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The mobster movie is typically marked by brash characters and abhorrent violence, though the best of them succeed by giving these stories a sense of humanity and a glimpse at their vulnerabilities. Often, these films try to give some history to infamous names or events and in so doing, have created tropes and clichés that are so entrenched, it would be impossible to make a film in the genre that deviates. With 1991’s Bugsy, a story about a particularly ruthless mob boss of the 30s and 40s, there’s no escaping the strict standards, but the movie is more than its sum and is a superb character study that reveals the real story of Ben Siegel is in fact not about the violence or the money or the power, but rather something far more challenging and ultimately devastating: love
Directed by Barry Levinson, the multiple award-winning film romanticizes much of Bugsy’s life, painting him in sympathetic tones, which works well in capturing the often gilded tones the era evokes. Played with a simmering, volatile charm by Warren Beatty, Bugsy the character is a dashing, confident man who is used to getting what he wants, and rules his corner of New York City with an iron fist. For example, the film opens with him outright killing a man who is a lesser member of his organization right in front of the people in his office, more interested in the reputation it will give him rather than the trouble it could muster. It’s all about respect for Bugsy Siegel.
Bugsy’s mob partners however decide he should be sent to Los Angeles to try and arrange an expansion in California, forcing him to leave his wife behind while he travels, though this is hardly a concern, despite his dedication to his family. The spotlight and lifestyle of celebrities has Bugsy curious, and when he arrives in Hollywood, is met by his good friend and actor George Raft (Joe Mantegna). He’s filming a new movie called Manpower and he invites Bugsy to the set. Beyond any other, this will be the most fateful moment in his entire life. And by accounts will lead to his demise.
Taken by the lights, the glamour, and the people on set, Bugsy sits and watches Raft work, who is the star of the picture. An extra in the cast is a lovely young woman named Virginia Hill (Annette Bening). The starlet catches the mobster’s eye, despite she being the girlfriend of a lesser mobster that Bugsy knows. Utterly enamored by her presence, Bugsy can’t resist himself and makes an introduction, though she naturally knows who he is. She’s a tough-talking, independent woman who not only knows the power of her beauty, but more importantly, how to use it. Now look at this freeze frame.
Here we are on the set on Manpower, as indeed, a man of great power stands before a women that respects that power but with exacting precision, using words, her body, her eyes, and a smoldering cigarette, reduces that power to a singular baser need. There’s little that needs to be said in describing what we are seeing, at least in terms of a man wanting a woman. What’s significant about this image is more than the two figures, who hold our gaze with intent, naturally as these highly attractive people are practically combustable with sexual foreplay. But it is the false setting that matters, the painted blue skies behind them that hint of a coming storm, a path under their feet that leads to nowhere, and a sign that hints of a chance to say goodbye, as they should.
This iconic image marks the moment when Bugsy, a married family man, succumbs almost instantly to the fiery charms of a Hollywood supporting actress. The sizzling dialogue has Virginia well in control right from the start, even referring to herself in the third person as she sums up Ben in razor sharp fashion, calling him out for his infidelities and wicked lifestyle, shutting him down with the now classic, “Why don’t you go outside and jerk yourself a soda,” a not so subtle remark that is loaded with innuendo. Then the lights pop dark and she sashays into the shadows. It couldn’t be any more of a ruthless or eviscerating moment, and yet, deftly handled by Bening, who saturates every steamy word with such sensuousness as to become almost scandalous, the barbs drizzle into Ben’s ears like warm honey and he only gets lulled deeper into her snare. It’s exactly what she intends. And so begins the end for Bugsy Siegel.