There have been many movies about the American dream and even more about gangsters, but Bugsy is one of the best films ever made on either subject. Using James Toback’s richly layered screenplay as their foundation, director Barry Levinson and cinematographer Allen Daviau, ASC crafted a film that is poignant, brutal, and devilishly funny. It also features some of Warren Beatty’s best work as an actor — in sociopathic dreamer Bugsy Siegel, he finds the perfect character to poke fun at his own obsessions.
Bugsy follows legendary gangster Ben “Bugsy” Siegel from the point at which he arrived in Hollywood to his brutal murder, and focuses primarily on two aspects of his life: his role in building Las Vegas, and his infatuation with starlet Virginia Hill (Annette Bening). It’s impossible to miss the parallels with Beatty’s own life. Like Beatty, Siegel was a noted ladies’ man and perfectionist; when Siegel keeps overspending and overreaching in order to realize his ambitious dream of transforming Las Vegas into a tourist Mecca, one can imagine the producer/director of Reds taking the same risks for his own passion project.
Beatty’s personal connection with Siegel, which he tactfully evades in the making-of documentary on this DVD, gives his performance a complexity that’s matched by the tonal range of Daviau’s lighting. Daviau was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Bugsy and deservedly won an ASC Award for it. His photography in Bugsy is awe-inspiring in its complexity, as he gives the material a glamorous classical sheen without sentimentalizing it. The movie is simultaneously romantic and harsh, just like the complicated antihero at its center. The relationship between Siegel and Hill is extremely sexy, and this is due in large part to Daviau’s inventiveness. When Hill approaches Bugsy’s house and Daviau lights her so that we can see the outline of her legs through her glamorous dress, it’s easy to see why the womanizing mobster would melt for her.
Bugsy is filled with other erotically charged moments, the best being a virtuoso set piece in which the camera follows Siegel and Hill as they flirt and spar behind a movie screen that shows much of their interaction in silhouette. Daviau also creates an effective tension between the ugly behavior of Bugsy’s characters and their opulent surroundings — the film doesn’t shy away from Siegel’s thuggish actions, yet the whole story has a champagne-drenched glamour that challenges the audience to consider its attitudes toward violence and power.
Daviau’s stunning images are impeccably presented in this DVD’s anamorphic transfer, and the 5.1 sound mix is spectacular. Ennio Morricone’s lush score is perfectly balanced with crisp, clear dialogue and powerful, deep effects — the film is as sonically varied as it is visually dense. This new “extended cut” emphasizes what was always one of Bugsy’s greatest strengths: its balance of epic sweep and penetrating personal interactions. The additional 15 minutes that have been added into the film make Bugsy a richer, darker American classic, which is really saying something.
Daviau and several key cast and crew members are interviewed on “The Road to Damascus: The Reinvention of Bugsy Siegel,” an excellent 90-minute documentary on the making of the film. The core of the documentary is an extended conversation between Beatty, Levinson and Toback in which they discuss visual design, performance, and content. Director Charles Kiselyak intersperses comments by other collaborators with this conversation, so when the filmmakers discuss costumes, we hear from costume designer Albert Wolsky, and when they discuss the characterizations, there are interviews with Bening, Ben Kingsley and Elliott Gould.
One section of the documentary is simply titled “Cinematography,” and in it Daviau explains how he lit two of the film’s most famous and impressive scenes. His insights, as well as those of his collaborators, go far beyond the standard format of many making-of featurettes to provide a genuinely informative seminar on filmmaking, and critic Richard Schickel is on hand to supply additional context. The documentary is supplemented by two brief, deleted scenes not featured in the extended cut, as well as an amusing longer version of the screen test Siegel shoots when he arrives in Hollywood.
All of this adds up to a must-own DVD for fans of gangster movies, old Hollywood, and Daviau’s artistry. As Schickel notes, Bugsy plays even better now than it did when it was released. Given the accolades the film received back in 1991, this is a high compliment.