Underappreciated Film – Bugsy

Bugsy Movie PosterBarry Levinson’s 1991 film Bugsy being close to forgotten is somewhat believable when you look at some of the other movies that came out that year: JFK, Thelma & Louise, The Silence of the Lambs, Beauty and the Beast, and Prince of Tides, to name a few. All are now deemed classics in their own right, or at least have many feverish supporters. Bugsy gets left out more often than not, and that is a shame. It has everything you want in a gangster movie: the sense of danger, the glamorous lifestyle, and great performances, especially Warren Beatty as Bugsy.

With all biopics, there is always something that is left out, or events and people are combined or compacted to make the storytelling go smoother. This can be bothersome if many important details are left out and it becomes a whitewash. Here, we know from the very beginning that this man is a monster. The opening scenes are of him kissing his wife and children and going out like any father and husband. He then goes to a hotel and meets a young woman in the elevator; he seduces her and takes her to a room. After that, he meets up with his business partners and goes to see a man who has been skimming money from their business. In the car, his partners discuss why Bugsy is doing this himself when they could get some lower level guy to do it. At the destination, Bugsy taunts the man before taking out his gun and killing him at close range.

With these quick scenes, we know Bugsy is a charmer, charismatic, and in some ways even lovable. The final scene in the sequence, though, is him not only being violent, but making the violence very personal. We know that he doesn’t even need to be the one taking care of money skimmers, but he wants to be the one involved. Beatty makes this character all these things throughout the movie. He was the quintessential glamour gangster. He could be out on a dance floor, flirting with women, hobnobbing with journalists and politicians and being the life of the party. The next moment he could be beating a man and threatening a his life, with equal energy and believability. One of the most intense scenes in the film is when Bugsy finds out someone has been stealing from him, and makes the man crawl on the floor and bark like a dog. He then gets the man up and cleans him up, saying everyone deserves a second chance, and sends him out the door. He jumps from scary psychotic to charmer within seconds, and makes us believe it.

That is what makes Bugsy as a character so fascinating. We never know what side of the man we are going to get. It is within his interactions with other people that we find out the most about him, be it an Italian countess that he is seducing so he can get close to Mussolini and assassinate him or the photographer he asks to print a picture of him dancing over the mugshot in the papers. He is a dreamer who wants to build a large casino in the middle of the desert for all to see as a monument to his genius. He also will beat a man to within an inch of his life if he thinks that man slept with his girlfriend. The strange yet captivating psyche is always on full display.
Bugsy 1Harvey Keitel as Mickey Cohen brings the most frenetic energy to the film, outside of Beatty. Introduced as a one-man mob operation, Cohen is accused of holding up one of the new operations Bugsy has in California, and is now politely asked to talk with Bugsy at a spa. Upon being questioned about the money, he claims that he never stole—but if he did, it wasn’t as much as Bugsy says it was (setting up that someone else within the organization stole some as well). Then, with little regard for who he’s dealing with, Cohen swears profusely at Bugsy and storms out. Bugsy is very amused by this. He brings Cohen back and wants him to take over as his new second-in-command. While there is never another scene as intense between the two, it gives Bugsy the closest to an equal as the movie can allow. Cohen is the serious one of the group, who tries to keep Bugsy’s wilder impulses in check. He speaks Bugsy’s language and can be honest and sarcastic around Bugsy without ever feeling threatened.
Bugsy 2Then there is Annette Bening as Virginia Hill, an actress and, at times, mob girlfriend—and Bugsy’s main weakness. While she does fall for Bugsy’s charms and indeed his violence as well, she is her own woman, and she knows before he does that they will drive each other crazy. Early on she states, “We both want whatever we want whenever we want it, and we both want everything.” She stands up to any and all of Bugsy’s crap and will fight him on anything she doesn’t like. She shows that she can find a new man whenever she needs to. Bugsy cannot get enough of her, though, and in their own way they do love each other—but the intensity of their personalities get in the way. He is a passionate man who can be driven nuts by her, but goes to greater extremes when he thinks someone is after her or insults her. Virginia has a passion for him as well, but also is used to surviving on her looks and wit, and is always looking for an advantage for herself. They are perfect for each other, but also each other’s worse enemy.

Bugsy represents both itself as a film and Bugsy as a character as showing what the life of a gangster really is. That life can bring power and wealth, but it is mainly a life of violence and danger. It is an addictive high for Bugsy the whole way through. We see him at his highs and his lows, the full circle of the life. We see the appeal of the lifestyle, but never forget the undertone of what all his actions can lead to. Yet, all the while, we are also just having a fun time with him. Mobster movies tend to be either cautionary tales, telling what the gangster lifestyle is and getting at the gritty details, or films that glorify the life, in order to feed the audience’s appetite for violence. Here is a film that lets us have it both ways. It draws us in by showing us people who represent all that we want to dream the mob life is like. They are dangerous and sexy, and we fear and are entranced by them at the same time. While getting to live out that life, we see how quickly it can all go away; the police, fellow mobsters, even your best friend or your lover all have the possibility to take away everything you have, be it your money, your freedom, or even your life. Keeping the balance between the two ideas—so that even at the intense violent moments, you still see the charm in the characters—gives Bugsy its extra pull.


Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

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