The Night Owl Shutterbug

Joe Pesci as Leon Bernstein in The Public Eye (1992) (source)

Moviegoers in 1992 were presented with a quirky gem of a movie with a quirky gem of a hero: The Public Eye, with Joe Pesci in the role of cigar-chomping 1940s New York City tabloid crime photographer Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein, who often shows up at crime scenes before the cops do in order to beat his competitors to the best pictures.  Bernzy practically lives out of his car; he even has a mobile darkroom built in the trunk.  He’s a secretive, feisty, obsessive, and socially awkward loner, a night creature who lives for his art.  It’s all he cares about.  In his obsessive quest for fame, artistic immortality, and the ultimate photograph, he manages to run afoul of the cops, the Mob, and elements of the U.S. Government.

Arthur Fellig (Weegee) with camera (source)

It’s a beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted movie, with terrific performances all around from costars Barbara Hershey, Jerry Adler, and Stanley Tucci.  It was also, sadly, under-rated and apparently under-watched.  Probably due to its quirky, unusual subject and plot, The Public Eye didn’t do much at the box office, which is undoubtedly why it has yet to be released on DVD.   Most of the moviegoers who DID see The Public Eye were probably not aware that the character of Bernzy was based on a real cigar-chomping photographer: one who actually did take crime photographs for New York City tabloids in the Thirties and Forties, actually did drive a car with a darkroom in the trunk, and did beat the cops to crime scenes.  His name was Arthur Fellig.  Owing to his uncanny homing instinct for fresh crime scenes, somebody—and there are conflicting stories whether it was the cops or his competition—christened him with the phonetic spelling for a ouija board.  Thus, Arthur Fellig became known as Weegee.

Andrew Izzo, photographed by Weegee (source)

Or, as he called himself, “Weegee the Famous”, which moniker he rubber-stamped on the photos he sold to city editors.   He was, besides being a prescient and gifted photographer, a master of self-promotion.  One wouldn’t think so to look at him however.  He was a squat, compact, shabbily dressed man with a sad-eyed yet pugnacious face.  He was born Ascher Fellig in the Ukraine, in 1899, and his family emigrated to the United States in 1909, where Ascher was anglicized to Arthur.  Fellig never received formal training as a photographer; he learned his trade on the streets and in commercial newsrooms and darkrooms.  He struck out on his own in 1935, and began creating a legend.

“Booked On Suspicion”, photographed by Weegee (source)

There were hundreds of other photographers working the crime beat in New York City, and Gotham City gave them all plenty of subject matter.  What set Weegee’s photos apart were his timing, his mordant humor, his eye for quirky and sometimes freakish detail, his storyteller’s sensibility, and his capacity to stare tragedy in the face to find an image that conveyed the heart of the story.  His images possess a visual punch and visceral, emotional impact that none of his competitors could match.  Weegee wasn’t just taking photographs.  He was bearing witness, and because of this his photographs rose above the workmanlike utilitarian quality of the usual tabloid photos. 

Mother and Daughter, Tenement Fire (source)

Weegee’s subjects, caught by the merciless flashbulb glare of his bulky Speed Graphic camera, are often shown in desperate straits, sometimes literally on their last legs.  Some of them, pitifully, are already dead.  They are often victims of either crime or tragedy–or both–and Weegee’s unblinking eye catches them in the grip of extreme circumstances beyond their control.  In the image above, Weegee focused not on the Harlem tenement building engulfed in flames behind him, but on two escaped residents, a mother and daughter, horror-stricken and helpless as they watch another daughter and her baby still  trapped in the flames.  We don’t know how this story ended, but the photograph remains, horrifying and compelling us to stare in gut-wrenching fascination at this nocturnal, real-life nightmare.  The two womens’ horror and grief are frightening and palpable, and the viewer can’t help but share in it because Weegee forces us to look.

Weegee perched on his window ledge (source)

Weegee published his classic photography book Naked City in 1945.  Later, a classic film noir and an award-winning TV series were made using the same title, inspired by Weegee’s images and seedy aesthetic.  He then began working in the movie industry starting in the late 1940s.  He was the official still photographer for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and Peter Sellers was so taken with Weegee’s distinctive voice that he used it as the basis for the voice of the title character in the movie.   Weegee died, justly famous and justly celebrated, in 1968.  His legacy and reputation continue to grow through the years, and his art continues to inspire artists and photographers worldwide.   In part, his work helped inspired the distinctive look of film noir, and Hollywood made a movie inspired by his life.  Now, if they would only complete the gesture, and remaster and re-release The Public Eye, another audience can be introduced to the life and work of this diminutive, obsessive, completely unique night owl artist.

Reading The Police Teletype (source)

(Previously published at my other blog, ineedartandcoffeeblogspot.com)

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