of genuine tragedy to his pictures of the victims of crime and fate. He was an artist long before the artistic Establishment saw the merit of such work.

In "The Public Eye," Franklin acknowledges Bernstein's pioneering talent while focusing on the strange and sometimes dangerous conditions of his job. This presentation of Bernzy as master tightrope walker -- he befriends crooks and cops alike -- is what makes the film so thrillingly distinctive.

The emphasis here is more on character than narrative. The details of the serviceable story, such as they are, show far less originality than the writer-director's grasp of character would lead us to expect. The trouble begins for Bernzy when he agrees to check out a mobster for Kay (Barbara Hershey), the sultry owner of a posh Manhattan watering hole. Usually, Bernzy wouldn't even be allowed past the front door of the joint; for his first conference with Kay, he's made to enter through the kitchen. But Kay's nod gives him the run of the place, and for a street urchin like Bernstein the attention turns his head; he'd do anything for the dame, even if it means getting himself dead. Almost without realizing it, he becomes a patsy.

Hershey does a delicate balancing act too; she may have become a society fixture, but her roots are sunk in much more modest soil (closer to Bernzy's, in fact), and the look on her face is that of someone who's perpetually frightened that she's going to be found out.

As for Pesci, he hardly seems like the same actor whose staccato patter and bantam strut have become so familiar. And because his style here is so understated and muscular, we feel as if we're seeing the actor for the very first time. There's no grandstanding in his performance, and yet Pesci shows more gravity and authenticity than he has at any point in his career. He has always been an entertaining actor; here he proves that he is a great one.

Franklin, who previously co-directed "Quick Change" with Bill Murray, proves something else -- that he is a much better director than he is a writer. Movies about artists are notoriously hard to pull off, but Franklin's explosive mixture of splashy, marquee-lit color and the luridly textured black-and-white of the world seen through Bernzy's observant eye, allows us to see the photographer's universe the way he does. As a result, we see more of the artist at work -- and the way he thinks about his work -- than we're shown in most movies of this type. "TR for violence and language. he Public Eye" isn't especially profound, bu


it's captivating nonetheless. "The Public Eye" is rat

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