A Movie A Day #353: The Public Eye (1992, directed by Howard Franklin)


New York in the 1940s.  Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein (Joe Pesci) is nearly a legend in the city, a freelance news photographer with a police radio in his car and a darkroom in his trunk.  Bernzy is a solitary man who lives for his work, the type who has many acquaintances but few friends.  He gets the pictures that no one else can get but his dream of seeing a book published of his photographs seems to be unattainable.  As more than one snobbish publisher tells him, tabloid photographs are not art.

Bernzy is invited to a meeting with Kay Levitz (Barbara Hershey).  Kay is the widow of one of Bernzy’s few friends.  She has inherited a nightclub but now a mysterious man is claiming to be a former partner of her husband and says that he owns half of the club.  She asks Bernzy to discover who the man is.  Bernzy agrees and soon finds himself a suspect in a murder.  Even as Bernzy tries to clear his name, he never stop looking for the perfect shot.

Joe Pesci made this neo noir shortly after winning an Oscar for GoodfellasThe Public Eye was an attempt to elevate Pesci from being a character actor to a leading man.  It may not have accomplished that but it is still one of the better neo noirs of the 90s.  Howard Franklin does such a good job of recreating the style of film noir that the movie seems like it’s in black-and-white even though it’s in color and Barbara Hershey is perfectly cast as a sultry femme fatale.  The tough but eccentric Bernzy turns out to be a perfect role for Joe Pesci, who gives one of his best performances.  This overlooked film is one to watch for.

A Movie A Day #122: The Lost Capone (1990, directed by John Gray)


Chicago.  1915.  Up-and-coming gangster Al Capone (Eric Roberts) berates his younger brother, Jimmy (Adrian Pasdar), for not being aggressive enough in a street fight.  Not wanting to follow his brothers into a life of organized crime, Jimmy runs away from home and eventually finds himself in Harmony, Nebraska.  Claiming to be a World War I vet named Richard Hart, Jimmy impresses everyone with both his marksmanship and his incorruptible nature.  Soon, the new Richard Hart has been named town marshal.  While Al Capone is taking over the Chicago rackets, Richard is keeping the town safe with his Native American deputy, Joseph Littlecloud (Jimmie F. Skaggs), and starting a family with the local school teacher, Kathleen (Ally Sheedy).  When illegal liquor from Chicago starts to show up on a nearby Indian reservation, Richard Hart comes into conflict with the Chicago Outfit and his secret is finally revealed.

There is a sliver of truth to this made-for-TV movie.  Al Capone really did have a brother named James, who ended up changing his name to Richard Hart and working as a prohibition agent in Nebraska.  Otherwise, the movie changes so many facts that it is hard to know where to begin.  In real life, Al and James Capone grew up in New York.  James, who was actually several years older than Al, ran away from home not to escape Al’s bullying but because he wanted to join the circus.  (Al was only 9 when James ran away.)  James changed his name to Richard Hart not to keep people from realizing that he was related to Al but because he admired silent screen cowboy William S. Hart.  Though James did work in law enforcement, he never came into conflict with Al Capone’s organization and, in fact, regularly visited Chicago.

The Lost Capone is a forgettable mix of western and gangster clichés, featuring a notably stiff performance from Adrian Pasdar in the lead role.  It does feature two of the strangest performances that I have ever seen.  Eric Roberts, complete with a phony scar, playing Al Capone is just as weird as it sounds, while Ally Sheedy plays a wholesome and always smiling teacher but delivers her lines in the same halting tone of voice that she used as the “basket case” in The Breakfast Club.

There is probably a good movie that could be made about the life of James Capone/Richard Hart but The Lost Capone is not it.

Shattered Politics #59: Night Falls on Manhattan (dir by Sidney Lumet)


Night_falls_on_manhattan_poster

Oddly enough, right after I watched City Hall, I watched yet another 1997 film about politics and police corruption in New York.  And while Night Falls on Manhattan is definitely not one of Sidney Lumet’s best films, it’s still definitely an improvement on City Hall.

Night Falls on Manhattan tells the story of what happens when two veteran detectives — Liam Casey (Ian Holm) and Joey Allegreto (James Gandolfini) — attempt to arrest drug dealer Jordan Washington (Shiek Mahmud-Bey).  Liam ends up getting shot multiple times before Jordan, disguised as a police officer, flees the scene.  As the cops search for Jordan, they accidentally shoot and kill one of their own.

In short, Manhattan has gone crazy and only the prompt capture and conviction of Jordan Washington will set things right.

However, the police don’t have to spend too much time searching for Jordan because, the very next day, he turns himself in.  He’s accompanied by a veteran radical lawyer named Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss).  Vigoda announces that yes, Jordan is a drug dealer and yes, he did shoot Liam Casey.  However, Vigoda claims that Jordan has been paying off the cops and that Liam and Joey weren’t actually trying to arrest him.  Instead, they were specifically looking for an excuse to execute him.

Flamboyant District Attorney Morganstern (Ron Leibman) know that his office has to convict Jordan.  And luckily, he has a secret weapon.  Liam’s son, Sean (Andy Garcia), just happens to be a former cop and an assistant district attorney.  He assigns Sean to handle Jordan’s prosecution.

Sean, it turns out, has political ambitions of his own and, by prosecuting Jordan, he not only gets revenge for the shooting of his father but he also furthers his own career.  (He also gets a girlfriend, in this case an associate of Vigoda’s who is played by Lena Olin.)  When Morganstern has a heart attack, Sean suddenly finds himself being mentioned as a candidate to replace him in the upcoming election.

However, even as Sean appears to be shoo-in to be the next district attorney, he also discovers that neither Liam nor Joey were as innocent as he originally assumed..

Night Falls In Manhattan is an occasionally diverting legal and political thriller.  As a director, Sidney Lumet had an obvious feel for New York culture and, as a result, the film feels authentic even when the plot occasionally veers into melodrama.  As opposed to City Hall, you never doubt the plausibility of Night Falls On Manhattan.  Though Andy Garcia is a bit an odd choice to play an Irish-American (and it’s particularly difficult to imagine him being, in any way, related to Ian Holm), the rest of the film is well-cast.  Fans of The Sopranos will enjoy a chance to see James Gandolfini playing someone who, because he’s on the “right” side o the law, is actually more dangerous than Tony Soprano and Rob Leibman is thoroughly believable as a bullying crusader against crime.

After I watched Night Falls on Manhattan, I did some checking online and I was surprised to discover that the film is apparently not better known than it is.  While it definitely uneven, Night Falls On Manhattan is an interesting look at crime, ethics, and urban politics.

Shattered Politics #36: The Godfather, Part II (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


Godfather_part_ii

Believe it or not, The Trial of Billy Jack was not the only lengthy sequel to be released in 1974.  Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II was released as well and it went on to become the first sequel to win an Oscar for best picture.  (It was also the first, and so far, only sequel to a best picture winner to also win best picture.)  Among the films that The Godfather, Part II beat: Chinatown, Coppola’s The Conversation, and The Towering Inferno.  1974 was a good year.

Whenever I think about The Godfather, Part II, I find myself wondering what the film would have been like if Richard Castellano hadn’t demanded too much money and had actually returned in the role of Clemenza, as was originally intended.  In the first Godfather, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda) were Don Corleone’s two lieutenants.  Tessio was the one who betrayed Michael and was killed as a result.  Meanwhile, Clemenza was the one who taught Michael how to fire a gun and who got to say, “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”

Though Castellano did not return to the role, Clemenza is present in The Godfather, Part II.  The Godfather, Part II tells two separate stories: during one half of the film, young Vito Corleone comes to America, grows up to be Robert De Niro and then eventually becomes the Godfather.  In the other half of the film, Vito’s successor, Michael (Al Pacino), tries to keep the family strong in the 1950s and ultimately either loses, alienates, or kills everyone that he loves.

During Vito’s half of the film, we learn how Vito first met Clemenza (played by Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea).  However, during Michael’s half of the story, Clemenza is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we’re told that Clemenza died off-screen and his successor is Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo).  All of the characters talk about Frankie as if he’s an old friend but, as a matter of fact, Frankie was nowhere to be seen during the first film.  Nor is he present in Vito’s flashbacks.  This is because originally, Frankie was going to be Clemenza.  But Richard Castellano demanded too much money and, as a result, he was written out of the script.

And really, it doesn’t matter.  Gazzo does fine as Frankie and it’s a great film.  But, once you know that Frankie was originally meant to be Clemenza, it’s impossible to watch The Godfather Part II without thinking about how perfectly it would have worked out.

If Clemenza had been around for Michael’s scenes, he would have provided a direct link between Vito’s story and Michael’s story.  When Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) betrayed Michael and went into protective custody, it would have reminded us of how much things had changed for the Corleones (and, by extension, America itself).  When Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) talked Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) into committing suicide, it truly would have shown that the old, “honorable” Mafia no longer existed.  It’s also interesting to note that, before Tessio was taken away and killed, the last person he talked to was Tom Hagen.  If Castellano had returned, it once again would have fallen to Tom to let another one of his adopted father’s friends know that it was time to go.

Famously, the Godfather, Part II ends with a flashback to the day after Pearl Harbor.   We watch as a young and idealistic Michael tells his family that he’s joined the army.  With the exception of Michael and Tom Hagen, every character seen in the flashback has been killed over the course of the previous two films.  We see Sonny (James Caan), Carlo (Gianni Russo), Fredo (John Cazale), and even Tessio (Abe Vigoda).  Not present: Clemenza.  (Vito doesn’t appear in the flashback either but everyone’s talking about him so he might as well be there.  Poor Clemenza doesn’t even get mentioned.)

If only Richard Castellano had been willing to return.

Clemenza_and_Vito

Clemenza and Vito

 

But he didn’t and you know what?  You really only miss him if you know that he was originally meant to be in the film.  With or without Richard Castellano, The Godfather, Part II is a great film, probably one of the greatest of all time.  When it comes to reviewing The Godfather, Part II, the only real question is whether it’s better than the first Godfather.

Which Godfather you prefer really depends on what you’re looking for from a movie.  Even with that door getting closed in Kay’s face, the first Godfather was and is a crowd pleaser.  In the first Godfather, the Corleones may have been bad but everyone else was worse.  You couldn’t help but cheer them on.

The Godfather Part II is far different.  In the “modern” scenes, we discover that the playful and idealistic Michael of part one is gone.  Micheal is now cold and ruthless, a man who willingly orders a hit on his older brother and who has no trouble threatening Tom Hagen.  If Michael spent the first film surrounded by family, he spends the second film talking to professional killers, like Al Neri (Richard Bright) and Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui).  Whereas the first film ended with someone else closing the door on Kay, the second film features Michael doing it himself.  By the end of the film, Michael Corleone is alone in his compound, a tyrant isolated in his castle.

Michael’s story provides a sharp contrast to Vito’s story.  Vito’s half of the film is vibrant and colorful and fun in a way that Michael’s half is not and could never be.  But every time that you’re tempted to cheer a bit too easily for Vito, the film moves forward in time and it reminds you of what the future holds for the Corleones.

So, which of the first two Godfathers do I prefer?  I love them both.  If I need to be entertained, I’ll watch The Godfather.  If I want to watch a movie that will truly make me think and make me question all of my beliefs about morality, I’ll watch Part Two.

Finally, I can’t end this review without talking about G.D. Spradlin, the actor who plays the role of U.S. Sen. Pat Geary.  The Godfather Part II is full of great acting.  De Niro won an Oscar.  Pacino, Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire were all nominated.  Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale all deserved nominations.  Even Joe Spinell shows up and brilliantly delivers the line, “Yeah, we had lots of buffers.”  But, with each viewing of Godfather, Part II, I find myself more and more impressed with G.D. Spradlin.

Sen. Pat Geary doesn’t have a lot of time on-screen.  He attends a birthday party at the Corleone Family compound, where he praises Michael in public and then condescendingly insults him in private.  Later, he shows up in Cuba, where he watches a sex show with obvious interest.  And, when Michael is called before a Senate committee, Geary gives a speech defending the honor of all Italian-Americans.

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

But the scene that we all remember is the one where Tom Hagen meets Sen. Geary in a brothel.  As Geary talks about how he passed out earlier, the camera briefly catches the sight of a dead prostitute lying on the bed behind him.  What’s especially disturbing about this scene is that neither Hagen nor Geary seem to acknowledge her presence.  She’s been reduced to a prop in the Corleone Family’s scheme to blackmail Sen. Geary.  His voice shaken, Geary says that he doesn’t know what happened and we see the weakness and the cowardice behind his almost all-American facade.

It’s a disturbing scene that’s well-acted by both Duvall and Spradlin.  Of course, what is obvious (even if it’s never explicitly stated) is that Sen. Geary has been set up and that nameless prostitute was killed by the Corleones.  It’s a scene that makes us reconsider everything that we previously believed about the heroes of the Godfather.

For forcing us to reconsider and shaking us out of our complacency, The Godfather, Part II is a great film.

(Yes, it’s even better than The Trial of Billy Jack.)