Film-Forward Review: [BUGSY]

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Directed by: Barry Levinson.
Produced by: Mark Johnson, Barry Levinson & Warren Beatty.
Written by: James Toback.
Director of Photography: Allen Daviau.
Edited by: Stu Linder.
Music by: Ennio Morricone.
Released by: Sony Home Entertainment.
Country of Origin: USA. 149 min. Not Rated.
With: Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley & Joe Mantegna.
DVD Features: Two-disc set. Disc 1: Digitally remastered feature. Optional French/ Portuguese audio. Optional English/French/Portuguese subtitles. Previews. Disc 2: Deleted scenes. The Road to Damascus: The Reinvention of Bugsy Siegel documentary. Deleted scenes. Optional Portuguese subtitles.

This 1991 biopic of infamous 1940’s gangster Ben Siegel – who, as the movie has it, hated being referred to by the nickname of the title – chronicles Siegel’s life in this genuinely fascinating and visually stunning character study. Drawing on the conventions of the gangster/crime genre, the film subverts them (à la Warren Beatty’s own 1967 Bonnie and Clyde), suggesting that cinematically romanticized notions of ruthless individualism and of leading a life of abandon contributed just as much as any other factor to Bugsy’s warped psyche, and to what he saw as his goal of fulfilling the American dream.

Perhaps this revisionism is a result of screenwriter James Toback’s involvement, apparent not only in the rat-tat-tat dialogue and quick-witted one-liners but in the film’s major themes. While an undeniably violent and obsessive sociopath, Bugsy is also an idealist, serving as a prime embodiment of the socially ambitious and determinedly upwardly mobile self-made American (he constantly practices his enunciation to get rid of his Brooklyn-inflected accent). Toback’s great revelation is that these qualities are not only interdependent but borne of the same impulse: as Bugsy puts it, getting “a fresh start” – the raison d’être, after all, of the immigrant experience.

The movie is also of a piece with Toback’s own directorial work (Harvard Man, When Will I Be Loved), which deals with outsized appetites. Indeed, Bugsy’s biggest success is also, quite literally, his folly: his vision of Las Vegas, an oasis for human vices in the middle of the Nevada desert, depicted in the film as the ultimate gamble (and the reason, one suspects, that Toback, addicted to gambling – among many other things – was attracted to the material). The movie’s most virtuoso sequences feature these “basic instincts”: Bugsy and Virginia Hill’s (Annette Bening) first kiss silhouetted behind a projection screen; the animalistic, even Brando-esque, dinner scene in the aftermath of Hill’s realizing Bugsy’s savagery; and Bugsy graphically being shot to death. However, Bugsy’s amorality is, ironically, why the much-hyped extra 15 minutes that have been restored for this DVD release feel wrong. A sequence in which Hill stops Bugsy from committing suicide after he kills an informant, his best friend Harry Greenberg (a superb Elliott Gould), is not in keeping with Bugsy’s unapologetic actions in the rest of the film, and it actually seems contradictory to his established self-centeredness. Nevertheless, the film’s numerous strengths, along with Ennio Morricone’s tragically romantic score, make it worthwhile.

DVD Extras: The skimpiness of the deleted scenes and other extras is made up for by the 90-minute-long making-of documentary, a hilariously insightful conversation between Beatty, Barry Levinson, and Toback on the filmmaking process. Though there are interviews with Bening, TIME film critic Richard Schickel, and others, it is the verbal jousting between Toback and Beatty that should be reason enough to check out this DVD edition.

Beatty, describing their successful collaboration, elaborates on his theory of three intelligences – postulating that while two people working together may result in an unproductive ad hominem dialectic, three will balance out a situation so that the right answer prevails. He later explains his view (albeit somewhat hard to believe) that actors should be monks, out of the public eye, only emerging periodically to play a part without extra baggage. It is difficult, though, picking Toback or Beatty as the bigger narcissist, a trait they both seem to acknowledge as sharing. One begins to realize that, while ostensibly about Bugsy’s life, the movie is an extremely personal statement on artistic creativity. (Nevertheless, a nagging question the doc doesn’t answer is, if Bugsy really did plan to kill Mussolini.) Reymond Levy
December 12, 2006



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