The photographer known as Weegee -- Arthur Fellig, by actual name -- was a city rat with a Speed Graphic camera who roamed the streets of New York in the hours after midnight. With a mini-darkroom custom built in the trunk of his car and a police radio to guide him like a North Star of the demimonde, he wandered from atrocity to atrocity, snapping dazzlingly immediate shots of life and death, urban style, '40s-style. You've seen his brash, flash-blasted pix a million times and not known it: the hood with his head tilted back, his ruined face spewing rivers of blood behind a bullet-starred windshield; the screaming survivor of a fire that is consuming her children in a blazing tenement; the sailor grabbing a kiss from a pretty gal outside a U.S.O club.
Now Weegee, vaguely fictionalized, has been set in the middle of a glossy, satiny mock film noir, with that most attractive of sweat manufacturers, Joe Pesci, a stogie in his mouth and a fedora pulled low over his brows, posing as the great man. The conception of character here is pretty much the whole story. Pesci's Leon Bernstein -- "The Great Bernzini," as he calls himself -- knows that he's an artist, and that his shots have an intensity and a validity wholly lacking in the more refined world of "fine arts photography." Alas, like many a man ahead of his time, he's rejected by the effete swells that run the culture, who see in Mr. Stieglitz's abstract whorls more art than in the blood puddles of Weegee's world.
That's a fascinating, though unfortunately minor, note in the film, and if you know your art books, you'll take some solace in the fact that it all came around: in the mid-'70s, a sumptuous, arty coffee-table job of Weegee's dead hoods was published by Alfred A. Knopf, then as now the cultural elite's favorite class house. Unfortunately, Weegee himself was also dead by that time.
Another wonder in the film is its vision of American Camelot: New York in the '40s. What a wonderful town: the Bronx was up and the Battery down; between was the Great White Way with its canyons of neon and its fleets of prowling black cars. Life revolved around nightclubs, and an elite race of stars and gangsters and artists sat at round tables all night long. People actually read newspapers. The movie makes you mourn the passing of all that.
But "The Public Eye" isn't content with studying the Great Bernzini against this glossy nether world; it has to tell a story, and it plunks him into the middle of a conspiracy involving stolen gas coupons, Italian mobsters muscling in on swanky cafes, greasy-headed Irish FBI agents, a whole tapestry of conspiratorial tropes. In this effort, it's a whole lot less compelling.
Bernzini takes great pride in his icy professionalism, his ability "not to get involved." This precept is shattered when Barbara Hershey, looking like Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall poured into the same gown, invites him into her swank joint (as a photog, he's always been kept out) and asks him to find out about somebody who's just declared himself her new partner.
When Bernzy drops in on the guy, he finds that someone else has already turned him into a Bernzini photo, complete with puddle of red in the carpet. From there, things get far too complicated for anyone's good, especially the audience's. He's suddenly forced into the role of Private Eye, a Gotham Marlowe, that seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with what makes him so unique. He discovers an uninteresting plot by one mob to take out another mob and supplant it; he maneuvers and improvises desperately and manages to get himself in place to record for the ages a St. Valentine's Day-style rub-out.
Yet the writer-director, Howard Franklin, loses you somewhere between the third and the 19th double cross or maybe between the 25th and the 43rd lie, or perhaps between Tribecca and Gramercy Park. The movie is beautiful but inert; it includes you out. It's full of pretty pictures, not one of which has the raw urgency of Weegee at his best.
'The Public Eye'
Starring Joe Pesci and Barbara Hershey.
Directed by Howard Franklin.
Released by Universal.