Director : Barry Levinson
Screenplay : James Toback
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1991
Stars : Warren Beatty (Ben “Bugsy” Siegel), Annette Bening (Virginia Hill), Harvey Keitel (Mickey Cohen), Ben Kingsley (Meyer Lansky), Elliott Gould (Harry Greenberg), Joe Mantegna (George Raft), Richard Sarafian (Jack Dragna), Bebe Neuwirth (Countess di Frasso), Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi (Count di Frasso), Wendy Phillips (Esta Siegel)
There is something inherently fascinating about the risk of great folly, especially in the movie industry, where some of the greatest stories involve ego-driven filmmakers and stars throwing their livelihoods and those of their sponsoring studios into ill-fated projects that seemed destined for disaster, both at the time and in hindsight. Of course, sometimes what would seem to be a folly of colossal proportions turns out to be a stroke of mad genius, even if it isn’t always immediately recognized. Visions, by their very nature, are always risky.
Vision is at the heart of Bugsy, Barry Levinson’s unconventional and uneven gangster epic that is less about murder and corruption than it is about passion, imagination, and romance (although it has plenty of the former, just for good measure). The film itself, of course, was hardly at risk of great folly. Rather, it was as assured a Hollywood production as could be imagined at the time, featuring an iconic actor in Warren Beatty, a rising actress in Annette Bening, and a recently anointed Oscar-winning director working in the well-worn and much-loved genre of the period gangster film. The fact that Bugsy was nominated for 10 Oscars and won only two (for costume and set design) suggests that its pedigree demanded some form of official industry recognition, even if the film itself isn’t the masterpiece everyone wanted it to be.
Levinson has always been a great director of tightly wound character pieces (1982’s Diner, 1988’sRain Man), and if his more epic films have tended to be failures (for a perfect example, see 1992’s Toys), it is because he can’t quite get far enough away from the details to get a sense of the larger picture. He has a similar problem in Bugsy, in that he is so enraptured with the passion- and anger-fueled central romance that he loses sight of the film’s would-be epic sweep.
The romance is between Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Warren Beatty), an East Coast gangster relocated to sunny California in the early 1940s, and Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), a fierce would-be starlet with whom he becomes completely obsessed. Their relationship is defined primarily by its turbulence, with moments of romantic passion counterbalanced with vicious fights and suspicion of betrayal. Screenwriter James Toback plays their romance as mythical--something strangely pure in a deeply corrupt world, if only because Bugsy and Virginia are so perfectly suited for each other. When she angrily ditches him and one of his partners in the middle of the Nevada desert, all Bugsy can say is, “What a woman.” He is as smitten by her independence and fire as she is attracted to his relentlessness and vision.
Bugsy’s vision is an “oasis” in the middle of the Nevada desert, a neon-soaked gambling Mecca for the wealthy that would make him rich and allow him to enter into the world of legitimate business. The film literalizes the mythical story of Bugsy having a vision in the desert, seeing what would become the glitz and glamour of modern-day Las Vegas where everyone else could only see heat and sand. Bugsy convinces his partners back in New Jersey, including Meyer Lanskey (Ben Kingsley), as well as his new California associate Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) to go in on building a lavish hotel-casino named The Flamingo. But, as costs begin to spiral out of control, with Bugsy demanding walls be torn down so he can see the pool from the casino, his associates start to get antsy. See, Bugsy is a dreamer, someone for whom money doesn’t matter except for how it can make his visionary dreams come true, and that doesn’t fit well in the criminal underworld where profit is the primary virtue.
It’s not hard, then, to see Bugsy as a thinly veiled metaphor for film artists whose visionary projects take on an increasingly bloated life of their own, much to the consternation of the bottom-line-driven studios. Beatty, who had wanted to play Bugsy Siegel for years for perhaps this very reason, understood this well, having mounted his own lavish, potentially foolhardy epic a decade earlier when he made Reds (1981), a paean to the Russian Revolution and the rise of the New American Left. Beatty probably saw much to admire in Bugsy, although the film doesn’t shy away from his murderousness or his often uncontrollable temper (a scene added back into the DVD Director’s Cut also depicts him as suicidal).
As a beautifully mounted film, Bugsy does nothing if not keep your attention, and Levinson brings in some of his comic sensibilities at amusingly odd times, staging Bugsy’s make-it-or-break-it deal with his associates while wearing a ridiculous chef’s hat or inflating Bugsy’s opulent squandering of money in a scene in which he marches into a famous opera singer’s Beverly Hills mansion and buys it right out from under him. At the same time, though, the film has an effectively tragic undercurrent, particularly in a subplot involving Bugsy having to deal with Harry Greenberg (Elliott Gould), a sympathetic turncoat associate whose sweet simple-mindedness makes Bugsy’s inevitable decision all the more heart-rending.
Yet, for all the powerful scenes in Bugsy, the film as a whole never quite adds up. It feels like it’s going in too many direction at once, especially once its energy is fully split between Bugsy’s dedication to his Las Vegas dream and his love for Virginia. Despite being crisply edited and strongly acted, the story ultimately gets spread a bit too thin to maintain its epic aspirations.
|Bugsy Extended Cut DVD|
|Subtitles||English, French, Portuguese|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox|
|Release Date||December 12, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The new, 15-minutes-longer Director’s Cut of Bugsy has been remastered in high definition and looks very good throughout. The anamorphic widescreen image boasts strong colors and good detail, which really brings out the nuances of the Oscar-winning set and costume designs. There is some visible grain, especially in brighter scenes that feature a great deal of sky, but it creates a pleasantly filmlike look. The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, and Ennio Morricone’s musical score (which, to my ear, sounds a little too close to his work on Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables) sounds magnificent. The low end gives the film’s sometimes startling gunshots a solid punch.|
|The primary supplement on this two-disc set is a 90-minute retrospective documentary titled The Road to Damascus: The Reinvention of Bugsy Siegel. The majority of the documentary features Barry Levinson, James Toback, and Warren Beatty sitting around a table in a pink- and gold-toned Las Vegas restaurant reminiscing about the film’s origins and production. It is an interesting opportunity to see three formative Hollywood minds chatting freely, which results in some odd turns of phrase (Toback refers to a scene in the film as being like a “paraorgasmatic discharge” and Beatty discusses what he calls an “ad hominem dialectic”). The doc also includes separate interviews with Annette Bening, Elliott Gould, and Ben Kingsley, among others, as well as footage of Ennio Morricone working on the score. There are two deleted scenes included, but both of which last less than a minute in length and constitute little more than fragments trimmed from existing scenes. Lastly, the disc includes the entirety of Warren Beatty’s “screen test” as Bugsy Siegel, which appears at various points in the film.|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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