Favorite Scene Theatre: Night Shift (1982)

Since I’m in an 80’s kind of comedy mode, I thought it apropos to revisit an iconic scene from NIGHT SHIFT, directed by Ron Howard and written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell from the fabled movie year of 1982. I saw this at the now defunct Madison Square Four Cinema on a double feature of FUNERAL HOME (a Canadian tax shelter flick if there ever was) and something else I’ve forgotten that I feared would be worse. I tried to convince Jay to see NIGHT SHIFT next door as I’d heard good things despite the chintzy “wacky” poster. He didn’t want to go and got mad that I did. A few minutes later, Jay entered and sat a few seats away, pouting. Soon we were all laughing. As we walked out of the theater, he said, “You were right.” We both loved NIGHT SHIFT.

I was hooked immediately by the neon New York vibe of the Burt Bacharach theme song by Quarterflash. It’s the last of the 1970’s cinematic Manhattan, replete with 42nd Street tenement taint. And though Henry Winkler had not become a movie star after HEROES and THE ONE AND ONLY, he found a perfect role in a hit film as Chuck Lumley, the milquetoast morgue clerk whose night life is turned upside down by fellow employee Billy “Blaze” Blazejowski, his party polar opposite, as they become semi-reluctant gentle pimps. Winkler is far from the Fonz and his arc from flower to lion is sweet and satisfying as is his relationship with Shelly Long, more than holding her own and very sexy. There are also funny character bits from Vincent Schiavelli, Joe Spinell and Bobby Di Ciccio (“That Barny Rubble. What an actor.”). Howard likes a good ensemble.

As I’ve stated before, there’s only a few times where one witnesses A Star Is Born onscreen and I would include Michael Keaton’s entrance here as one of those, albeit in a minor key. There’s no doubt he’s the real comedic lifeforce in NIGHT SHIFT and he deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Blazejowski is a unique character whose almost every line is quotable. Along with Bill Murray, Keaton ushered in the age of the post-modern smart-ass and I can still recall the pleasure of this moment and the general goodwill vibes of what is probably my favorite Ron Howard film. Is this a great scene or what?

31 Responses to “Favorite Scene Theatre: Night Shift (1982)”

  1. I’ve said this before, but if Tim Burton had had an ounce of sense in the late Eighties, he’d have reunited his Beetlejuice stars by casting Baldwin as Batman and Keaton as The Joker.

    Nicholson was undoubtedly good for the box office, but look at Keaton’s manic energy in this scene and tell me he wouldn’t been a far better choice than old, fat Jack — who, let’s face it, was already in lazy self-parody mode by that point. We would have missed out on Richard Corliss’s memorable “dueling eyebrows” remark, but I can live with that.

    Reigning him in and and hiding his expressiveness behind a mask was just dumb, and it arguably led to his being cast in dull leading man roles and his current semi-oblivion. He was never meant to be a pillar of righteous boringness.

    • christian Says:

      Baldwin would have made a great Batman, and better Bruce Wayne. I had hoped when Keaton was cast that Burton would be highlighting his manic side as the Dark Knight, but he played him as the straight-jawed hero. Keaton woulda been a great Joker. But I do like Jack, and he has some effective moments, particularly during his botched operation.

  2. Yeah, Baldwin had the physicality, smarts and edge (see MIAMI BLUES) to pull it off. Can’t believe no one saw this.

    I agree that Jack is intermittently entertaining (he is JACK, after all), but overall he looks lost to me. Several scenes sputter out with him making random noises or faces as if waiting to hear “cut!” I get the feeling Burton and/or the editors thought everything Nicholson did was gold and let his scenes play on too long. It gives the film’s pacing an off, slack feel — but then, that’s characteristic of Burton’s work in general.

    Nicholson circa CUCKOO’S NEST would have been perfect. I recall reading that the producers had wanted him since way back when. Maybe it just took too long to get the film off the ground, and they couldn’t admit that their dream choice was now past his prime.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to derail the thread — but seeing Keaton in his glory days made me think of what might have been. He really did burn up the screen back then.

    • christian Says:

      I definitely got that sense of “Let Jack run free” through the role, but that might be due to Jon Peters influence and Burton unsure at the helm of his biggest movie.

  3. Looove Brokers!!!!

    I liked Jack in Batman at the time, but I was still high on Jack at that point. Looking back, he was all wrong. I rewatched Batman not long ago for the first time in ages and it hasn’t aged well at all. Keaton as Joker and Baldwin as Batman is a terrific idea. Baldwin would’ve had a better Batman voice than the strained growl that Keaton and Bale brought.

    But back to Night Shift. What’s another director who showed so much promise and turned out so disappointingly as Ron Howard. I love Night Shift and Splash and after that… not so much. I don’t even like Apollo 13 which I know is a favorite.

    I still wish there had been a movie or TV show with Keaton’s character from Jackie Brown and Out of Sight.

  4. Yeah, Craig, Howard really went downhill after his early promise. He was a great light comedy guy, but he wanted Oscars. He’s always been competent, but he just doesn’t have that natural filmmaking zip that great directors are born with.

    I haven’t seen APOLLO 13 since it was released, but I agree that it was oddly slack, and got by largely on the novelty of the “filming in zero-g” gimmick. Imagine what a De Palma would have done with it. Or Cameron — it seems right up his alley.

    It also would have been nice if the astronauts had had, you know, PERSONALITIES and there had been a little conflict. Maybe NASA put the kibosh on that idea.

    • “He’s always been competent, but he just doesn’t have that natural filmmaking zip that great directors are born with.”

      And there’s nothing wrong with that. In the words of Judge Smails, the world needs ditch diggers too. There’s plenty of room in Hollywood for simple competence without a distinctive auteurist stamp. Michael Curtiz made a whole career of it. But yeah, it’s where Howard gets highfalutin (Beautiful Mind) or he fucks with my childhood (The Grinch) that he falls way short.

  5. “Along with Bill Murray, Keaton ushered in the age of the post-modern smart-ass and I can still recall the pleasure of this moment and the general goodwill vibes of what is probably my favorite Ron Howard film.”

    Amen, my brother! Keaton is a force of nature in this film and I love how he records his ideas for “great” inventions into a tape recorder. Along with MR. MOM and BEETLEJUICE, this is my fave Keaton performance. I also dig how Keaton bounces of the nebbish Winkler in this film. They play well off each other both display fantastic comic timing.

    This might be my fave Howard film (just edging out THE PAPER – i love films about journalists) and I’ve been disappointed by how his career has gone. That being said, he occasionally comes up with a winner – I enjoyed both APOLLO 13 and FROST/NIXON but most of his other films have left me cold.

    As for Keaton, I think he may very well be still my fave Bruce Wayne and maybe even Batman. Alto, I do like seeing Christian Bale almost channeling (just a little bit) Patrick Bateman when he plays Wayne in his 2 Batman films but he doesn’t have the unpredictability that Keaton brought to the role. Fer example, I love the scene in the first BATMAN film where Keaton tries to explain to Kim Basinger’s character that he’s Batman. It’s a nice little moment that injects this big-budget blockbuster with some humanity and an off-kilter vibe. This was definitely missing from the Schumacher debacles.

    • christian Says:

      Still haven’t seen THE PAPER.

      I thought Keaton was fine as Wayne but I pictured somebody more like Clooney. But as Batman, I was hoping for that Keaton mania. He looks great when he smiles and that’s the kinda madness I wanted to see.

      His entrance in BEETLEJUICE is even better than NS and he really nailed that crazy character.

  6. I especially appreciate Keaton’s character slipping in that one dig after looking at Winkler’s picture of his fiancee: “Nice frame.” Says it all. Great clip to spotlight this film, Christian.

    • christian Says:

      Thanks. Yeah, every line is a keeper. Even that great “Aaahhh” hand motion from his rushing ideas.

  7. i rather adore michael keaton, he’s my fave filmic wayne/batman so far (to this day, when i’m feeling really cocky and ready to take on the world, i’ll hiss out a quintessential keaton-esque “I’M BATMAN”. i try to do this when there are very few people around so that i don’t appear a complete psycho). his wayne is laid-back, casually good-humoured and restrained, but you can feel that nervous energy bubbling just under the surface and see the dark half in his eyes. (bale’s wayne/batman is a huge snooze)

    i just about did a jig when i saw keaton as the police chief in ‘the other guys’ trailer, there is nothing more i’d like to see than micheal have a huge career ‘character actor’ resurgence. i thought this might happen after his bonza turn as ray nicolette in ‘j-brown’ (and ‘out of sight’), but not so much. i’m rooting for a keaton comeback in a big way

    • christian Says:

      I just wanted more mania from Keaton. Anybody can play the square-jaw superhero, but few can do what Keaton does. His Wayne was too laid-back and I thought Bale better captured the public fool side of Wayne.

      I think Keaton took a deliberate career divergence from his broad comedy to being seen as a serious actor. I love him in JACKIE BROWN, especially his conversation with Pam Grier in the car about being tempted to take the money. His eyes tell you all.

      • yeah, the ‘serious dramatic actor’ thing didn’t work out too well for MK, it all turned to custard a bit

        bale is more a ‘purist’ wayne, but weirdly, while i’m generally a fan of bale (his turn in ‘the machinist’ is one for the ages in my book, harrowing as hell) and i liked him ok in ‘begins’, he’s just too damn serious in TDK (and too boyish as wayne, or something, i can’t quite put my finger on it), his wayne just doesn’t work for me in the ‘ultra drama mode’ nolan has him playing. i know nolan is going for the ‘serious crime’ tone in TDK, but it’s a delicate balance one must tread with the bat, and nolan needed a little more fun and a little less glowering in that one. plus, batman’s gravely voice in TDK is genuinely annoying as hell, he sounds like he’s got a fatal case of emphysema and i’m not having a bar of it. i hope nolan gives him an oxygen mask to sort out that problem before the next installment

        • christian Says:

          I thought his growl voice could easily be explained by a device on his neck that modulated his voice to keep it secret. Or he could have just acted out the dangerous mania that the character still hasn’t fully shown onscreen.

          • i guess that neck thing sounds plausible. but such a radical change of batvoice from ‘begins’ is sort of bizarre, i guess maybe he could be refining his disguise. i just wish it didn’t sound like his voice was dragged over 30ks of hard road after throat surgery from 10 packs a day and an extremely bad cold!

            • christian Says:

              Just one line of dialogue could explain it:

              ALFRED: What’s with your voice, Master Wayne?

              BRUCE: Workin’ my Batman.

          • Action requires knedlowge, and now I can act!

          • Ha ha ha, den er skæg. Efter en ferie i Italien, kan jeg sagtens genkende de mÃ¥der at være bilist pÃ¥ ;-) Heldigvis (for os turister), er reglerne blevet ændret, sÃ¥ nu har Italienerne 20 points pÃ¥ deres kørekort. For hver forseelse, bliver der trukket et X antal points, og mister man til slut alle points, skal man op til ny køreprøve. Derfor kører de faktisk liiiidt pænere nu.

  8. In addition to the CLASSIC “Nice frame” line, also a huge fan of the scene in the barber shop where Keaton’s trying to talk Winkler into the whole idea, then at the end of the scene Keaton takes note of this bald guy with HORRIBLE muttonchops in the next chair and exclaims “Trim that!”

    Also have to say too, Keaton got all the hype for his breakthrough here, which was well earned… but Winkler KILLS IT in this, playing a total sadsack.

    Too bad the most lingering thing about the movie that NEVER GOES AWAY is that HORRIBLE Al Jarreau GIRLS KNOW HOW TO SONG that plays during the MONTAGE…. Been stuck in my head since 1983, always accompanied by an image of Keaten mugging over the bling.

    Could definitely do without that bit.

  9. christian Says:

    People also forget that the song “That’s What Friends Are For” made its Rod Stewart debut here but wouldn’t become a hit until four years later by Dionne Warwick.

  10. PARENTHOOD makes its point about 5 times more than it needs to, but I think Weist, Robards, Martin, Reeves, Plimpton, and Steenburgen are quite good in it, and Robards’ realization that Hulce just isn’t any damn good is heartbreaking.

    That scene between Robards and Martin on the ball field, when Robards says he’s asking his advice because “I know you didn’t think I was good a father” is also wonderful. Let’s not let the retrospective Howard hate detract from what was, at one point, a promising directorial career. His pictures used to have a flakey, real, humanity.

    Keaton as joker would’ve been great, the best moment in the original Batman is “you wanna get nuts? Let’s get NUTS!”

    • christian Says:

      Thanks for a more detailed defense of PARENTHOOD than I could provide. I had forgotten about Hulce but he’s a terrific cad in this and the Robards scene is good too. I think the comedy is grounded in some reality and has truth, which was enough for me at the time.

      But I think Keaton’s “Let’s get nuts” moment in BATMAN doesn’t work at all. It’s staged poorly in a weird master shot and needed…more. But that’s the kind of Batman I wanted to see.

  11. Yeah, the BATMAN filmmaking is kinda awkard throughout the picture as I remember it (it tells you something that I could pick some of that up even as a 10 year old) but that scene has some wonderful Keaton, and some good Nicholson.

    And I still like Burton’s BATMAN, its personal in a way that isn’t strained, and I love BATMAN RETURNS.

    I miss superhero movies as a once-in-a-while thing, and I miss less polished Burton pictures.

    • christian Says:

      That scene was added at the last minute to provide a mano-y-mano confrontation between Wayne and the Joker.

      BATMAN RETURNS I really disliked. I was angry the movie was more about the Penguin — a pathetic sad villain (testament to DeVito too) — but a weak foe to Batman. And the Catwoman stuff never worked for me. I always thought Sean Young shoulda been Catwoman.

  12. I’m glad you approve of my casting, Chuck, but I have to agree with C that the “Let’s get nuts” scene was an egregious addition. Bruce Wayne is a not a blue collar bar brawler, and he wouldn’t talk like that. It’s the wrong kind of crazy. Which is one of the other problems with Keaton’s casting — I never believed he was born into money.

    (As for the “right” kind of crazy, I always thought Wayne should be sexually repressed/deprived. He’s afraid to get close to anyone, and when would he have time for sex anyway? He’s hanging out with gargoyles all night, every night. This makes him mad, and he takes it out on the bad guys. He’s a fighter, not a lover.)

    Somebody on HE (I think) recently came up with best review of BATMAN RETURNS I’ve ever read. He said he felt like he was trapped in a giant FAO Schwartz for two hours.

    • christian Says:

      I didn’t buy him as a blueblood either. I wanted him to play Batman like BEETLEJUICE — another intro scene that might be Keaton’s finest onscreen moment. Burton and him were on fire in that one.

      I second that HE review.

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