I was only in 10th grade when I saw the movie NIGHT SHIFT on HBO. It was back in 1983, when HBO had their cool miniature city logo and had to send you a guide in the mail.
It was rated R and promised prostitutes, so in my puberty driven mind, this would be the perfect movie for me to watch as long as my parents weren’t home. So as I waited patiently for the first nude scene, what I saw instead had an impact on me forever.
And no, it wasn’t a nude scene.
Night Shift is the story of two morgue workers who become pimps to help a local prostitute. That description is exactly what you should expect from a show on HBO in the early eighties. What you got though, was completely different.
Except, you know, exactly what the description said.
The film opens with the death of a local pimp when two thugs throw him out of a window. We follow a Morgue vehicle through the streets of New York as the credits role. Then the film opens with a morgue drawer opening and we meet Shelly (Cheers) Long as Belinda.
Her, the morgue attendant Chuck Lumley, played beautifully by Henry (The Fonz) Winkler and a city detective look over the dead body.
In an interview from the podcast The Nerdist, Henry Winkler said he played Chuck as he would Ritchie Cunningham, which is ironic since the film is directed by Ron (Ritchie) Howard.
Night Shift was the first movie Howard directed (besides 3 other tv movies before that), who later gave us such movies as Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Cocoon.
As the movie continues, the detective pressures Belinda to tell him that it’s obvious this was her pimp, to which Belinda responds,
“You think this is easy for me? Eat an Egg McMuffin, look at a dead guy.”
We find out that Belinda lives in the same building as Chuck, much to the embarrassment of Chuck because the detective now considers him a “John”. Chuck is engaged to a woman named Charlotte, played by Gina Hecht, and he whips out his wallet to show the detective a picture of her. She doesn’t look too good though because she “is suffering from water damage”.
(You see, kids, back before there were phones, people had to keep photos in their wallets or purses, which you can only imagine how many problems you would have had keeping them nice, since photos of your family were now kept as close as could be to the place you sit down and sometimes emanate certain gasses from)
Chuck’s boss tells him he is being moved to the night shift because they have hired someone new. Someone who just happens to have the same last name as Chuck’s boss.
After fighting the crowds through the New York subway, Chuck gets home, only to get into a small argument with Charlotte as she rides her exercise bike. She questions why he decided to work there.
We find out Chuck was a great Investor, but stopped working there for a more quiet job.
The next day, or night as it were, Chuck fights the crowds back to work where we meet Leonard, the boss’s nephew.
As Chuck finally gets rid of Leonard, he takes a plant from his locker, gently opens the paper and eases back into his quiet night
Right before we’re introduced to Bill Blazejowski.
Michael Keaton, in his first major film role, who went on right after this to become a household name in Mr. Mom, has what can only be described as one of the THE most memorable introductions to a character ever. I mean ever.
Take a look.
This scene alone is a part of my childhood that changed me forever.
It showed me, you know what? You don’t have to pretend to be someone else to ease into a friendship.
Be yourself. If they like you the way you are, they’ll be there for you. Don’t change for others.
Be yourself. You may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you know what? That’s ok.
Chuck goes back home and tries to have a nice night with his finance, you know, after checking the apartment, coaxing her into bed, turning the lights off and answering her questions if she’s fat, they are interrupted by some loud country music.
Chuck is sent to ask his neighbors to turn it down, only to discover Belinda is entertaining a client, something that Charlotte is not comfortable with and leaves. As she leaves, she tells Chuck she has been cheating….
She had a Nestle Crunch bar.
Later at work, Chuck tells Bill he used to be a Investment Adviser but people would constantly take the credit for his work until he got sick of it, so he took a nice quiet job at the morgue.
He also finds out Bill has been taking the morgue vehicle and pretending it’s a limo, picking up tourists and college kids for money on the side.
Bill comes to work the next night and is visibly upset. Leonard tells him “There’s some bodies in the wrong drawers but Uncle Sal said you’d figure it out” and has written on one document, “Name of the deceased – something Polish”
As Chuck tries to straighten up the office, Bill comes in ranting about Vegas and Wash-N-Drys until he can’t take anymore and yells at Bill to shut up.
“I’ll give you a quarter if you just stop talking!” he yells as he slams a door, shutting himself off in an office.
Bill opens the door and tells him, “I thought we were friends.” and walks away.
Chuck feels bad and goes to find Bill in one of the morgue drawers.
Bill tells Chuck that he’s let him know everything. His deepest, most intimate stuff, yet works with him everyday and doesn’t even know Chucks fiance’s name. Chuck tells him “It’s Charlotte” and they both smile.
This is it. This is the turning point in the film where Chucks life will never be the same. He has become friends with someone he normally wouldn’t. That one moment leads to the Rise of Chuck!
He comes home to find Belinda, knocked down in an elevator, blood coming from her mouth.
After unsuccessfully fighting off a group of Bluebirds who think he’s a mugger, he helps Belinda to her apartment where he finds out, without her pimp, some of the other girls are getting in more trouble. “Drugs or beat up.”
While riding home, Chuck tells Bill about Belinda. He tells Chuck they have all that room down at the morgue and a lot of extra time. Chuck does not want to become “a pimp”, so Bill tells him that pimp is an ugly word.
“We call ourselves Love-Brokers”!
As Chuck gets home, Belinda shows up and asks him if she could make him breakfast since they both come home in the morning.
Chuck unexpectedly sees her cooking in just a small shirt and panties. He tries to be calm, especially when Charlotte calls him, but seeing Belinda like this, he hangs up on his fiance as he is talking to her.
At this point of the film, Chuck has decided to focus on what he wants, not what is being forced on him.
The next night, while getting lunch with Bill, Chuck notices for the umpteenth time that the cook has made him the wrong sandwich, but he refuses to send it back. “My mother said if you send it back, the chef spits on it.”
So while walking back to work, Bill explains how prostitutes are needed by society to stop men and their “urges”, He tries to get Chuck to agree on becoming pimps one more time.
Later that day, Bill finds Chuck at a barbershop and asks him if he wants to see Belinda get hurt again? Chuck explains to Bill that Charlotte’s parents are coming into town and he needs to get this haircut.
So that night, Chuck and Charlotte entertain his mom and Charlotte’s parents, who make Amish parents look care free and loose. (“Have you seen all the lights on in this city? No wonder this city is going broke!”)
Chuck gets a phone call from Belinda, saying she’s been arrested and is scared. Chuck reluctantly agrees to come downtown and help her.
During the court hearing, we find out Belinda bit a guys behind because he refused to pay her.
Charlotte’s mom faints as Chucks mom laughs out loud.
On the ride home, Charlotte, her parents and Chucks’ mom all gang up on him, telling him they are going to “straighten him out”.
That night Chuck goes to visit Bill at a rundown apartment complex. Rock music blares from the closed door as he knocks on a sign that says “Blaze Land, USA”
Bill screams “RADICAL!”, letting us know Chuck has agreed to become a Love Broker, mainly to help Belinda but also to choose his own destiny.
Bill and Chuck address the other women of the night, but Bill does a horrible job at it and starts to lose them, so Belinda tells Chuck to explain it the way he did to her.
Chuck tells them he knows they work hard for their money and only wants 10%, plus he will set them up for a medical and dental plan and investments.
It works and we are treated to a cliche yet fun 80’s movie montage. We are shown Chuck investing for the ladies as well as writing up contracts while Bill hits the streets, setting up Johns and even a Moose Lodge and college party.
Chuck stuffs money into coffee cans as Bill spends his money on more clothes and jewelry than a drunken Kardashian watching QVC.
After the montage though, we see holding both jobs has taken its toll on Chuck as he’s drinking Alka Seltzer , telling Bill he’s getting stomach aches, bleeding gums and showing him his hair is falling out because ‘There are women out there rolling around in strange beds with strange men and we are making money from that”
Bill refuses to see the problem and answers, “Is this a great country or what?” He then promises “Mission in life. Make Chuck a man.”
Chuck comes back from a break that night and sees Bill has set up a college party at the Morgue, complete with a un-named character played by Kevin Costner.
He tries to stop the wild party by showing them a dead person, only to open the morgue drawer and have Clint Howard and one of the women having sex inside.
He tries to explain how he felt to Belinda the next morning, but she simply tells him people have fantasy’s and its fine.
Later that day, Bill drives Chuck around town in his new car, lined with two way windows, fur lined dash and Rolodex hanging from the visor.
(You see, kids. Before phones could keep a thousand names and numbers, people had to write down names and put them together in a card holder of sorts.)
Chuck tells Bill he’s worried something big is going to happen and Bill reminds him he promised to make Chuck a man, so he’s going to start doing that more.
Chuck later shows the girls he has invested their money and they now own a local fast food restaurant. Belinda tells him how wonderful it is and Chuck is back to being happy.
Cue bad things.
The two hit men who killed Belinda’s pimp are upset that the girls are making money and they aren’t seeing anything from them. They vow to find out who.
Christmas day we find Chuck, Bill, Belinda and the girls all celebrating. The women are all wearing very nice clothes and we can tell, things are looking good. They thank Chuck and Bill for all the nice things and give them gifts.
Later, just Chuck, Bill and Belinda are left. Half drunk, Bill tells Belinda about how growing up, his father was a “lunatic” and told him he wouldn’t ever amount to anything.
“Oh, fathers get like that.“, says Belinda.
“Yeah“, Bill replies, “But he told me this when I was four.” and reminds himself to call his mom.
Here the film has taken a dramatic turn and we see these characters, not as two dimensional, but as real people. Bill acts this way because of his past. Assuming, without a father and to get attention. Maybe from his father that was hardly there?
We can hate our past, but like it or not, it makes us who we are and it will always be with us. We can learn by it, but can never deny it happened.
Bill stops feeling sorry for himself and tells Belinda, “Were making loads of cash, but this guy…this guy doesn’t spend any money!”
Bill asks them if they want to see what he spent his money on? So he drives them to a cemetery and shows them his dads gravestone.
“He used to have the smallest headstone in the place. Not anymore.”
Honestly, if you don’t tear up at this, check your soul. You may not have one.
We see here that Chuck has been under his moms shadow for a long time and it was like his dad, not his mom, he grew up to become.
Later, Chuck takes Belinda back to his place for some coffee. She tells him he’s like a Saint, mainly because her “father is alive and she doesn’t buy him anything.”
At this point, Chuck realizes he will always be seen as the “nice guy” and confesses his love for Belinda. They end up making love and Chuck is happy because at least he “didn’t have to check the apartment first“.
Chuck comes into work, mimicking the way Bill did on his first day, dancing and singing.
Bill is in a frenzy, answering the Morgue phone wit “We moved“, yelling at Chuck about how busy they’ve been and “Where’s Belinda?”
Chuck tells him he doesn’t expect her in and Bill realizes they got together, but when Belinda comes in, its business as usual and she takes a client’s phone number from Bill.
Chuck asks her why she came in and she explains she still needs a job and she can’t quit.
“Did you quit?”
“I’m not a whore.”
“No, you’re a pimp.”
Bill drives Belinda to a building to meet a client and sees she is visibly upset. He tells her “You don’t want to go up there? So I’ll drive you home.”
She’s worried and asks, “What about the trick?”
Bill tells her, “Ill come back, get him drunk, take off his clothes, in the morning he’ll think you were there. No problem.”
This is another scene that changed the way I saw life. In this this small scene, things look very complicated, but yet, are so simple. When faced with what you SHOULD do, do whats best first. Business can be fixed but friends, friends will always be with you. Now to be fair, the music accompanying this scene is truly fantastic and fitting.
Chuck is visited by the two thugs who killed Belinda’s pimp and “are insulted” they haven’t received any money.
While at the same time, Bill picks up two men “unencumbered” by women and asks them if they would like to be “combered” .
He takes them back to the Morgue where the thugs are torturing Chuck.
The two men with Bill are actually vice Squad and arrest the thugs after a small fire fight. They also arrest Chuck and Bill for being pimps.
While waiting for a judge, Bill and Chuck are locked in a jail cell. Bill reminds Chuck, “Well we couldn’t be doctors!” and even gets upset when Chuck doesn’t thank him for “bringing the police”. Then Chuck is visited by Charlotte who spits on him and tells him Good bye.
He tells Bill he he has sunk as low as can go.
Up until a man sitting next to him shows him a paper with cut out hearts and makes a kissing gesture, showing him , “He was wrong.”
The girls bail Chuck and Bill out, taking them home. Chuck notices Belinda isn’t with them and one of the girls says, “She didn’t want to come.”
The next day, we see Chuck and Bill in a lawyers office. Bill is dressed up in nice white shorts and a sports sweater. He just wants to leave because he has a tennis lesson while Chuck is more worried about his job.
The lawyer tells them that, because it’s an election year, they’ve found the whole thing embarrassing and would just like to give them their old jobs back.
We see Chuck has strayed too far off his comfortable path of “being a man” and wants things “back to normal”.
How true is this with us in our own lives? When we’ve become so accustomed to things that we start to hate our life, because it has become so predictable. Then, when things go bad or wild even, we would give anything to get it all back?
Chuck agrees but Bill wants more and says “No.”. Chuck and Bill fight in the lawyers office until the ladies separate them. Chuck then tells Bill he doesn’t want to see him ever again and blames him for everything bad in his life.
Chuck goes back home and runs into Belinda. She tells him she’s working at a local club, “doing the same thing”.
He doesn’t know what to talk to her about anymore so he stays quiet. She leaves and a beautiful moment of sadness is interrupted by a delivery man yelling “Where the F*** is 4K?”
The elevator doors close on Belinda and Chuck tells him that he is 4K.
The man gives him the sandwich and tells him it’s five bucks, because he already added in his tip.
Chuck notices it has mustard on it even though it’s egg salad.
The man takes the sandwich and wipes the mustard off on Chucks door and walks away.
Chuck chases after him, scaring the man. He tells him he is sick and tired of being afraid. No more bad jobs, bad decisions, bad girlfriends. And go clean off his door!
This is it. Chuck knows what he wants. It’s not the life his mother made him and it’s not the life Bill made him.
It is his own. Good or bad, this is the life he will now have because he’s in control!
Chuck marches down to where Belinda said she was working and lies his way in.
While searching for her, we find out Bill is working there.
As a towel boy.
He comes swinging in wearing a loin cloth, handing out towels…..and apparently not very well.
Chuck runs into Bill and asks him about Belinda. He tells him she doesn’t work there and not to cause trouble because “he..uh…owns the place.”
Chuck still searches for Belinda and eventually finds her, just as a half drunk jerk grabs her. She tells him she has decided not to work there and tries to get away.
Chuck shows up and tells her he’s sorry he didn’t say he loved her before and gets into a one punch fight with the drunken man. One punch meaning, he punches Chuck and knocks him down.
Bill tries to come to the rescue, but ends up just throwing himself off a railing, falling flat on his face.
Bill gets fired and confesses he’s a fake. That out of all of the ideas he’s had, he’s never done one thing he set out to do.
Chuck disagrees and tells him none of this would have been possible without him. That now he’s a man and ends up shoving Bill’s boss into a pool.
They all run out of the building and into the street.
Chuck, Belinda and Bill in his loincloth, all walk away from the camera and down the street.
It’s late and the roads are wet as they walk away from us into a new future. We don’t know what it will hold for them, but we know they’ll be happy, because they’re friends and as Rod Stewart reminds us “That’s What friends Are For”.
When the movie was over, I just sat there. Night Shift was not a simple little 80’s movie that I’d hoped to see. It changed the way I saw characters andstories. At the time, I thought most R rated movies (which, lets’ face it, this would PG13 now) were about either sex, gangsters, sex or serial killers.
These were people (adults to me) who didn’t always know the right thing to do or say, and lived with those consequences. Chuck lost who he thought was his true love. Bill learned how to treat people around him.
Call it what you will, but if a certain song can give someone courage, or a book can show someone how to live, a movie about two morgue employees and a prostitute showed me what was more important in life.
Friends and how you treat each other.
I wanted to be Bill. Wild and fun, able to help friends in trouble.
But I also wanted to be Chuck. Stable and knowing in the end what he wants in life.
Their friendship wouldn’t be easy, but it would survive.
Just like two other people I know, who walked away from the camera in a dark night, rain on the road…
And that is why Night Shift is my Casablanca