By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 23, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s certainly possible for a character actor to become a leading man (just look at that great, scowling bullfrog Edward G. Robinson), but if he does he’d better hold on to the qualities that gave him character in the first place. In Joe Pesci’s case, those qualities include a feisty comic gleam and the machine-gun combativeness (”Do you think I’m funny?”) of a runt who’s constantly out to prove himself.

In The Public Eye, a somber drama set in Manhattan in the early ’40s, Pesci plays Leon Bernstein, a.k.a. Bernzy, a cigar-chomping shutterbug who combs the city from midnight to dawn, snapping silvery photographs of murders, gangsters, human tragedy — anything sensational or tawdry — and hawking the pictures to tabloid newspapers, where he credits himself ”The Great Bernzini.” Bernzy, who has a genius for getting to crime scenes before anyone else, walks this lonely, lurid beat because he’s fatally drawn to it. Danger and sleaze are his narcotic.

Pesci would seem to be perfectly cast as this wormy paragon of shock journalism, this voyeur for hire. Only that’s not the way the movie views Bernzy. No, it sees him as an artist, a long-suffering creator who roams the night so that he can photograph…the naked truth. I’m perfectly willing to buy the notion that there’s a gritty aesthetic to good tabloid photography (the movie is loosely based on the career of the famous photojournalist Weegee). But The Public Eye takes a ludicrously high-minded view of both its hero and his profession. Even as it celebrates the ”reality” of Bernzy’s photographs, it shows him rearranging images in the most schlocky, manipulative way (he likes putting hats on corpses), as if this were the ultimate sign of his creativity. The movie wants him to be Leonardo da Vinci and a Weekly World News hack at the same time.

Attempting to breathe life into this hopelessly naive vision of a sad-sack artist-saint, Pesci is forced to rein in just about everything that makes him likable: his manic energy, the leering delight he takes in his own shamelessness. To top things off, Bernzy has been stuck in the middle of a World War II mystery plot that’s as moldy as it is muddled. The Public Eye is nicely photographed — it has the burnished metallic sheen of a handsome Deco nightclub — but the picture, I’m afraid, is a dud. C-