Bugsy

It’s hard to balance work and family
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1991
Director: 
Barry Levinson
Starring: 
Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley
The Setup: 
Biography of Bugsy Siegel and his [supposed] creation of Las Vegas.
Discussion: 

I had seen this when it was out, and a few times on video, at which time I considered it a pretty good movie. And I’ve been on a little bit of a jag in reading about gangsters lately, so I thought it might be a good idea to review. Again, one is reminded what a fool one can be in one’s ignorant youth, as it is revealed to be an overinflated piece stuffed with the trappings of quality—but not the quality—that also doesn’t really seem to have any point to make.

Trouble became apparent when I saw that this is directed by Barry Levinson, who has lately emerged as one of the most tedious directors [see: Sphere] of movies packed with ostentatious directorial touches that try to come off as serious, careful filmmaking but are really just filmic hot air. We first see Siegel leaving his family to go to “work,” practicing his diction by repeating a nonsense phrase, then entering an office and killing a guy in front of everyone. He is visited by Elliott Gould as Harry, sad sack who is always “messing up” and asking for another chance, who Bugsy has known for a long time and has a soft spot for. Bugsy—known throughout as Ben and who hates being called Bugsy—is also a childhood friend of Meyer Lansky, played by Ben Kingsley, and who sends him off to Hollywood for some reason.

There Bugsy contacts his friend the actor George Raft, played by Joe Mantegna, and hangs out one day at the studio with him. There is a good scene—which I think was added back for this, the special extended edition of the film—where a set manager tells Bugsy to get out and finally threatens physical force, not realizing who he’s talking to. Bugsy then sees actress Virginia Hill, who is the girlfriend of a rival gangster. He comes on to her and she brassily blows him off, which obviously only enflames him more. One day he learns that a house he’s driving by is owned by an opera singer he admires, barges in and demands to buy the house, on the spot, pretty much not taking no for an answer. This is although he is supposed to be in L.A. for only four days. He arranges a screen test for himself, showing that he has hopes of becoming a star. We find out that the gossip on Bugsy is that he is out of his mind, an assertion we will have reason to believe.

He continues to flirt with Virginia Hill, and she stops over one night while he is watching his [awful] screen test. They finally come together while we see their silhouettes against the blank white screen. It’s the kind of thing that seemed like directorial quality at the time, but now comes off as a giant flashing sign saying “See? This film has QUALITY DIRECTION!” I also thought Bening’s performance, for which she won an Academy Award, was great when I first saw this movie, but now seems quite a bit overdone in her stereotype of the narcissistic, brassy moll. She’s desperately trying to be a real-life Jessica Rabbit, despite the fact that Jessica Rabbit was the distilled version of a stereotype.

SPOILERS > > >
So by now I ain’t really buying it and although it hasn’t quite been an hour, I’m already finding the film drearily dragged-out and listless. Bugsy finds out that a certain company was robbed by Harvey Kietel as Mickey Cohen. He hires Cohen, and learns that the robbed party actually reported a larger sum gone and was hoping to keep the difference. Virginia is at his place and overhears one of the movie’s big scenes where Bugsy maniacally makes the thief crawl and bark like a dog, then oink like a pig. This, of course, drives her insane with lust. Right? It’s just what happens. By the way, there’s this whole angle where Bugsy has an idea that he personally will assassinate Mussolini, his desire for which I understand is largely fictional and downright impossible.

So Bugsy and Cohen have to go out and visit a casino in the Nevada desert. As the movie has it, Virginia is deathly afraid of flying and thus they drive, close the casino, and are arguing so violently that Bugsy gets out of the car and walks into the desert, where he suddenly has an epiphany, a vision of the mob opening their own casino in Nevada, which would of course grow into Las Vegas. So you see, the movie has it, it was all because Virginia made them drive. The extra-special movie moments continue as Virginia drives off and leaves Bugsy and Cohen to walk back to L.A. through the Mohave desert.

Now Bugsy goes back to New York, where he is to be present for his daughter’s birthday. But wouldn’t you know, that’s when Lansky and company come calling. We then have a long [LOOOONG] scene where Bugsy tries to balance work and family in his own insane way, by telling his daughter he’ll be there in one second, rushing over to Meyer to tell him about his Vegas idea, calling Cohen to have Virginia followed in case she cheats, back to the family, back to “The Family,” etc. At one point the daughter gets upset and locks herself in her room, at which point Bugsy tries to call her out by saying “I’m lighting the [birthday] candles! I’m lighting the candles!” over and over. And over. It’s a big, showy, “this-is-a-quality-movie-with-quality-writing” scene, but it starts to go on way too long. Of course, this being the extended version with 15 minutes back in, one begins to suspect that certain bits of it have been lengthened. For some reason that the movie never really makes clear, Meyer is just really behind Busgy’s idea. Perhaps this is because, historically, the Flamingo was Meyer’s idea, which Bugsy thought was “idiotic,” and did not support.

There is a good little scene—or rather, small bit of the huge, sprawling birthday scene—in which Bugsy tells Meyer of his plan to assassinate Mussolini, and Meyer tells him “Do not ever tell that to anyone else, because they will take everything you say less seriously after that.” Anyway, Bugsy tells the mob that it will only cost a million dollars, and brings in Virginia as a partner. Meanwhile it turns out that Harry [remember Elliott Gould as Bugsy’s sad-sack childhood friend?] squealed and put Charlie Luciano behind bars. So Bugsy is obliged to at least turn him in. Well, guess who shows up at Bugsy’s door just then? Bugsy’s going to take him out for a drive, which Virginia, who consistently takes “high maintenance” to the next level, insists on going along on. Then she’s all shocked when she hears the gunshots as Bugsy kills Harry. Then he repeats the “Twenty Dwarves” diction exercise on the way home—oooh, he’s nuts—and goes inside alone to brood inside his exquisitely lighting-directed mansion. Then he tries to kill himself, but Virginia stops him by taking the gun, whereupon he begs her to kill him. It is all so amazingly hard-hitting.

Here’s where stuff starts happening quickly and the movie loses focus. Construction of the hotel and casino starts. Costs soon skyrocket and the mobsters are unhappy. Bugsy tells Meyer it’ll be “three million, tops.” Virginia’s ex calls her a slut, so Bugsy beats him nearly to death in a club. Then his wife has to slap him repeatedly to get him to admit that he wants a divorce, and this is on the very night World War II ended! Wow, what HIGH DRAMA. Costs of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino are up to 4.5 Million and climbing as Bugsy starts making ridiculous demands. First he moves the pool so it can be in the sun, then wants a wall knocked down and windows put in so you can see the pool, regardless that it is a bearing wall, then has the replacement wall knocked down because the windows are too low. Then Mickey tells him that Virginia has siphoned off $2 million. Then dust storms curtail construction! Then Virginia throws a jealous fit over some waitress! Then costs are going up even more, and Meyer comes out, begging Bugsy to just stop lying and tell him how much it’ll be… but of course Bugsy can’t stop lying. Then the Flamingo opens—and no one comes! And it closes that night [as the movie has it], for modifications. Then he’s suddenly called to L.A.! And Virginia, knowing he’ll be killed, tells him they can run away and live on the $2 million she did in fact steal! Then he’s at home, symbolically re-watching his screen test [he has become an image! An icon!] when shots come through the window and kill him. You’ll note that these metaphorically-aimed bullets strike a) a picture of Bugsy with Virginia, b) a model of the Flamingo, and c) the screen on which Bugsy’s screen test is playing.

Going faux-meaningful to paper over the fact that they have no idea how to end the film, Bening gets a looooooooong reaction shot as she hears the news that Bugsy is dead. She wanders outside and feels deep loss. The end. Then we have some statistics about how big Vegas is now over footage of the then-current Vegas, which already looks quite quaintly outdated.
< < < SPOILERS END

The first thing to know, that I didn’t understand at the time, is that this is almost entirely a work of fiction. Bugsy was sent out to stay in L.A. and take over business there, not just for four days. Virginia Hill may have been an extra, but she was mainly a prostitute and delivered money for the mob. It wasn’t Bugsy’s idea to start the casino, and he didn’t want to do it. He was a distant second in command of the building to someone who has been removed fromt his story entirely. You can read the entire truth here.

Okay, so maybe it’s supposed to be a character study, and as such, I suppose it’s a little interesting. The idea seems to be about this guy who is a crazy dreamer but also certifiably insane but also a romantic but also tremendously violent. I was interested in the whole angle of this guy who has the power to kill anyone who so much as looks at him funny, the terror he instills in others, and their pathetic whimpering before him. But that aspect doesn’t really go much of anywhere. In the second half it seems to be about him being insane, but again this doesn’t really go that far. The REASON I don’t think either of these angles are followed to their logical or interesting ends is that we the audience need to LIKE this guy at least a little bit, and feel sorry for him, and sympathize with him. Same goes for Virginia Hill, who was apparently a true scumbag. Therefore they’re crooks and killers but LIKEABLE crooks and killers, Bugsy’s crazy but in a cute, harmless way [unless you’re a rival thug or rival for Virginia], and had a misunderstood vision. The script was written by James Toback, who wrote and directed the well-received Fingers, and who was also originally slated to direct… but, as gossip has it, Beatty was basically behind this movie and “prefers directors that he can control,” so in comes high-toned hack Levinson. I know that Toback was pretty bitter about the whole experience, which he expressed in a book about the movie a friend of mine had at the time. Anyway, all these different competing interests probably were the cause of this film being such a directionless meander.

Because ultimately, that’s what it is. It’s hard to say what the point of this movie is. I guess to say that this complex mobster had a great love story and was single-handedly responsible for creating Las Vegas… which is a great story, if any of it were remotely true. But even trying to fleece the public with that premise, it just doesn’t have enough of a shape to end with a powerful statement. The Bugsy character stuff is interesting but ultimately not focused enough to leave us with much of anything. The love story is okay [though as I said, Bening is overdoing it throughout], and probably the movie’s strongest element, but just peters out without any resolution. I mean, if you’re going to invent so much as it is, why not have Hill crawling to Bugsy’s door and pounding to get in as he’s tragically shot? You know, just go for it. It would seem that the “Bugsy created Vegas” angle is what the movie is trying to go with, and it’s interesting… although now that I know the truth, this movie strikes me as almost 100% bullshit. This is something you might want to watch with your parents if you need something adult and boring over the holidays or whatever, but other than that I think you can just skip it.

And holy Christ, if there was ever a movie that didn’t need any additional footage put back…

Should you watch it: 

There’s no real reason to… I suppose if you’re interested in gangsters, but there are plenty of other, better gangster movies out there…