Sadness, awe on opening night

As Chris Finegan watched Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker on Friday in “The Dark Knight,” he couldn't help but think of another actor: James Dean, who also died prematurely and tragically, nearly 53 years ago.

“Heath Ledger is going to have the same impact on our culture as James Dean did,” said Finegan, one of many fans across the country who were both awed and saddened by Ledger's performance.

“He stole the show,” said Finegan's son, Alex, 18, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Ledger's leering Joker face in cracked white makeup and those red lips frozen in a sickening smile. “It was everything I expected and more.”

Manhattan movie theaters are not usually packed at 9 a.m. on weekdays, but there was not a free seat to be seen at the AMC Lincoln Square multiplex Friday morning, and lines grew all day. Many fans were back after trying and failing – like the Finegans – to get into packed midnight performances.

“When we were leaving at 3 a.m., people were still streaming in,” said Susan Pepsin, 31, who saw the film at the Arclight theater in Hollywood.

As the latest installment in the Batman series, “The Dark Knight” likely would have been an event even without the added interest over Ledger, who died at 28 in January of an accidental prescription drug overdose. But Ledger seemed to be on everyone's mind. Fans applauded many of his particularly demonic scenes.

“He was unbelievable,” said Michael Loizon, a 23-year-old asset manager in Manhattan. “I had no idea he'd be that good.” He and his colleague Michael Holmgren played hooky from work to see the film. They didn't get in trouble, though. Their boss came, too.

“I was the ringleader,” confessed John Pileggi, a big comic book and action-film fan.

“It was intense, overwhelming,” he said of Ledger's performance. “It's sad to say that it was the role of his life, because his life is over. He was so young. I have a son about his age, so I kept thinking about it.”

Online, “The Dark Knight,” which also stars Christian Bale as Batman, as well as Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, was selling an average of about 12 tickets per second on the movie-ticket site