December 15, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

New York -- When is this guy going to fail? This success stuff is really getting boring. He just keeps churning out the hits. Where's the drama? Where's the giddy existential edge of doom, the bold streak of self-loathing?

But no. Clumpa-clumpa, another hit. Maybe not so big a hit and then again maybe a really big hit. But very quietly, "Bugsy" is looking like it'll be another one.

Or can he at least get an entourage? Say, 20 guys in Armani suits and nuclear mousse who run around saying, "Barry can't see you now" and laugh oh-so-loudly at the boss' excellent jokes and hover obediently to add fresh cubes to his Pellegrino and point out to everybody how brilliant he is?

But again, no. It's just Barry Levinson, from Baltimore, Md., in a hotel room, with his wife Diana and no big deals about it at all. He doesn't even have a ponytail. He's wearing a coat and tie. He looks mildly prosperous, slightly academic, a 49-year-old man who'd just gotten a partnership in a downtown law firm or tenure at the Hopkins. Go Hollywood? He hasn't even gone Towson!

Pleasant and always funny, never insistent, he seems pleased to hear nice things about "Bugsy," and from the easygoing way he chats it up you'd never guess that "Bugsy" stars Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, cost $40 million, was filmed in a desert, was helped enormously by Mr. Beatty's impregnation of Ms. Bening and is getting predominantly to-die-from reviews.

And you'd never guess that a director who's put himself on the map with a series of brilliantly observed, gunless examinations of the human condition as lived in such out-of-the-way spots as Baltimore, Md., has actually made . . . a gangster movie.

But he has.

"Bugsy" is the life, times and death of one Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who took the 20th Century Limited to Hollywood in 1935 and in 12 years achieved fortune, fame and infamy, shed one wife and gained another, invented a city (Las Vegas, Nev.), and while reading the Los Angeles Times in a snappy double-breasted suit as he sat on a floral-print sofa, caught a carbine bullet in the eye. The news photo of Bugsy, his clothes dapper, his newspaper open on his lap and his face shattered, flashed around the world the next day and seemed to sum up the glamour and the gore of the gangster lifestyle: Live fast, dress well, die young.

"If someone came up to me and said, 'You want to do a gangster movie?' " says Levinson, "I'd say, 'No.' You know, the usual shoot-em-up, my mind starts wandering. I zoom in and out. 'Yes, that was a very nice shot.' 'Look, the guy did that.' But I have no interest. But what [writer James Toback] had there was this character. It was mesmerizing. There were things in it that I'd never thought about.

"One was the idea that Bugsy Siegel was so taken by Hollywood. And the key was that he made a screen test. It was ludicrous. Here's a gangster making a screen test. Does he want to be an actor? This guy was fascinating to me."

Levinson confesses that, growing up in Baltimore, he didn't learn much about gangsters.

"I remember as a kid going to one of the nightclubs in Baltimore. But Baltimore didn't have the real mobsters. It had 'entrepreneurs.' "

A breakthrough of sorts is Levinson's first close-up, on-screen handgun murder: In the very early going, Warren Beatty's Bugsy walks into a betting parlor, takes nasty to the boss, then pulls out a snub-nosed heater and ventilates him.

"It's the story," says Levinson, who then draws a distinction between the two kinds of movie violence. "Take a guy like Joel Silver [producer of several famous violent hits like 'Die Hard' and the current 'Last Boy Scout']. That guy is basically saying, 'OK, the public likes violence. How do we do the killings? How do we keep the audience interested?' That's his goal, pure and simple.

"I'm interested in the stories and the characters. If something has to happen that is violent, it's a different thing. And even then, I don't want to dwell on the mechanics of it. I want it clean. I want to show its reflection on the character. When we see what happens with Bugsy, it's to say, this isn't a wonderful guy. We need to know he has that element in him, as opposed to celebrating his violence."

In fact, says Levinson, "If I read the script to a great shoot-em-up, I'd probably be lost. As a filmmaker, I'd get bored."

He was much more interested in the interpenetration of image and ideal as it flickered through the life of Bugsy Siegel -- that is, how the authentic gangster was fascinated by movie gangsters and movie stars and how he even took the screen test, when he showed that he'd make a pretty rotten movie gangster.

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