Public Eye, The (1992)

US / 98 minutes / color with some bw / Zemeckis, Universal Dir & Scr: Howard Franklin Pr: Sue Baden-Powell Cine: Peter Suschitzky Cast: Joe Pesci, Barbara Hershey, Stanley Tucci, Jerry Adler, Jared Harris, Gerry Becker, Dominic Chianese, Del Close, Richard Foronjy, Tim Gamble, Richard Riehle, David Gianopoulos, Patricia Healy, David Hull.

In 1943 or 1944, NYC freelance news photographer Leon “Bernsie” Bernstein (Pesci), aka The Great Bernzini, seems to have a near-prescient ability to arrive at the scene of mob hits before the cops can get there. In fact, he has a good relationship with many of the cops because often he’s the one who phones in the crime before they otherwise learn of it. He also has an uneasy relationship with many of the city’s crime bosses; at the very least, they know he’ll take a better picture of him than anyone else will.

Public Eye - Bernsie at work

Bernsie (Joe Pesci) at work.

One night he’s called in by the owner of the swanky nightclub Café Society, Kay Levitz (Hershey). She inherited the club not so long ago from her older husband Lou; a man called Emilio Portifino (Gianopoulos) has turned up claiming that Lou had entered into a partnership, so that now he’s a co-owner of the business with Kay. Kay claims that Bernsie was one of the few people Lou trusted, and that Lou frequently told her Bernsie knew everyone in the city. Could Bernsie find out, she asks, who Portifino is and where he comes from? Smitten, Bernsie agrees.

But before Bernsie can investigate very far he finds Portifino murdered. It looks very much to him as if Lou, with or without Kay’s knowledge, was involved in something pretty bad. Soon Bernsie has the FBI, in the shape of Agent Chadwick (Gamble), and Frank Farinelli (Foronjy), head of the Farinelli Family, both pressing him for information. He also to has to cope with the thinly disguised hostility of Café Society’s doorman, Danny (Harris), who seems to see it as his duty to put as many obstacles as he can between Bernsie and Kay; at one point Danny tells Kay, “You know what a shutterbug does when he finds an abandoned baby? He stabs it with a diaper pin because pictures of crying babies are worth a dollar more.”

Bernsie is also devoted to finding a publisher for his book of graphic NYC scenes. Publishers like H.R. Rineman (Close), however, refuse to consider it because, after all, news photography can’t be art.

It emerges that Portifino and Kay’s deceased husband were involved with senior government official Thatcher Gray (Hull) to sell on the black market countless stolen gasoline coupons. Lou brought mob boss Marc Antony Spoleto (Chianese) in on the act, but when Lou died Portifino instead approached Spoleto’s rival, Farinelli. And now Farinelli’s right-hand man, Sal (Tucci), is busily selling out Farinelli to Spoleto, setting his boss and all the rest of the heads of the Farinelli Family up for a massacre at D’Angelo’s Restaurant in the Village. Torn between helping out Kay, immortalizing himself through a book done with his old journalist buddy Arthur Nabler (Adler), and managing to be inside D’Angelo’s to photograph the massacre going down, Bernsie tries to do all three . . .

Public Eye - The massacre at D'Angelo's

The Massacre at D’Angelo’s.

The character of Bernsie is very loosely based on that of Ascher “Weegee” Fellig (1899–1968); to make the connection more manifest, a number of the photos that we see in the movie supposedly taken by Bernsie are in fact classic Weegee pictures; also, the rubber stamp with which Bernsie marks the backs of his prints is clearly based on Weegee’s. There’s even a physical resemblance between the two men.

The Public Eye is sometimes described as a neonoir. It’s not that, but it’s sufficiently close to the genre that I now regret not having included it in the Encyclopedia. It could also, at a stretch, be described as a gangster movie; but that shoe doesn’t properly fit either. What it is is a superb character study, beautifully photographed and scripted, of a man absolutely obsessed by his self-defined mission, with Pesci giving a superb portrayal of this driven man. There’s a lot of wit and humor involved, too, in this essentially tragic tale.

A couple of notes on character names: The name of the character Portifino is given repeatedly thus in the movie, but spelled “Portofino” in the closing credits; and, although the corrupt government official is called Thatcher Gray (or Grey?) throughout the movie, he’s credited as Thatcher White.

At Amaxon.com: The Public Eye

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4 thoughts on “Public Eye, The (1992)

  1. You may well have included this in the encyclopedia indeed John, but I can well understand why it could have escaped through the cracks. For one it is more recent, and categorization isn’t all that easy. In any case I have seen the film and rather liked it, and much appreciate this terrific piece which I hung with for every word. You really peeled off the gauze here. One of Joe Pesci’s few lead performances is a captivating one, and both Barbara Hershey and Stanley Tucci as Farinelli’s right-hand man Sal are quite memorable. I vividly re-call that mass rub-out in the Italian restaurant. Some have likened this to a re-telling of the Beauty and the Beast story. In any event I think time has been kind to the film, which received divided reviews upon release.

    • Many thanks for the kind words, Sam. I do think I should have caught it for the encyclopedia (I have neonoirs going up to 2013, so this one’s very well within the book’s ambit), but I’m not too worried. As the encyclopedist John Clute once observed, and as I cite him in the book’s intro, any new encyclopedia is in effect a first draft: there are bound to be errors and omissions, and it’s futile to pretend otherwise. One of the many purposes of the Noirish site is to help me start amending some of the omissions in preparation for (I hope) the book’s second edition.

      Some have likened this to a re-telling of the Beauty and the Beast story.

      Hm, yes, but I’m not sure I’d go along with them. There are maybe a billion other movies about which one could draw the same parallel. Yes, there’s the lovely Kay and the less-than-entirely-gorgeous Bernsie, but cinema’s full of such pairings, n’est ce pas?

      In any event I think time has been kind to the film, which received divided reviews upon release.

      Too true!

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