Beautiful Dreamers

One New York archetype lives on in our movie mythology-the hustler/dreamer with his eye out for the Big Score. This con artist pops up in two new movies-more a con in the case of Harry Fabian (Robert De Niro), the ambulance-chasing lawyer in _B_Night and the City,_b_ and much more an artist in the person of Leon (Bernzy) Bernstein (Joe Pesci), the crime-chasing shutterbug hero of _B_The Public Eye._b_ The latter film, loosely inspired by Weegee, the great tabloid photographer, is set during World War II. Though "Night and the City," Irwin Winkler's remake of Jules Dassin's 1950 film noir, has been updated by writer Richard ("Clockers") Price, in spirit it belongs to an earlier era, when characters were "characters."

Motor mouth Harry Fabian talks an up beat game, but his life operates by the rules of Murphy's Law (anything that can go wrong will go wrong). This time, however, he's sure he's going to strike gold-as a boxing promoter. There are some big problems with his scheme. His partner, ex-prizefighter Al Grossman (Jack Warden), is the brother of gangster Boom Boom Grossman (Alan King), and Harry's muscling in on Boom Boom's turf. And Harry's coconspirator and lover, Helen (Jessica Lange), is married to a violently jealous bar owner (Cliff Gorman). If things go wrong this time, he could be a dead man.

Winkler, a successful producer ("Raging Bull," "Rocky") recently turned director ("Guilty by Suspicion"), has picked up some moves from Scorsese in his second, and much improved, effort. He gets the juices flowing with his nervous style, playing dread off gallows humor. He's got a lot to work with-the tangy, slangy bite of Price's underworld dialogue, and a cast that could milk tension from a bus schedule. De Niro is a sensationally manic-and even touching-sleaze; King, Warden and Gorman are splendidly disreputable, and Lange gives her role a tough/tender sexuality that's a pleasure to watch even when her character's loyalty to Harry confounds sense. "Night and the City" hits a false note at the finish. Forgive that and relish the movie's snappy, low-life high spirits.

To properly enjoy Howard Franklin's "The Public Eye," it's best to forget about the real Weegee, who would have found this tribute hopelessly sentimental and its detective-movie plotting a crazy contrivance. Yet for all its Hollywood silliness, there's something haunting about the figure of Bernzy, the solitary, night-crawling photographer who lives only for his work, collecting $3 for every corpse he photographs, unblinkingly witnessing the worst the New York streets have to offer. This is a portrait of the artist as hermit/voyeur/obsessive, a man who can connect to life only through the lens of his camera. What lures him out of his emotional shell is, of course, a beautiful woman-Barbara Hershey's glamorous nightclub owner, a vamp who ensorcells the photographer into playing private eye in a plot involving mobsters, wartime black markets and government scandals. Using all this artifice to illuminate the gritty world of a lonely shutterbug is an odd choice. Yet the tale's mournful B-movie romanticism-and Pesci's introspective, crablike performance-gets under your skin. In its moody, daffy way, "The Public Eye" gives off an authentic reek of artistic compulsion.

DAVID ANSEN

Here's a one-word review of "1492": hubris. That overweening pride belongs to director Ridley Scott ("Alien"), a visual wizard who outwizards himself. Scott doesn't so much ten the story of Columbus (Gerard Depardieu) as hurl it at the audience in a barrage of portentously pumped-up images and sounds: 15th-century Spain thunders by through billows of smoke, murk and noise. The music by Vangelis clangs and boings relentlessly; the sound of creaking sails on Columbus's voyage is as assaultive as the salvos of gunfire in the battle between Spaniards and rebelling Indians. Despite all the recent rethinking of Columbus and his discovery/invasion of the New World, "1492" is really a conventional Hollywood "biopic." Depardieu, a great movie star, seems all at sea in more ways than one. Hamstrung by Scott's overwrought style and Roselyne Bosch's underthought screenplay (and, frankly, his own barely adequate English), he hasn't a chance to develop his character. As Queen Isabel, Sigourney Weaver, immobile in her frozen fan of hair and iron-stiff brocade, looks like the Bride of Frankenstein after a course at finishing school. Some stunning images collide with dialogue like "No one ever expected this to be easy, Colon." This $50 million spectacle must be one of the least entertaining epic films ever made.

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