FILM (1982)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 November, 2009, 12:00am

Night Shift
Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, Shelley Long
Director: Ron Howard

To first understand how much of a surprise this film was on release, you have to know that it was directed by Opie. Or by Richie Cunningham, if you like.

Ron Howard was a child star on TV's The Andy Griffith Show (as the plucky Opie) in the 1960s and part of Happy Days in the 70s where, as Richie, he was all-American teen gee-shucks and ain't-life-great.

But there was genius lurking there (and an Oscar, later, for A Beautiful Mind) because, for his big-screen directing debut, Howard not only played against type (opting for all the sexual high jinks and teenage sniggers he perhaps could never get away with when he was 'in character') but he allowed his pent-up Happy Days collaborators to do just the same.

Hence Henry Winkler, who played the Fonz in that show, appears here as a put-upon worrier who won't stand up for himself. And writers Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz are allowed to explore more adult themes albeit with the sort of clued-in youth-orientated savvy that had made their TV such an international sensation.

Winkler plays Chuck Lumley, a putz who takes on a job as a night-shift morgue attendant, both to escape the real world and the harpy known as his girlfriend. But, wonderfully, his peace is destroyed when in walks Michael Keaton, in his big-screen debut and playing every opportunity for laughs.

Keaton (right, with Winkler), as Bill Blazejowski, is a strange force of nature and even back then, Howard's innate ability to allow his cast freedom to explore the edges of their roles was on show. Keaton and Winkler want us to know they are having fun, but there is a dark mood of desperation running through every madcap adventure they fall into. And the utter insanity of the plot - they start running a prostitution ring out of the morgue - even manages to cover over the fact that this is still a young man's view of the world. And indeed Hollywood's: there's even Shelley Long as the hooker with a heart of gold - a character much favoured in the 80s - whom our putz falls for and who helps make him 'a man'.

If we must try to dig a little deeper, Howard and his mates are obviously looking at their own lives, post-Happy Days. On the one hand, it was time for them to grow up. On the other, the trappings of fame promised a lot of fun.

And it is to Howard's credit - and to the credit of the cast - that despite the subject matter, despite the fact everything is designed to fight conformity and common sense Night Shift has such a sweet (and often hilarious) heart.