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Public Eye, The

Kl Studio Classics // R // July 28, 2020
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted September 7, 2020 | E-mail the Author

The Public Eye feels like a passion project in the best sense of the word. A period film about a tabloid photographer with dreams of artistic legitimacy, and his tentative, uncertain hints of romance with a widowed nightclub owner that he isn't sure he can trust -- it's too specific to be a gig for hire, especially when one factors in the film's subtle approach and patient pacing. Although star Joe Pesci's recent Oscar win for GoodFellas and the backing of Robert Zemeckis (himself coming off of the one-two commercial punch of the Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit) helped The Public Eye get set up at Universal, it's easy to imagine executives essentially forgetting about the film after greenlighting it, leaving writer/director Howard Franklin to make the movie exactly the way he envisioned it.

When day turns to night in 1940s New York City, tomorrow morning's hottest news story is taking place, and Leon "Bernzy" Bernstein (Pesci) is determined to be the first one to photograph it. He usually is, too, thanks to his relationships with not just the cops, but even the criminals. Getting a lead on the newest gang hit usually takes up his daily schedule, but he's intrigued when Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey), the new owner of the city's hottest nightclub, calls on him personally. A man claiming to be her late husband's business partner is hassling her, and Kay figures that Bernzy can use his connections to figure out who he is and whether or not his partnership is real. Bernzy reluctantly agrees, but before he can get very far, his mark is assassinated by mobsters, the FBI starts breathing down his neck, and he can't help but wonder if Kay knows more than she's letting on.

Most summaries of The Public Eye (including the one above) probably make the movie sound more like a film noir or a mob movie than it is. Although there are a couple of rival bosses in the film (Richard Foronjy as Farinelli, and "Sopranos" star Dominic Chianese as Spoleto), the heart of the movie is Bernzy and his relationship with Kay. Franklin expertly weaves the arcs of the characters together through their shared uneasiness with their careers and how other people view them, with Bernzy wanting his photographs to be viewed as artwork rather than exploitation, and Kay aiming to prove herself as the new owner of the club rather than come off like a widow who cashed in on her husband's death. Both of them are lonely: Kay is left to pick up the pieces of her husband's business affairs, surrounded by people who view her less as a person and more as a figure of social importance and status, while Bernzy rarely speaks to anyone other than cops, crooks, and newspaper editors, living a night-owl life peppered with bodies in back alleys.

Both Pesci and Hershey are excellent in the movie, with Pesci arguably subverting his screen persona. On paper, Bernzy might sound like a colorful character, but it's only the job and the work he produces that are larger than life. Bernzy the man is quiet, keeping his cards close to his chest, and constantly thinking on his feet in his quest to capture the story, even when doing so puts his life at immediate risk. There is a great joy just in watching Pesci play the role, watching the character do his job and do it well, which has nothing to do with whether or not his actions are furthering the plot. Kay is slightly more mysterious, given that the film is mostly rooted in Bernzy's perspective; outside of one or two conversations with her suspicious doorman (a young Jared Harris), we rarely see her unless it's a scene of the two of them together. Despite the aforementioned loneliness, Kay isn't a fragile character, and yet Hershey still imbues her with a moving vulnerability, which in turn lowers Bernzy's guard inch by inch, and softens Pesci's performance beautifully. The film is not a romance, and yet it's rich with a romantic longing that Franklin shades in with a gentle hand, and brought to life by his stars and their incredible chemistry.

The leads' performances loom large, but there are a couple of additional standouts: Jerry Adler is great as a retired newspaper columnist that Bernzy trusts, and Stanley Tucci (who also appeared in Franklin's Quick Change) is excellent as a surprisingly level-headed gangster that Bernzy catches on his back foot. Franklin has also assembled a talented group of people with him behind the camera, with the standouts being Mark Isham as the composer and Peter Suschitzky as cinematographer. Despite the film's limited budget, the movie looks fantastic, packed to the brim with striking period detail and visual style, including black-and-white sequences representing Bernzy's photography. Even when the viewer's focus is on something specific, the whole vibe of the film aligns with the look captured in Bernzy's photographs (themselves borrowed from real 1940s tabloid photographers, including Arthur "Weegee" Fellig, on whom the story is loosely based). Fans of Jerry Goldsmith may still be sore that Franklin rejected his contribution in favor of Isham, but Isham's jazzy, somewhat sorrowful music is truly beautiful, and falls right in sync with the tone of Pesci and Hershey's performances.

If there's a tiny bum note in The Public Eye, it comes at the very end. Given the bittersweet tone of the rest of the movie, it would be wrong for The Public Eye to end on a cheery note, but something about the alchemy of the way things play out doesn't feel exactly right. It might be something as simple as the order of the scenes, with the film concluding on a note other than the relationship between Kay and Bernzy.

The Blu-ray
The Public Eye's original theatrical poster artwork makes a clean transfer to Kino Classics' Blu-ray edition, featuring Joe Pesci in full costume and an old-timey camera in front of a historical, blue-tinted monochrome backdrop, with the title and credits in a jaunty font. The back cover adheres to KLSC's standard template, with a couple of color photographs over a black-and-white text template. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
For a film about photography, the 1.85:1 1080p AVC presentation that Universal has handed to Kino is a mixed bag, albeit one on the much more positive end of the spectrum. Based on the packaging, this is not one of the films for which Kino has been given the opportunity to do a new 2K or 4K master, and that evidence pokes through in the hints of ringing that peek through from time to time in brightly-lit environments, and especially the persistent sensation of waxy, improperly smoothed skin (most irksome in well-lit medium shots -- close-ups have enough detail to feel less unnerving, and the shadows cast by darkness obscure the scrubbing as well). That said, not all texture has been obliterated here, with a chunkier grain indicative of an older HD master present throughout, as well as minor print damage in the form of the occasional fleck or spot. Contrast appears steady, especially during the film's black-and-white sequences. Color moves firmly into the "win" column, with Suschitzky's colorful vision of 1940s New York captured beautifully, which goes a long way toward putting the PQ in a "net win" column despite the noise reduction.

Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that has a crispness and clarity that surpasses the film itself. The film has a beautiful score by Mark Isham and it sounds great here, with punchy dialogue and some pretty satisfying atmospheric effects as well. English subtitles are also provided. Unlike some of Kino's recent subtitle tracks, I did not notice any outright errors, beyond the mysterious absence of a capital "O" in otherwise accurate captions for dialogue about the "O.P.A." (the fact that even the periods denoting the initials were preserved makes me think this is some kind of technical error, not a typo), but whoever is subtitling these does occasionally fail to use em-dashes and paragraph returns to separate two different characters speaking, allowing dialogue between two people to appear as one continuous sentence.

The Extras
As usual, Kino has drummed up one new extra for their Blu-ray, an audio commentary, featuring writer/director Howard Franklin and film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer. This is another excellent track from Kino, on the heels of Kremer's track with Allan Arkush on Not For Publication. Franklin is an engaged and lively commentator, telling great stories about working with Del Close (who has a brief cameo as a publisher), why he rejected Jerry Goldsmith's music, the hiring of Jerry Adler, shooting outside of New York, working with his talented cast, and the mismarketing of the movie. Kremer chimes in with additional details and praise for Franklin's choices, and guides the discussion occasionally.

An original theatrical trailer for The Public Eye is also included, as well as trailers for True Confessions, Mulholland Falls, and Gone Fishin'.

The Public Eye seems to have dropped out of the public consciousness (I hadn't even heard of it until the Blu-ray appeared in the DVDTalk Screener Pool, and it doesn't appear to have been released on a pressed DVD before now, with only a 2011 Universal MOD Vault Series DVD standing between this release and VHS), but it's a fantastic little movie. It's a shame that this couldn't have been one of the various titles that received the 2K or 4K treatment for its Kino debut, as the transfer has that classic Universal waxiness that they've been doing a good job of relegating to the past. That said, the movie is absolutely worth a look, and this Blu-ray comes armed with a great extra to boot. Highly recommended.

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