Arthur Fellig is most certainly a name that won’t ring many bells today with classic movie fans, but his nom de plume — “Weegee” — might since Fellig achieved over the years considerable renown in photography circles as well as a certain reverence in Hollywood.
Fellig was an Austrian immigrant who, as Weegee, toiled as a freelance still photographer working the police beat in New York City in the Thirties and Forties. This was when getting your shot on the front page of one of Gotham’s tabloids was a lucrative achievement.
And Weegee was the best at his trade, working with his reliable Speed Graphic along with a police radio in his 1938 Chevy and a makeshift photo lab in the trunk. He was most often the first to photograph a crime scene, and the gawkers who collected there.
His moody, sometimes alarming shots, were seen and admired by Hollywood’s post-war film noir creators as part of THE look — shadowy, evocative, as sharp and stinging as a slap in the face.
Weegee’s influence on still photography was powerful (his work currently sits in a permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art). His influence on Hollywood’s noir genre was less marked, but nonetheless evident in the cinematography and in the gritty urban milieus. Weegee loved New York, and the city turned out to be the model for many noir urban settings.
And, oh, the subject matter. A perfect match. Weegee loved to photograph celebrities in performance or in distress, murdered criminals, ladies of the evening at their leisure, couples embracing on lonely beaches and, of course, dead bodies. He said he took shots of the corpses “from angles that make ’em look comfortable.”
The 1945 collection of his work, Naked City dedicated “to you the people of New York,” includes a shot of a black swing band flying loftily at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, the Metropolitan Opera’s male chorus gearing up for opening night, Frank Sinatra wooing bobbysoxers at the Paramount Theater on Broadway and an intriguing shot of an auto accident victim lying just outside the marquee of a movie house showing 1938’s romantic musical, Joy of Living costarring Irene Dunne and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Naked City was Weegee’s entree into Hollywood since the book is said to have inspired the Universal’s crime drama of the same title, produced by Mark Hellinger, directed by Jules Dassin and costarring Barry Fitzgerald and Howard Duff. Set in New York, of course, the film Naked City is a realistic look at a laborious police trackdown of a twisted criminal who murders a blond model in her apartment. Perfect Weegee material.
He actually made on onscreen appearance in a superb noir thriller also right out of Weegee territory — about a washed up fighter (Robert Ryan) who runs afoul of the mob by NOT throwing a fight. The Set Up, directed by Robert Wise, costars one of noirs most accomplished femme fatales, Audrey Totter. Watch the movie’s very realistic fight scenes carefully since Weegee appears for a fraction of a second (blink and you’ll miss him) as the ringside time keeper.
Wegee also caught the fancy of director Stanley Kubrick, no stranger to film noir thanks to the movie that established him: 1956’s The Killing, a racetrack heist-gone-awry drama costarring Sterling Heyden, Colleen Gray, Vince Edward, Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor. Weegee was hired years later as some sort of “special effects adviser” on Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb.
In 1992, Universal relased The Public Eye (available on DVD in the Universal Vault Collection) featuring Joe Pesci playing 1940’s crime photog, “Leon Bernstein.” The movie’s principal character was based on Weegee.
Before he died in 1968, Weegee appeared as himself in an obscure 1966 indie “pseudo documentary” titled The Improbable Mr. Wee Gee. It was about a photographer who falls in love with a window store dummy. The movie was made and distributed by an outfit called American Film Distributing Corp.
If anyone out there has actually seen The Improbable Mr. Wee Gee, we’d love to hear all about it.