Poignant tale of the rise and fall of a narcissistic gangster

BUGSY A

December 20, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Think of Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, a romantic egotist to the end. Think of his wonderful shirts. Think of his clothes, his charm, his charisma, his American yearning to be better, to climb in society, to hang out with the swells.

Now think of him pulling a snub nose and blowing a sucking chest wound into somebody, and you have "Bugsy."

Warren Beatty's best film since "Bonnie and Clyde" and possibly Barry Levinson's best film, period, "Bugsy" is set squarely in the increasingly hard-to-find Neverland of adult moviemaking. Literate, witty, and most of all sheerly entertaining, it's the best film of the Christmas season. It's a meditation on the dark places romantic American yearning can take a neighborhood boy, and the answer is: dead on a couch with a bullet hole where your eye used to be.

Give Beatty the credit that's due him. He found and nurtured the project and he was willing to play a character ominously close to all the evil things that people have been saying about Warren Beatty for years: his Bugsy is vain, sublimely aware of his own beauty, manipulative, not terribly intelligent but terribly driven, completely amoral, an indefatigable womanizer and social climber. And a beautiful dresser.

Levinson, working from a script by James Toback, has come up with an addition to the canon: the gangster as flake. The Bugsy of the film isn't the urban hard case of earlier gangster movies or the solemn, pope-like patriarch of the Coppola version (though yes, Alex Rococco's "Moe Green," in "Godfather I," was a version of Bugsy Siegel); this gangster wears hairnets and asks waiters if his tan is fading. He stares endlessly at his own screen test (arranged by boyhood chum George Raft) and the fascinating contents of no mirror escape his close attention.

When he runs -- he's always in a hurry, like his movieland analogue, Sammy Glick -- he looks particularly ridiculous, all that beauty and dignity and vanity held with such rigid stiffness as he pitter-patters along, an image, amid all the guns, of essential innocence.

But of course, he's "bugsy." As in, nuts. As in, uh-oh. The guy was by all inclinations born without fear or doubt and was very, very tough. Whether his bravado was Nietzchean will power or simple craziness, no one can say: But he killed, it is estimated, more than 30 men, and didn't have a problem in putting the gun close, pulling the trigger and watching the light go out of his victim's eyes. He also liked to hurt people with his hands.

Beatty gives Bugsy's violent edge an almost feminine hysteria: It's shrill, girlish violence, like a cat fight with guns. It seems to come from nowhere, stealing over him in a black fury of an instant. In that respect, it's truly frightening and it goes a long way toward diffusing the charge that the movie makes gangsters and molls glamorous.

The movie somewhat telescopes the authentic Benjamin Hymie Siegel's last 12 years of life on earth to about three: an East Coast mob star, he's sent west by his bosses Lansky and Luciano on the Twentieth Century Limited to horn in on the very mild mob activities in the city of angels, which he accomplishes with a few harsh words, and by bringing in the rogue loner Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) as his enforcer.

That easy triumph cleared the way for the main matter of the end of his life, his love affair with a bit Hollywood player named Virginia Hill (Annette Bening). This is one of those old-fashioned guys-and-dames knock-down drag-outs from the fabled days when men were men and women were also men. Hill, from hardscrabble Alabama (the movie strangely gives her a New York accent) was as tough as brass bushings herself and fights him tooth and nail -- the suggestion is that all that anger made the sex very, very good: She and Bugsy were the Kate-and-Spence of the tommy-gun set, famous for the typhoon-like quality of their brawls.

But like many a poor boy, Bugsy is brought low by his dreams. He looks into the desert and sees . . . Viva Las Vegas! The consuming obsession was his vision of a mob city in the desert that existed to milk money from rubes. He began the process by building the Flamingo (Hill's nickname). In fact, a little of "Bugsy" connects with one of Beatty's best movies, the too-quickly forgotten "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," in which he played a Western dreamer who fell in with a hard woman and tried to build an oasis of vice in the wilderness and fell out with the hard boys and paid with his life. So it is with Bugsy, who ended up stealing from the mob to finance his dream. They were not amused.

The movie isn't faultless. A long farce-like interlude in New York where Bugsy desperately tries to balance the elements of his life -- the mob, his family and Virginia -- becomes too quickly ridiculous and showy. Joe Mantegna, who ought to make a perfect George Raft, doesn't; in fact he barely registers. But Ben Kingsley is a wonderful Meyer Lansky and the late Bill Graham is forceful and frightening as Lucky Luciano.

Still the movie is like a trip to the West Egg of gangster movies: romantic and poignant, funny and sad, the story of a man who was great with a gat but ended up, like so many poseurs, dead.

'Bugsy'

Starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.

Directed by Barry Levinson.

Released by Tri-Star.

Rated R.

*** 1/2

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