She’s Young, They’re in Love, and He Kills People

Yes, as a matter of fact, it did take me a while to catch up with BUGSY, now that you mention it. Probably being disgusted by DICK TRACY, a bloated waste with pretty colours, put me off going to see this. But as always with a Warren Beatty joint, top talent is involved. The director here isn’t WB himself but Barry Levinson, who has made some fine films, but maybe not this one.

My main observation is not, I think, an original one — Beatty somehow can’t suggest the psychopathic rage part that gives Ben Siegel his nickname and the film its title, which is a fairly big problem if you think about it.

What surprised me, during Beatty’s biggest tantrum, was an odd cut where his anger goes from about a 7 to a 10 with no transition and no motivation. Thereby making it clear that two takes, featuring different levels of performance, have been spliced together, maybe to try for a jarring, sudden escalation? Maybe hoping that this disjunction would make Warren scarier? I mean, he’s doing a decent job of looking angry, and if you were in a room with a guy that angry you’d maybe feel a little sick, but the problem is Harvey Keitel is in this film and Ben Kingsley is in this film and if Levinson asked either of them to do what Warren’s FORCING himself to try to do here, the key grip would soil himself in terror. We have seen scary actors. If we haven’t, we might be convinced by Warren.

In Levinson on Levinson, the director talks about how Bugsy needed to be a romantic lead as well as a vicious killer — obviously, Beatty can do the romantic stuff no problem. The trouble was, they needed BOTH. I can’t really think of anyone who was around at the time who would have been better.

Beatty is romantic partly because he has Annette Bening to be romantic with. She plays Virginia Hill, also the subject of a seventies TV movie where Dyan Cannon played her. Harvey Keitel was in that too, funnily enough.

The other big filmmaking fail — well, the film has several goddamn MONTAGES, the point of which I do not see, and whenever a period movie resorts to montages to get from one point of a disarticulated story to another, I feel somebody’s not done their screenwriting work — but the other thing is the ending.

Bugsy alone.

This ties in to the best bit, actually, Bugsy’s Damascene vision of the Flamingo Hotel. I tend to feel like Warren is buying up all the toys when he hires people like Storaro to shoot and Morricone to score… in fairness, BULWORTH is an absolutely gorgeous showcase for Storaro’s work and the maestro does great work here… but the great Morricone wasn’t really NEEDED for BULWORTH and he’s probably not needed here. Normally, if you hire Morricone and your lead has an ecstatic vision of an unbuilt hotel, you turn the composer loose and get something amazing. What they do here is impressively different.

Of course, Storaro gives us some great desert photography. But the sound design, by Richard Beggs, does the rest. It’s this distant echoing hubbub — like an auditory leak from the future. It comes from far away, probably from approximately our time. Or maybe we can only hear it dimly because it’s coming from inside Siegel’s head, which is only semi-porous as they prove at the end with bullets. Anyway, it’s really wonderful, and arguably better than what you’d get from the mighty Morricone because it’s NEW.

Anyway, the other fail: big pull-back from Annette Bening after she gets the news of Bugsy’s death, and pan off onto darkness. Then… nothing. Some TEXT, telling the movie’s version of what happened next — a version which is factually unfounded, as far as I can tell. Then a nothing shot of modern Vegas as the credits whiz upwards.

No good at all. What Fiona and I both expected, as the shot panned from Bening in her billowing gown, was the lights of modern Vegas coming on bit by bit in the darkness. That’s what the whole film has been leading up to, and certainly seems like what that shot is designed to lead up to. It’d have to be some kind of FX shot, sure. Something out of ONE FROM THE HEART. And maybe the idea is corny. But corny is better than disappointing, right? Usually. I mean, if the movie wasn’t so shamelessly romanticized then maybe it could afford to end with some kind of anticlimax. What do I mean by shamelessly romanticized? Well, Virginia Hill wasn’t at the Flamingo because she unexpectedly left for Paris, making some suspect she was tipped off about her boyfriend’s hit job — but there’s worse — we earlier see a witness being sent off on a nice holiday so he can’t testify against Bugs — two real witnesses were in fact whacked. To accuse them of taking bribes rather than bullets definitely falls into the category of insulting the dead.

Of course, BONNIE AND CLYDE was rose-tinted too. But that 100% worked. Does that excuse it? I’m not 100% sure. But when I watch that film, I 100% forget to worry about it.

11 Responses to “She’s Young, They’re in Love, and He Kills People”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    My reaction is quite different from yours — and not simply because I liked it more, and I’m crazy about Warren (an American filmmaker of great import, and not just the man who has had sex with more women than most of us can even imagine.) I don’t think he plays Siegel the way he does because he can’t do “anger” I think it ties into the overall conception. The film is called “Bugsy” but Siegel hated the name. The crimes he commits aren’t done with the relish one finds in a Marty movie with Harvey Keitel — and using Keitel here is a “tell” in that regard. When the great Elliot Gould is taken out and killed by our anti-hero, Warren plays it sorrowfully in a manner I find deeply touching. I love ALL Morricone so hearing his gorgeous strains posed no problem for me. Over and above all Warren was falling in love with the woman he would — to the astonishment of the entire universe –marry and father five children with (including a spectacular transgender son Stephen Ira whose demeanor suggests his father in “Mickey One”)

    While Warren is the auteur, Barry Levinson is a director deserving of your close attention, particularly for “Bandits” starring the sublime Cate Blanchett

  2. Jeff Gee Says:

    I have to think they considered the ending you suggest– how could they not?– and decided it wouldn’t work, for whatever reason. So they went with literally nothing. A really odd choice.

  3. I like Bandits a lot. Haven’t found another Levinson I like as much but am resolved to keep looking.

    The Elliott Gould hit is a really good scene, with both victim and killer gloomily pretending it isn’t going to happen. On the other hand, it’s a total poetic falsification of what really went down, but that’s perhaps excusable as the brutal real killing wouldn’t have suited either actor and especially not Warren.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Dick Tracy” a mixed bag, generated by his affair with Madonna (who’s quite in it) But it also showcases some fine Sondheim , the best of which can be heard here by the fetching Gavin Creel

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    OFF-TOPIC : Annie Ross R.I.P.

  6. I mean to rewatch the film Storaro unintentionally calls “Deek Crazy” because it IS gorgeous and I may have been looking for the wrong qualities (wit, story) when I first saw it. I keep seeing stills and thinking, “But that’s LOVELY.”

  7. My first impression of the film, which I recall vividly, was that Harvey Keitel had never given a more honest performance. I rarely like the self-conscious Elliot Gould. But he was good in Bugsy — weird timing for me, since the film itself stunk, thanks to Betty’s presence in it. Speaking of playing catch-up, I recently caught up with The Parallax View, which could have been kind of interesting, minus Betty’s strident vanity. He makes every film he’s in feel like a fake movie, a pretext to showcase his negative presence. Whole sets sink into the personality whole he creates.

  8. Beatty: I can’t spell.

  9. Dat was very yooz.

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