Hollywood is into a gangster-film cycle. We seem to be getting one a week, and none, until now, has been that good.
The newest, "Bugsy," is very good. It is the story of Bugsy Siegel, the gangster who had Hollywood cowering back in the '40s. He had somehow managed to control the craft unions and was blackmailing the studios until someone shot him dead at his girlfriend's home.
Baltimore's Barry Levinson, who directed the film, doesn't concern himself with the studio business. All he is interested in is Bugsy's beginnings in New York, then his move to the West Coast where he picked up with Virginia Hill, a Hollywood starlet.
Siegel, who used women like tissue, fell for Hill, so much so that he refused to believe all the stories he heard about her. He gave up his wife and daughters to be with her and maimed all those who were foolish enough to say unkind things about the woman.
''Bugsy'' is a long film, some two hours and 15 minutes, but the length is justified. Levinson knows how to direct a movie, particularly this one, which, for all its length, is never dull.
Its only liability is Warren Beatty, who apparently came with the package. It was he who decided he would like to do the Siegel story some seven years ago. Levinson would join the project later.
Beatty is good, but he isn't good enough. It is mostly his appearance. Siegel was nice looking, but he wasn't pretty. Beatty is pretty. Beatty also looks too tall. Richard Dreyfuss would have been a much better Siegel. Dreyfuss can say hello and sound crazy. Beatty has to fight for that quality, and he never quite makes it. He certainly doesn't ruin the film -- he doesn't begin to do that, but Dreyfuss would have been so much better.
Annette Bening is Hill, the woman Siegel loved, the woman who stole money from him then returned it because she loved the man. Bening is also pretty. She is also very classy, which Hill wasn't, but Bening manages to suggest hardness under all that loveliness.
Joe Mantegna plays George Raft, who was said to be friendly with Siegel and other hoods. We don't know that Raft was this friendly, but the movie says so, and you may take it or leave it.
Levinson and Beatty wanted to do a film about a man and a woman, human beings who loved each other. Well, they've done that, but they may have gone a bit overboard trying to make Siegel more appealing than he really was.
In the end, we are told something we already know, that the Flamingo Hotel, which the visionary Siegel built on a sandy waste in Las Vegas, would eventually clear $100 million.
We are also told that Hill returned stolen money to Meyer Lansky, a good and wise deed on her part, or she might never have lived long enough to commit suicide in Austria a few years later.
The film ends on a poetic note. Siegel's death brings all those silent flying movies to mind, in which the dead pilot was seen flying out of sight as he waved a ghostly goodbye to his friends.
The ending of ''Bugsy'' is sentimental, even a little touching, but all this reverence might be misplaced.
''Bugsy,'' opening here today, is a big, richly woven film. Its only real weakness is the leading man, and that's never enough to sink the movie.
*** The life and times of gangster Bugsy Siegel
CAST: Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Joe Mantegna
DIRECTOR: Barry Levinson
RATING: R (violence, language, sex)
) RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes