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‘The Public Eye’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 16, 1992

In "The Public Eye," Joe Pesci is Leon "Bernzy" Bernstein, a cigar-chewing tabloid photographer who snaps slain gangsters, hotel burnings and other post-midnight calamities of the 1940s. On a first-name basis with cops and mafiosi, he can't afford to take sides.

But when nightclub owner Barbara Hershey asks him for a minor favor, it leads to major involvement. Caught up in a murderous scandal, Pesci suddenly finds himself part of the picture.

Well, that's the idea. "Public" wants to be taken for an atmospheric film noir, full of intrigue, romance and street toughness. But it's all flash and no picture. Despite the usual quippy, perky performance from Pesci, as well as cinematographer Peter Suschitzky's moodily delineated images, the movie is superficial and unengaging. It's as if Life magazine decided to make an oldtime gangster movie.

The movie is most promising when it's establishing itself. Pesci begins his shift at midnight, keeping close tabs on police radio dispatches, often beating the cops (and his fellow paparazzi) to the scene of a crime. With amusingly cynical poise, he rearranges machine-gunned bodies for the camera. "Stick it in," he says, ordering a cop to push the stiff's hat into camera view. "People like to see the dead guy's hat."

Unlike his inferior competition, Pesci has artistic eternity very much in mind. His overriding desire is to publish a book of his photographs -- which he keeps in sprawling piles in his room. When jazz-club proprietor Hershey asks him to investigate a troublesome individual, she also expresses admiration for his work. Smitten by the high-class dame, and sensing a way to achieve mainstream recognition for his pictures, Pesci throws himself into the task with vigor.

After making inquiries among his contacts, including journalist friend Arthur Nabler, Pesci traces Hershey's man, only to find him dead. But when he calls the police, he becomes the object of suspicion. It seems the FBI is also very interested in this case. When Pesci makes a connection with gangster Stanley Tucci, he uncovers a conspiracy involving gas rationing, the mafia and the wartime government.

The trouble is, everything unfolds with pedestrian, formulaic predictability. This movie, written and directed by Howard Franklin, is like a board game. Pesci just slides from discovery square to square, as people helpfully fill him in. There are additional things to be learned about Hershey, too; of course, the question of romance between her and Pesci hangs in the air.

And what a question that is. Producer Robert Zemeckis's classic "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" boasted a far more believable, beauty-and-the-beast affair between Bob Hoskins and slinky Jessica Rabbit -- and one of those lovers was a cartoon.

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