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The Nostalgic Attic: Night Shift (1982)

5 June 2014

Night Shift (1982)

"Oh, that Barney Rubble. What an actor!"

There must have been something in the air between '82 and '83, what with the glut of films that came out involving generally straight-laced guys becoming pimps. Risky Business is probably the best known, while the Dan Aykroyd starring Doctor Detroit is nearly forgotten about at this point. Sitting somewhere in between these two is Night Shift; not exactly a cult classic, but not destitute and dusty on the shelf, either.

Timid morgue attendant Chuck ( Henry Winkler; Happy Days, Scream), formerly a stock broker, is used to being treated as life's doormat. His girlfriend has little respect for him, and his boss has no qualms about dumping him on the night shift for eternity, just to give his own nephew a job. Things take an interesting turn when a pimp is brought in after being dropped from a window - one of his girls, Belinda (Shelley Long; The Money Pit, Losin' It, Outrageous Fortune), comes in to identify the body. It turns out she also lives in the same building as Chuck, and has a thing for redneck John's in stetson hats, which he finds out the hard way. To make life worse, Chuck has to train in the new night shift driver, Bill Blazejowski (Michael Keaton; Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, Beetlejuice), who really doesn't know when to shut the hell up. If he's not talking into his tape deck and coming up with harebrained business schemes ("What if you mix the mayonnaise IN the can, WITH the tuna fish?") he's out using the morgue's car as a rent-a-limo for broke prom dates.

Chucks girlfriend, Charlotte, decides she's had enough of him being spineless about everything, and heads home to her folks to stay for awhile. On coming home from work one evening, Chuck discovers Belinda slumped in the lift of his building, beaten up by a client who refused to pay. It seems that Belinda and her lady-friends-of-the-night could do with a new pimp. Bill jumps at the idea ("Love brokers!"), but Chuck is appalled. Could he really be a pimp? All it takes to convince him is Belinda popping in to make him scrambled eggs in her underwear, then suddenly the guys are in business.

Chuck, using that ex-stockbroker brain of his,gets a good deal running for the girls, giving them more work and cash than their previous pimp ever did. He even gets them to start investing their cash into a business, thinking for the future. Bill, however, is much more reckless, throwing parties for frat boys in the morgue, risking both their jobs and asses. Chuck also starts to fall in love with Belinda, even though he is still with Charlotte. What's going to happen when the real pimps come looking for the cash that is disappearing off the street from Chuck and Bill's operation? Will Chuck and Belinda find happiness? And will Chuck finally man up for once in his life and take control?

From the premise of 'two guys working in a morgue set themselves up as pimps', you would expect a fairly bawdy comedy, and it really isn't. Both Chuck and Bill as characters are really quite likable, and even when Bill is being obnoxious, he is never caustic. The same goes for the way sex and prostitution is handled in the film. There are no 'big' sex scenes, like in say, Risky Business, and the nudity that is there exists mostly in the background - we never get close ups of boobs and asses, designed purely to titillate a juvenile audience. And hey, not that there's anything wrong with that - but it's definitely not that kind of film. We only once really see the ugly side of being a hooker (when Belinda gets beaten up in the lift) but don't expect anything along the lines of the brutal Vice Squad; it most definitely is not that kind of film, either.

So what kind of film is it, then? An odd one, really. Despite the 'love broker!' storyline, it's a much more gentle film about a man finally taking control of his life, and not being afraid to say 'no'. It essentially belongs in the 'yuppy nightmare' sub genre, I suppose, as a man must lose the grip on his life before he can find it again. This becomes clear in the final stages of the film, when we usually get a wrap up of characters coming together and learning their lesson over the course of five minutes or so. But here, a good twenty minutes is spent with the characters, as they get to grips with their new outlook on life. Chuck doesn't just finally stick up to his girlfriend, he lives his life with renewed energy and strength, willing to start over at a point in his life when he should be settling down. it makes the ending feel that bit more genuine, and as the trio walk off into the New York night you get a final sense of closure with them.

Despite the interesting drama, the film succeeds at it's main intention; the laughs. There are plenty of visual gags running throughout, but most of the humour comes from the dialogue and the scenarios. Some of the highlights include the big, hairy, naked cowboy threatening Chuck, Bill throwing a party in the morgue late at night, Chuck having to bail Belinda out of jail and having his whole family come along to watch, the 'hey kid, do you like music?' moment... there really is too many to recount here. The casting of Winkler as the meek Chuck was a good idea, as he gets a chance to break away from 'The Fonz' and do something a bit more interesting. He is essentially the straight man here, though he does well with the physical comedy and shocked facial expressions that manage to work every time. Keaton is excellent as the childish Bill, though I can imagine his constant blabbermouth might not be to everyone's taste. Still, he is the driving comedy backbone of the film, and went on to some big projects not long after this, and is interesting to see him before he became 'Batman' or 'Bettlejuice'. His constant one-liners and verbal diarrhoea are nearly impossible to keep up with, and that's where the humour lies. Shelley Long is cast perfectly here, despite her sometimes ending up in the wrong roles. She is smart, pretty and funny, but in a way no hooker would ever be. She carries that same 'innocence' that made her 'Diane' character in Cheers work for several seasons.

Keeping the balance between drama and humour is director Ron Howard. This was his first major directing role before going on to super smashes like Splash and Cocoon. He does a good job here, the film finding it's own pace throughout. He had a good eye on casting, too, and filled even minor roles with memorable faces (his brother, Clint Howard, puts in a cameo as the geeky prom guy, and keep your eyes peeled for a chubby faced Kevin Costner in the morgue party), and he really brings the warmth to a film where you wouldn't expect it. The soundtrack is enjoyable, too, with a couple of tunes being written by Burt Bacarach, and featuring Rod Stewart on vocals at the end. Otherwise it's a mix of the likes of Talk Talk, The Rolling Stones and Heaven 17, so no doubt the soundtrack sold well.

If you are going in to this one and expecting 'Porky's in a morgue', then you will be fairly disappointed. The film is much more gentle a comedy, and works well as a character drama, too. The jokes are funny, and the characters great, so what's keeping you from diving in? Me, I think I might take a crack at that 'Porky's in a morgue' script... It could be next summers breakout hit.

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At 6 June 2014 at 00:49 , Blogger Wes M said...

Fantastic stuff John, I know this one by name and was vaguely aware of the morgue idea but what a bizarre concept – no doubt made easier to swallow by Ron Howard’s antiseptic handling. This is something I definitely would like to see though, I’ve always been fond of double-act comedies and I love the yuppie nightmare genre – stuff like After Hours, Bonfire of the Vanities, Something Wild. Always a pleasure to see Michael Keaton - I was just looking over his filmography there and aside from the odd gem like Jackie Brown or Clean & Sober, he’s done an awful lot of variable stuff. I really thought he was fantastic in Batman, he brought a real subtle psychosis to Bruce Wayne which I think no other actor from the other films has bettered... If I had to nominate the bona fida Ron Howard masterpiece it would be Apollo 13 – a film I still think very highly of and being a space nut gets plenty of re-views around here. I might have mentioned Ransom in the same breath if it wasn’t for Mel Gibson’s dreadful histrionics in that movie, the film just about saved by an excellent Gary Sinise… Great pic of a scantily dressed Shelley Long !

At 7 June 2014 at 01:43 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Wes, yup, if it wasn't for Howard this one might not have worked as well as it does. I'm also a big fan of the yuppie nightmare genre - though this one isn't nearly as deep as After Hours, but falls somewhere around Something Wild, which is no bad thing. There is just something great about seeing a tightly wound guy getting thrown to the wolves, only to come out fighting on top... easy to relate to, I guess!

Keaton is an odd one alright. The last film I saw him in that I enjoyed his performance was Jackie Brown. I get the feeling that unless he actually cares about the film, he'll make zero effort (White Noise springs to mind, his performance is so awful there aren't even any close ups of him during emotional scenes of his wife's death), unlike certain other actors, like Walken for example, woh just relish being on screen and give their all to the scenes they make appearances in. It's odd to think that he went from being an incredible Batman (still the best one for me) to obscurity at this point...

I've been aching to watch Apollo 13 again, now that you mention it! I only re-watched the Howard produced In The Shadow of the Moon the other night, so I must pick it up on blu... I'm pretty sure the transfer is supposed to be great and can be got cheaply enough. Ransom was good fun for the time, especially as there wasn't many 'revenge' flicks coming out in the 90's. But yeah, the film is a tad silly in places, and definitely screams of 'See! I can make dark films!' from Howard, but it is well worth a re-watch, no doubt.

Ha! Long must of had it in her contract that she would only show her pantied rear in films - she does the same in The Money Pit - but hey, she had great legs and a fine behind, so show it off!

At 11 June 2014 at 04:25 , Blogger Grimm said...

It's been soooo long since I've seen this one. Dude, I love how I can come to your blog and it's like a trip down memory lane LOL I haven't seen this one in ages! Great write-up as usual.

At 12 June 2014 at 05:44 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks man, glad you enjoy it!


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