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Public Eye, The (DVD Review)

7 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
$19.98 DVD
Rated ‘R’
Stars Joe Pesci, Barbara Hershey, Jared Harris.

Though this apparent labor of love dropped out of sight about two seconds after it got to theaters, I suspect there’s still the remnants of a moviegoer demographic whose historical frame of reference spans back further than, say, Levi Johnston. If so, these grownups conceivably might have a good time with the screen project that gave Joe Pesci his shot at becoming a leading man. Commercially speaking, this was never too likely — nor too different from the situation that faced Ernest Borgnine in the immediate aftermath of Marty. That is: he’s won the Oscar, is ready for a higher plateau, but he doesn’t look like a conventional lead (or close). So what are we going to do?

In Pesci’s case, his preceding career breakthrough had been that unforgettable “no more Mr. Nice Guy” performance in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 Goodfellas, which got him the supporting actor award on the following March’s Oscarcast. This intended capper, set early in World War II during the onset of gas rationing, was transparently inspired by the career of Arthur “Weegie” Fellig, the New York photojournalist who specialized in capturing crime scenes and the everyday life of the predominantly downtrodden in the most urban of all settings. Which is to say that if you wanted someone to sculpt glamour shots of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, the assignment couldn’t have been further from his field of interest.

Eye is one of just three features directed by Howard Franklin (who also scripted), but its executive producer was Robert Zemeckis. One gets the impression that the latter probably took to the “toy train” aspect of re-creating period Manhattan on an obvious set — just as executive producer George Lucas did with the much inferior Radioland Murders a couple years later for the same studio (Universal). The decor and atmosphere here look artificial — but in a stylized way that’s fun to watch. The cinematographer was Peter Suschitzky, whose richly varied career includes Peter Watkins’ The War Game, The Empire Strikes Back, Mars Attacks! and a slew of films for David Cronenberg. To this impressive list, I would also add the Steve Martin-scripted Shopgirl, due to the positively ethereal dimension he was able to give Claire Danes (melted my heart, all right).

And in a long way from her ‘60s frontier internship on TV’s "The Monroes," he does more than all right here with Barbara Hershey, whose natural abilities to show off a cocktail dress make her right for the role of Key Levitz, the widowed bombshell who turns Pesci’s Leon Bernstein character positively lovesick. A sympathetic glamourpuss who has inherited a nightclub from a much older husband, she is obviously out of the shutterbug’s lower league on every level but one. She, too, is up from the streets and put down by the elite — and even by a doorman who’s under the illusion that he’s elite himself ("Mad Men’s" Jared Harris looking even younger than you’d expect from a movie almost 20 years old). The bond these outcasts forge is perhaps unlikely but does make a certain sense.

One of the movie’s strongest virtues — and it works hard to pull this off — is showing how thoroughly Bernstein is immersed in his work. He sleeps on what looks more like a cot or a crib than a bed, surrounded by walls covered with photos. Every aspect of his reasonably spacious but rundown apartment is devoted to his profession; there’s even a constant blare of police calls that coming in over the radio, as opposed to the normal person’s diet of night baseball games or live broadcasts of Benny Goodman from some ballroom. The dins of these calls blare into his car as well, and a line of dialogue establishes that they can’t be turned off. So what does he do for fun, other than moon for Kay? Well, he works on a proposed coffee table book composed of his work (some of which utilizes real Weegie photographs).

The movie has a very bittersweet ending that seems about right, though it’s just downbeat enough to have been a final nail in any box office hopes. Not to be confused with the same-name Carol Reed swansong that Universal released exactly two decades earlier (that was a comedy), The Public Eye is the latest in a new batch of films the studio is making available (via Amazon) in “on-demand” fashion. The lineup mostly includes stiffs or middling solo releases of slightly more important films previously relegated to box sets, so this entry is an easy sleeper standout in a field that includes Louis Malle’s probable career nadir (Crackers) and Vanilla Ice’s Cool As Ice. Though to give the latter its due, I do recall that Ice opened No. 17 at the box office on its opening weekend — a most impressive (and statistically difficult) achievement.

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