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Truly Great Movies: Bugsy (1991)

January 7, 2011

Bugsy” Siegel: Got a light?
Virginia: The way you were looking at me, I thought you were going to ask for something more interesting.
“Bugsy” Siegel: Like what?
Virginia: Use your imagination.
“Bugsy” Siegel: I’m using it.
Virginia: …Let me know when you’re finished.

Bugsy, written by James Toback, directed by Barry Levinson and produced by Levinson and his lead actor Warren Beatty, doesn’t really catch fire until the immortal encounter seen above.  Bugsy, the movie, isn’t so much about the life story of the notorious gangster Benjamin Siegel(Warren Beatty) as it is a portrait of a man with dreams larger than reality can handle.

One of these dreams involves the creation of a playground in the middle of the Nevada desert (today’s Las Vegas).  The other dream is to capture the even-more elusive Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), a gal with more ambition, intelligence and moxie than Bugsy himself.  The journey towards both is fraught with great one-liners, gorgeous costumes, and brilliant cinematography.  Just the kind of road trip I love.

Siegel's strengths don't lie in his business acumen...

The film is only loosely based on historical records.  The real-life Benjamin Siegel  was more of a short-tempered, vicious thug than Beatty’s sharply-dressed, smooth-toned Lothario.  Still, much in the line of Scorsese’s equally “re-imagined” life of Howard Hughes in The Aviator,  Bugsy is a successful film,  but primarily as a character sketch of a fascinating (if mostly fictionalized) individual.

Benjamin Siegel arrives in L.A. at the behest of his friend and boss, Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley).  Lansky is Siegel’s best friend, but also his greatest critic.  Where Bugsy is charismatic and determined, Lansky is patient and cunning.  They make a good team, but even Lansky has his limits when it comes to Ben’s short fuse.

Siegel’s detour in L.A. is designed to be a pit stop to put some minor mob underlings back in line.  It rapidly turns into something much more for Ben when he sets eyes on the failed B movie actress and frequent mob groupie who will dominate the final years of his life.

The heart of the movie is the complicated relationship between Bugsy and mob moll Virginia Hill.  The chemistry between Beatty and Bening is still palpable almost twenty years after the film’s original release.  At first, Virginia plays hard to get – as the sometime mistress of a co-worker, she warns Siegel multiple times that she could be bad for his business.  Still, tell a guy like Benny Siegel that something is off limits…Well, you see where that is headed.

Virginia Hill and Bugsy meet Hollywood-style

The snappy dialogue and witty foreplay that sparkles and zips across the screen between these two characters is more titillating than any full-fledged sex scene will ever be.  That Beatty and Bening  are still together as a couple in real life is not surprising.  This movie will always exist as a testament to how they fell for each other.  What a great story to tell the grandkids.

On a detour to the sands of Nevada to check on an ailing small-time casino in the middle of nowhere, Siegel has an inspiration.  Why not turn all of this wasteland into a mecca for those with cash  – a playground for the rich and idle?  As is the way with most grand ideas, this one is not appreciated at first.  Ben’s dream to build The Flamingo casino (named after Virginia’s Hill’s notorious legs) is viewed with eyebrow-raised suspicion by the head honchos in New York.  If it fails, it could mean the end of Bugsy and his empire.

As the oasis of The Flamingo rises in the desert, things come to a boil between Bugsy and Virginia.  She may be in love with the lug, but her need for self-preservation may be more powerful.  Meyer Lansky sees it, and also sees that she is the real brains behind the outfit.  But can she be trusted?  Perhaps not, but that doubt and suspicion only fuel the fire behind Ben’s obsession with her.

trouble in the Nevada wasteland

The film is a visual masterpiece – the cinematography by Allen Daviou and the lush costumes by Albert Wosky transport the viewer into a world of glossy surfaces and dirty dealings.  In one scene, Bening’s Virginia arrives to meet Bugsy after hours for their first rendezvous.  Her slinky golden dress is an expression of not just her impeccable fashion sense, but her personality.  When seen in the rays of moonlight, it glimmers and fades in and out of view.  It’s a nice touch of foreshadowing.  All that glitters, in Virginia’s case, is definitely not gold.

The score by Ennio Morricone is a soft, jazz-filled lullaby to an age long gone.  Bugsy’s dream lives on in the modern sprawl and shine of Las Vegas, but the days when women were classy fashion plates and men wore suits to bothwork AND play are never to be seen again.

Still, it is nice to escape now and then into one man’s overly-large dream of what might have been…

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