Joe Pesci dominates "The Public Eye" as Leon "Bernzy" Bernstein, a downtrodden tabloid photographer in 1942 New York who gets no respect but aspires to be taken seriously as an artist. It's a role that fits him like a glove and he's terrific.
Bernzy lives up to his sleazy reputation as an exploiter of the downtrodden, prowling the streets in his sedan each night, a police scanner yammering constantly so he can be the first on the scene as he chases fires and murders. And he usually is first on the scene, snapping his pictures, then developing them in the trunk of his car to make the first editions of the lurid newspapers that want victims on their front pages. He's also not above shifting a body for a better picture and he always makes sure the victim's hat is in the shot, explaining to incredulous cops, "the public likes to see their hats."
During the day, Bernzy attempts to peddle a collection of his photographs in book form to various Manhattan publishers, who derisively dismiss them as "too sensational, too vulgar."
Though Bernzy is equally familiar with both cops and crooks, he doesn't take sides until he meets Barbara Hershey, as a society widow who has inherited a nightclub and is being threatened by mobsters who claim to be partners of her late husband.
Because she shows an interest in his photos, Bernzy is smitten and, against his better instincts, agrees to help her out. But violating his own brand of ethics causes him more trouble than he bargained for as he is subjected to threats from both gangsters and police (as well as the FBI) and soon becomes aware of an impending mob hit. Will he interfere with the hit or just stand by and take pictures? It's a moral dilemma that some of us might struggle with but not Bernzy.
In the end, what makes Bernzy an appealing character is that he strictly adheres to his own moral code, which in this film's crazy universe makes some kind of zany sense.
But most of the film's success is due to writer-director Howard Franklin's investment in style as he gives the film a unique look with an unusual amount of attention to period detail and imaginative composition. And every so often he allows the point of view to shift as if we are inside Bernzy's camera for mesmerizing, slow-motion or still-frame black-and-white shots of people at large in the city. These real-people faces and the poignancy of their life struggles are revealed much more compellingly than any amount of dialogue could suggest. It's an effective touch in a movie that could have been just another variation on the mobster genre.
"The Public Eye" is rated R for violence and gore. There is also some profanity and a nude photo.