Mobster "Bugsy" Siegel moves to Hollywood where his dreams and penchant for indulgence land him in trouble with his peers.
Despite its Best Picture, Best Actor etc, honours from the LA Critics, one has the sneaking suspicion that younger, hip cinema-goers, fed up to the back teeth with American gangster nostlagia, will receive this Ode on a Dead Hood as a handsome bore. For those longer of tooth - at least, old enough to remember when Warren Beatty was a beauty rather than the Richard Nixon lookalike he has dismayingly become - Bugsy is a grand, old-fashioned Big Hollywood Picture.
In a lavish, gorgeous recreation of the '40s - heavenly nightclubs, big bands with crooners, women in gold lamé - Beatty gives us a terrifically watchable portrait of Benny "Bugsy" Siegel as a vain, dapper man with an obsessional craving for glamour and fame, unpredicatbly veering from genial charmer to viscious nut. For the sake of presenting Bugsy as this figure of intrigue and charisma, director Levinson and screenwriter James Toback effectively concentrate on two elements : the mutual fascination between the underworld and showbusiness, underscored by Bugsy's lifelong friendship with George Raft (Joe Mantegna), his splash in Hollywood's café society, and his big thing with devious, slinky "starlet" Virginia Hill (Bening); and Bugsy's "invention" of Las Vegas, a mission invested with the mythic qualities of a visionary's quest.
Historically there's a lot of romanticised tosh. Bugsy made his big entrance in Tinsel Town nearly a decade before depicted; a murder charge given a key position here happened before Bugsy met Virginia, and the psychotic Siegel's day-to-day doings included rape, heroin pushing and massive extortion from every major film studio by Bugsy's various filthy rackets. Taken as a fable of a bloody American dream in which crime, sex and movie fantasy are inextricably mixed, though, it's a compelling story. Everything is first-rate, too, from entrancing visuals to the Ennio Morricone score to the great cast - among whom Ben Kingsley steals the show with his brilliant turn as Syndicate mastermind Meyer Lansky and the late rock impresario Bill Graham proves surprisingly good as Lucky Luciano.
If you can overlook the smarm and the historical airbrushing there's much to enjoy here.