The Public Eye still
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99 min.
Release Date
The Public Eye poster

In The Public Eye, Joe Pesci plays Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein, known among cops and the criminal underworld as the Great Bernzini. Early in the 1992 film, two sequences establish the character’s driving forces: self-interest and art. The first finds Bernzy snapping photos at crime scenes. He has a knack for getting there before the cops do. At one, Bernzy adjusts a dead body to a more dynamic angle for his picture; at another, he dresses as a priest to gain access to an ambulance and snap a photo of an axe-murderer’s victim. The second sequence finds Bernzy meeting with a photographic art publisher. When his book of New York street life is deemed too “sensational” and “vulgar” to be art, Bernzy recoils. “‘It’s a photo—let’s pretend it’s a painting,’” he mocks with contempt for the still lifes and nudes usually associated with photographic art. From these two sequences, the question at the center of writer-director Howard Franklin’s feature lies in whether Bernzy is a bottom feeder who thrives on documenting the misery of others, or does his unique perspective elevate his subjects into art? Can both be true? However intriguing the question, The Public Eye’s investigation into the nature of this opportunistic artist is secondary to the film’s mystery, which, though modeled after popular neo-noirs, never quite achieves the same level of interest.

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