Sunday, December 1, 2013

Night Shift (1982)

Director: Ron Howard                                    Writers: Lowell Granz & Babaloo Mandel
Film Score: Burt Bacharach                           Cinematography: James Crabe
Starring: Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, Shelley Long and Gina Hecht

This is an early effort by Ron Howard, his first major picture after working on small, independent pictures for Roger Corman and just prior to his breakout film Splash. Of course Howard had worked with Henry Winkler on Happy Days and it was an inspired choice to cast him as the cuckold fiancée of a neurotic woman who completely dominates him and so takes refuge from the world by working nights at the New York City morgue. Naturally, when Winkler read the script he saw himself as the wild and crazy new guy at the morgue. He was disappointed but he did a fantastic job as the nebbish Chuck, as did newcomer Michael Keaton as wild man Bill Blazejowski. Keaton had worked on TV and had bit parts in a couple of films, but after Night Shift he became a breakout star and never looked back.

The film begins with Winkler and his frustrating relationship with Gina Hecht. She hates the way she looks, thinks she’s too fat, is distracted by the silliest things, and insists before bedtime that Winkler check the apartment. Still, he has achieved some measure of success at the city morgue. That is until the coroner’s nephew needs as job and is given Winkler’s day job, sending him back to the night shift. Naturally he takes it like a wimp and agrees. But then Michael Keaton blows into the morgue as the new guy Winkler has to train. He’s a loose cannon who has all sorts of crazy ideas, and the two are obviously complete opposites. One night coming home Winkler rides up the elevator with his neighbor, Shelley Long, who happens to be a prostitute and has been beaten up because her pimp died. Well, Keaton comes to the rescue by convincing Long and her prostitute friends to let he and Winkler run their business out of the morgue at night . . . with attendant comedic results.

The film is yet another variation on The Odd Couple, itself simply a modified buddy picture, but it is definitely inspired. And were it not for the indelicate subject matter at the time, it no doubt would have been picked up as a television series. But in a way, the film has not really aged well. Working primarily with interior sets, the set ups and camera angles reflect the television milieu where Ron Howard learned his craft. In addition you have the television associations of Winkler and Long. Screenwriter Lowell Granz was perfect for the assignment, however, having written for Happy Days as well as The New Odd Couple, and has penned a host of similar comedic film since. Given all of that the pacing is good and there are some nice comedic touches that really work.

There are the natural morgue jokes, especially during the frat party that Keaton hosts. But Winkler’s character was also a financial genius and that aspect of the film is refreshing as he invests the girls’ money, gets them a medical plan, and even manages to pull down a bunch of money for himself. Things get complicated when Winkler falls for Long and being so dominated in the past he can’t bring himself to tell her how he feels. This, in turn, causes his frustration level to rise and when things begin spinning out of control he takes it out on Keaton, and winds up losing both of his partners. While the ending might be predictable, there’s still a sense of enjoyment that accompanies the whole project. Like a lot of young directors, moving away from comedy and into drama has helped Ron Howard’s reputation and has resulted in better films. The final assessment of Night Shift is that it’s an energetic comedy by a young director, not a great film, but definitely entertaining.

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