Bugsy Barry Levinson

Look on the surface of this 1991 Oscar nominee and you’ll see the usual posh, middlebrow epic. But scratch the surface and you might find something a little less salutary. The film deals with the life of gangster Benjamin "Bugsy” Siegel (Warren Beatty) as he lies to his wife and children, sleeps around, settles on mistress Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) and hatches the plot to build the Flamingo casino in the barren Nevada desert. In one sense, this qualifies him for "American visionary” status, as he builds his dream with no qualms about screwing investors or compromising his design integrity. In another, it makes him a right bastard without a sense of anything other than his own selfishness. When one looks in the credits and finds writer James Toback — the famously pervy cineaste with the fixation on black men and womanising — one realises why it turned out this way, but the direction, by noted nice-guy Barry Levinson, does everything to downplay the more disturbing elements of Siegel’s (and Toback’s) personality. On the one hand, you have a script that’s a "no holds barred” celebration of loutish behaviour. On the other, you have a director who seems completely oblivious to the antisocial elements of the alleged real-life American hero. I don’t know what’s worse: the full-on Toback version that would have made Siegel’s behaviour exciting and punchy, or Levinson’s domestication of that behaviour into something you and your parents can watch without qualms. The film has a certain level of craft that makes it watchable but you may hate yourself in the morning. Extras on the two-disc edition include an outstanding "making of” doc that centres on the Beatty/Toback/Levinson brain trust, two deleted scenes and the full version of Beatty-as-Siegel screen test that figures heavily into the film. (Sony)