Director: Barry Levinson
Based on the life of legendary gangster Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel (not to be confused with ‘Bugs’ Moran), Bugsy tells the story of Siegel’s ambitious plans to create an oasis in the desert – the city that eventually became Las Vegas – as well as the mafia’s key role in funding and developing that dream, alongside showing the beginning and tragic end of his infamous relationship with Hollywood actress Virginia Hill.
Played by Warren Beatty – known for his earlier performance of Clyde Barrow in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde – Siegel is shown as a hot-headed, dangerous and at times extremely unhinged gangster, whilst also being a devoted family man and, in his lighter moments, a charming and occasionally well-mannered gentleman. He’s a character of extremes, and Beatty does well in portraying the man as being divided between two personalities – often wildly alternating within the space of a single scene. Beginning as a successful and respected associate of mafia heads including Meyer Lansky and ‘Lucky’ Luciano, Siegel begins to dream big and envisions for himself a glorious oasis in the Nevada desert – the legendary Flaming Hotel and the subsequent money-making machine that would in time become Las Vegas. Along the way, he falls into the charms of Virginia Hill – played by Annette Bening – a troubled actress with whom Siegel has an intense and volatile love affair.
The film is largely a biographical account of Siegel’s later life from the 1940’s onwards – from his relationship with the mafia and plans to further their reach and develop the Flamingo Hotel, to his troublesome family life and affair with Hill, as well as his final assassination after his Vegas dreams appeared to fall apart before they had even started. There is a looming sense of tragedy which overshadows the film – arguably thanks to the public familiarity with the character and his fate – so rather than making a standard, action-heavy mobster film, director Barry Levinson tries to develop the emotional aspects of Siegel’s character, particularly in exploring his relationship with Hill, to create a different kind of mobster story and create a greater sense of tragedy come his final demise, and on the whole it succeeds well. There is, admittedly, a bit of a jump between the initial, failed opening of his Vegas resort in December 1946 and his subsequent assassination; the film makes his assassination appear to take place almost immediately afterwards, presumably to support the idea that it was a mafia hit owing to the huge sums of money Siegel appeared to have lost them (whereas in reality, his death occurred some six months following the Flamingo’s initial opening and almost immediate re-closure), but this, along with other discrepancies (see Wikipedia…) can be reasonably forgiven.
The film has a strong supporting cast – Bening is a solid female counterpart to Beatty, and the two have excellent chemistry, particularly in the more emotionally charged scenes, as well as their tragic final farewell together. Ben Kingsley plays a calm, occasionally caring yet ruthlessly efficient Meyer Lansky, and Harvey Keitel, a year away from his role as Mr White in Reservoir Dogs,, plays the role of Mickey Cohen – Siegel’s long-term rival, friend and occasional business associate, all in equal measure. Joe Mantegna (Joey Saza in Godfather III and voice of the Simpsons’ mobster ‘Fat Tony’) also has an entertaining role as actor George Raft, as he takes Siegel under his wing and shows him the reality of Hollywood life.
There are plenty of memorable scenes in the movie, all led by Beatty – from ordering a man to crawl on all floors and bark like a dog to him, to playing a game of Russian roulette on himself without so much as a thought or even a blink during an argument, it’s intense watching and Beatty really plays the part of Siegel to perfection. But he also plays the softer scenes brilliantly – from the despair at seeing his dream crumble in front of him on the Flamingo’s opening night, to seemingly accepting his fate ahead of his assassination.
It’s sometimes overlooked in comparison to the films that followed, but overall Bugsy is a solid entry from a decade which would also give us a number of strong works such as Carlito’s Way and Donnie Brasco. Now 25 years old, it stands up as an excellent mob movie in itself and truly a landmark movie in Beatty’s career.