Films about organized crime have served as a dark metaphor for the American rags to riches story almost since the beginning, from the Warner Brothers gangster films to the The Godfather. During the 19th and early 20th century, ethnic groups such as the Irish, Jews and Italians, who were denied access to legitimate corridors of power, used other means to achieve success, by skirting the law and giving the people what they wanted. While many of them were nothing but vicious killers, they have certainly captured the imagination of movie-goers, and continue to popular subject matters for film. This is certainly true of Bugsy, directed by Barry Levinson. In addition, Bugsy also uses another American motif, the reinvention of a person. Several times during the film Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel uses the phrase, “Everybody needs a fresh start.” No one wants more of a fresh start than Siegel.
As the film begins, Siegel is headed to Los Angeles as a representative of Meyer Lansky to muscle on in on the local syndicate. Siegel takes this opportunity to try and reinvent himself, from the street thug he was as a youth, to someone more debonair and sophisticated. When we first see him he is practicing his elocution, trying to get rid of his accent. But Siegel can not escape his past, which eventually brings him down.
I saw this film at the Loews 84th Street one December night, and watching it again I was reminded of how underwhelmed by it I was. Part of the problem is Warren Beatty’s performance as Siegel. While Bugsy was a guy who wanted to be a movie star but couldn’t hide his past as a hoodlum, Beatty is trying to play a hoodlum but can’t hide that he’s a movie star. He just infuses this role with too much glamour. I’ve never been a big fan of Beatty as an actor (I think he’s a better director). Also, and this isn’t fair, once you’ve seen The Godfather, any serious gangster picture is likely to come up short. The script is a little too glib, the direction a little too obvious (such as the scene between Siegel and Virginia Hall shot through a movie screen). I was also bothered by the usually great Harvey Keitel, who gives a cartoonish performance as Mickey Cohen.
I think the best performance in the film is by Annette Bening as Hill. Her characterization has some depth that the others lack. She’s a film extra and good-time gal who has the brains for something better, and Siegel gives her the chance, but she’s ruined by the association.
The film also has some glaring historical inaccuracies, but that’s too be expected in any film about real people. Most notably, Siegel was not killed immediately after the Flamingo opened, he got it about six months later. And whether the idea of Las Vegas as an entertainment Mecca was Siegel’s brainchild, well, that’s also debatable.