In 1940s New York, Leon Bernstein or "The Great Bernzini", is the hottest news photographer around. With his legendary impartiality he photographs cop and criminal alike. His impartiality is, however, challenged when he agrees to help club-owner Kay who is under pressure from the mob.
Inspired by the work of the freelance tabloid shutterbugs who captured the mean streets of night-time New York in the 30s and 40s particularly the legendary Weegee Howard Franklin here succeeds in translating a static art form into a moving one. Conveying the world through the eyes of "The Great Bernzini", a low-life lensman with a soul, he wraps up an intense character study in a pleasing thriller of murder and romance. It's an inspired notion, since the newsmen of that era informed the movies which in turn prompted the real tough guys to affect the mannerisms and speech of their own screen counterparts.
In his first true dramatic lead role, Joe Pesci turns his "Bernzy" a seemingly sleazy opportunist who's happy pretending to be a priest to shoot a flashbulb in the face of an about-to-croak axe-murder victim into the eternal seeker of truth and beauty. Driven to look into the heart of everything, he gradually takes on stature and poignance, whether tenderly rearranging a drunk in an alley before photographing him or wistfully falling in love with archetypal sultry siren Kay The Unobtainable (Hershey).
It's Bernzy's "I gotta catch the moment" nature as much as his attraction to the potentially duplicitous dame that makes him abandon his practice of never taking sides in his professional dealings with cops, the underworld and cafe society slummers. Fortunately, his obsession to be wherever the action is remains a constant throughout, providing a string of gritty, funny and insightful incidents, culminating in a stunning massacre sequence.
Lurid and flashy in design with the authentic photos by Weegee and others used as Bernzy's portfolio and rich in little gems of wisecracks, this strikes the right tone between sordid reality and romantic, artistic idealism