Sunday, March 04, 2007

On DVD: Bugsy (1991)

I'm not sure Bugsy is a great film, but it is greatly interesting, and a new extended edition DVD (released last December) makes a good case for it. It's not a biopic, as it concentrates on the final period in the life of the infamous gangster and borrows as much from the proto-gangsta exploits of screenwriter James Toback (Fingers) as it does from any other source. Nor is it The Godfather or Goodfellas; there are spasms of ugly violence that upset the creamily beautiful Forties-era settings, but no capers, and little grit, least of all on the gorgeous cars.

What there is a constant tension, between the period Hollywood elegance of the production design and Toback's yammering, often wonderfully written script, and Warren Beatty's combustible, internally divided performance--he's somewhat old for the part, and, by his own admission, not quite right for it, a very controlled performer who had just played the tightly wound do-gooder Dick Tracy summoning his inner De Niro/LaMotta and acting insane while trying to convince everyone in his orbit that he is perfectly rational and in command of his crazy dream to build Las Vegas out of desert air. But he is every inch a star, and he and Annette Bening, as his treacherously devoted lover Virginia Hill, generate enormous electricity in their onscreen love affair, which blossomed off-camera once the shoot ended. No surprise: they are white-hot together, in a way that few movie couples are. [The heat had dissipated by 1994's tepid onscreen Love Affair but 16 years later they're still going strong; such an attractive pairing, dressed to the nines in Albert Wolsky's Oscar-winning clothes.]

Bugsy was nominated for nine other Oscars, and most sectors are heard from in a 90-minute documentary on a second disc, a typically excellent Charles Kiselyak production. Speaking from an old-time Hollywood restaurant, Toback, Levinson, and Beatty talk about the movie, with interspersed comments from Bening, Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould (who, like Beatty, Kingsley, and Harvey Keitel, himself a former Siegel in a 1974 TV movie opposite Dyan Cannon, should have been Oscar-nommed), Wolsky, and others. [Composer Ennio Morricone--a great score--turns up in archival footage with Levinson, conducting his orchestra in Rome.] It's a strong piece, free of fluff, and tightly edited, the bane of so many DVD docs, where the speakers are allowed to go on and on well past the point of "cut!" As such it complements the film, which has been seamlessly expanded by a few scenes, notably a crazed suicide attempt by Siegel after he's dispatched Gould, his lummox informant friend.

I'm not sure Bugsy, a hard-to-pin-down film very classily (maybe too classily) directed by Levinson, has ever gotten its due; it was neither a hit nor a flop on its release, but an in-betweener. I first saw it in a Philly theater with an audience that had trouble taking a character named "Bugsy" seriously; the very mention of the name generated gales of laughter from the inner-city crowd. ["Look! They killed Bugsy!" catcalled one viewer at the bitter end. I admit I laughed, too.] But it holds up quite well.

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