Ron Howard’s career trajectory has evolved from beloved television star to respected director of such epic tales as Apollo 13 and this year’s In the Heart of the Sea. One of his earliest and best creative accomplishments was 1982’s Night Shift, a comedy starring Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, and Shelley Long. The movie also boasts a host of actors you’ll recognize from other roles–Vincent Schiavelli, Jim Staahl, Charles Fleischer, Kevin Costner, Shannen Doherty, and of course, Clint Howard.
From its poster art, Night Shift might appear to be nothing more than a wacky, low-budget sex comedy along the lines of contemporaries like H.O.T.S. or Screwballs. The story of two misfits who concoct a plan to operate a brothel out of a morgue during the titular night shift, seems at best, far-fetched, and at worst, supremely silly. Yet Night Shift’s script is sly and sharp, neither of which should be a surprise to anyone whose followed the careers of Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, Parenthood, City Slickers). The tone of Night Shift wavers between sweet and sarcastic, frequently achieving the perfect balance of both, and often containing a surprising amount of heartwarming, yet artfully conveyed, moments.
For those who only knew Henry Winkler as Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli from the staggering ten-season run of Happy Days, Night Shift is a revelation. Chuck Lumley is the ultimate nebbish, a man so unused to the idea of success or happiness—much less confidence—that he would sooner suffer the slings and arrows of a thankless career, an overbearing mother, and an aggressively neurotic girlfriend than try and improve his lot in life.
In his first starring role, Michael Keaton imbues Bill Blazejowksi with a lovable pathos, setting the stage for several films in which he would play a hapless but well-intentioned goofball who not so secretly wants to be a macho stud. In fact, Keaton was so convincing as this kind of character that he would ultimately turn down scripts featuring similar comedic roles for fear of being typecast.
Shelley Long, who embodies not only the everywoman qualities of Teri Garr but also the glamour of Madeline Kahn, is Belinda Keaton, the “hooker with a heart of gold,” and the eventual love interest of Chuck. She’s neither a bimbo nor an airhead, but she’s not tough as nails, either.
When Chuck asks Belinda why she doesn’t find another career because she’s “very bright,” her frustration and subsequent apology speaks volumes, as does her insistence that she’s not like Jane Fonda in Klute because she doesn’t wear a watch. It’s a surprisingly frank and forward-thinking portrayal of a sex worker that is only somewhat undercut by an ending in which Chuck “saves” her from a life of sin (this was still 1982, after all).
Night Shift opens with iconic shots of a pre-Guiliani New York City: smoke rising from manhole covers, honking taxicabs, vagrants and hookers walking the streets, and a pimp with a long fur coat. That this scene is actually the catalyst for the narrative isn’t obvious right away, but the subsequent darkly humorous misdirect is immediately engaging. Thrill to a pre-SVU Richard Belzer tossing someone out of a window! Chuckle at the clichéd sexy saxophone that eventually becomes Quarterflash’s sax-heavy theme song, “Night Shift”! And marvel at how great “That’s What Friends Are For” sounds when it’s just Rod Stewart singing and not Dionne Warwick & Friends.
For those who remain unaware of Night Shift’s charms (or its very existence), giving away too much more of the plot would ruin the joy of seeing it for the first time. Yet, it’s not a comedy that shoots its load (so to speak) in one sitting because. Knowing the story by heart doesn’t dampen the movie’s hilariousness upon repeated viewings. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it but it’s at least a dozen. Although there are many movies whose dialogue has become part of my permanent lexicon, perhaps none are as consistently enjoyable and continually hilarious as Night Shift.