Night Shift Review
Trivia time! What do Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman and Michael Keaton have in common? Give up? They all got their big break playing pimps. Cruise became a teen idol in Risky Business, Freeman was Oscar nominated for a little-seen thriller called Street Smart and Keaton made a major splash with his debut in Night Shift, an comedy about a couple of Manhattan morgue attendants who use their hearses to drive call girls as well as corpses.
This is actually based on a true story but Night Shift isn't going for gritty realism. It's from the same team behind Splash, Parenthood and Ed TV - writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel and director Ron Howard, perhaps the only guys who could have made a feel-good comedy about lovable pimps. I don't mean that as a slight. Ganz and Mandel are great comedy writers and I have a lot of time for Ron Howard, one of the most dependable mainstream film-makers of the last two decades. As well as the comedies mentioned above, he made Cocoon, Backdraft, The Paper, Ransom and A Beautiful Mind, which may not have quite deserved its Oscars but is still a powerful drama.
Making Night Shift, his first major film as director after a handful of TV and exploitation movies, Howard cast his Happy Days co-star Henry Winkler as Chuck Lumley, a timid civil servant a million miles from the Fonz. Chuck is the kind of guy who lets people walk all over him - he's nagged by a self-absorbed fiancee and bullied by an overbearing mother and when his boss re-assigns him to work nights so his lazy nephew can have the day shift, Chuck doesn't have the nerve to argue. Hoping at least for peace and quiet, he's appalled to find himself working with Billy Blazejowski (Keaton), a hyperactive nutcase who considers himself an ideas man and carries a tape recorder to keep track of his thoughts. When Chuck tells Billy about his sweet call-girl neighbour (Shelley Long), who's been in need of protection since her pimp was killed, Billy's solution is turning the mortuary into a part-time escort agency.
The plot summary makes it sound like a crude farce but in fact this is a good-natured human comedy about three people with unhappy lives who find an unconventional way of helping each other. A 1982 release, it's slower paced than most of today's comedies but that's not a bad thing - having recently endured The Tuxedo, where every funny gag is steamrollered by breakneck editing, I found it a blessed relief. There are some big laughs, mostly supplied by Keaton, and a lot of sharp observational humour, much of it at the expense of New York, which is almost as sleazy and hostile here as it was in Taxi Driver.
The film is unquestionably Michael Keaton's show. Keaton is a unique comic talent who has rarely been used to his full potential and Night Shift belongs on a short list of his best work alongside Beetlejuice, Clean And Sober and The Paper. Henry Winkler makes Chuck a sympathetic guy when he could have been annoying and he does a good job playing against his Fonz persona. Likewise Shelley Long, Diane the prim waitress from Cheers, is not many peoples' idea of a hooker but she's sweet and surprisingly sexy and gives her role just enough poignancy to make you care about her and her blossoming relationship with Chuck.
Some more trivia: Drew Barrymore's mother plays one of the hookers and look out for Kevin Costner as a college boy partying in the morgue and a very young Shannen Doherty as a girl scout who attacks Henry Winkler in an elevator.
The disc is double-sided with a 4:3 pan and scan job on one side and, on the other, an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, which is pretty good on the whole. On the negative side, there is some digital artifacting on the dingy brown walls and blankets and there's also a little bit of print damage. Still, this being a 1982 film set largely at night, I wouldn't have expected anything like the sharpness, clarity and vibrancy displayed here. Not perfect but not a bad effort at all.
Sound is stereo and more than adequate unless you think only DTS can do justice to the Burt Bacharach score.
There are no extras. Menus are static and there are 37 chapter stops. Say what you like about Warner Bros, they don't short-change you on chapter stops.
Night Shift is a terrific comedy which doesn't deserve the semi-obscurity it's fallen into and I see it as my duty as a reviewer to bring little gems like this to your attention. The disc is bereft of extras but delivers a solid transfer of the film and you can pick it up for a very reasonable price.
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