blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Night Shift (1982, Ron Howard)

Night Shift distinguishes itself immediately. The opening sequence is magnificent, featuring two crooks (Richard Belzer and Badja Droll) chasing down pimp Julius LeFlore and inciting the incident for the film. Director Howard has three credited editors on Night Shift—Robert James Kern, Daniel P. Hanley, and Mike Hill—and their cutting is deft. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s script gives them plenty of opportunities for layering the narrative impacts just right, and Howard and cinematographer James Crabe are big on keeping things fluid. The camera moves, the people move. There’s maybe one mediocre sequence in Night Shift, and it jumps out because the rest of it has been so sublime. Starting from the prologue, which leads directly into the opening titles.

The film’s got one great eighties montage sequence—the story’s about two morgue attendants who decide to offer their location and management services to LeFlore’s call girls, who are having a tough time without him. Shift’s filmed—in part and quite effectively—in Dirty Old New York. However, even with the spots of violence, it’s not about the city being dangerous. The characters sometimes find themselves in danger, but everyone’s jazzed to be living in the Big Apple. Or at least, not un-jazzed.

Anyway. That great eighties montage sequence is when the girls go to work for the the guys (Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton); as Keaton drives them around, buys them glamorous clothes because Winkler’s a Wall Street burnout who starts investing for the girls, and is able to get them into legit businesses… in less than four weeks. Don’t pay attention to the timing; just enjoy the movie. Especially with that accompanying Al Jarreau song.

For some wonderful, peculiar reason, Night Shift went with Burt Bacharach for the score, which is a great move on its own, but then Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager and friends wrote original songs for the film. There are some more familiar ones than others, but Bacharach’s on fire, with the soundtrack always lending to Howard’s constant movement themes. Again, Night Shift is all about fluidity.

Winkler’s the protagonist. He’s the nebbish burnout who no one takes seriously—not boss Floyd Levine, not fiancée Gina Hecht, not mom Nita Talbot—who finds himself demoted back to the night shift at the morgue so Levine can give nephew Bobby Di Cicco an easy gig. Di Cicco’s only in a few scenes, but he’s an awesome dipshit. No notes.

Starting on the night shift with Winkler is new guy Keaton, who’s a delightful jackass.

In addition to breaking in the new guy and fretting over the wedding with Hecht—the wedding is in nine months—Winkler also starts hanging out with neighbor Shelley Long, who just happens to be a call girl. They meet in the second scene, when Long’s identifying a body and realizes she knows Winkler, who does not remember her and who the investigating cop is sure is a john. Eventually, there’s confusion involving Hecht, who the film does no favors in the nagging girlfriend part. Overcoming how poorly Hecht gets treated is one of Shift’s initial hurdles. It clears, but just barely. They delay the fallout from Winkler and Long’s new friendship until they’ve got Hecht in a part to make her seem villainous in addition to pitiful.

Hecht being really good helps.

At the heart of the film are Winkler and Keaton. Keaton’s trying to convince Winkler they’re in a buddy picture, while Winkler just wants to be left alone. Lots of good friendship bonding, with lots of laughs (and then heart), for Winkler and Keaton.

For most of the second act, their friendship is the core; then things gracefully transition to Long and Winkler.

The third act opens clunky–Night Shift certainly seems like they went back and re-did some of the film to make it work better. It’s so clunky it entirely stalls the film. Then, in an effort worthy of Atlas, Winkler singlehandedly (though Vincent Schiavelli contributes) gets the film moving again. It’s all in a big comedy set piece with multiple moving parts moving across plot levels, and it’s glorious. The finish is then gravy, pay-off after pay-off.

Keaton gives one of the exceptional comic performances, Winkler’s a wonderful lead, Long’s outstanding. It’s so well-acted, so well-made. So surprisingly unproblematic in its portrayal of the subject matter (I mean, there are some problems, but a lot less than you’d think).

Night Shift’s phenomenal.

One response to “Night Shift (1982, Ron Howard)”

  1. Vernon W

    Well, I have to say because of the leads, I never took this film seriously, and never saw it.

    Now you’ve made me want to see it.

Leave a Reply

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: