The history of crime in America is filled with fun-house echoes between real and reel, from Dillinger getting gunned down in 1934 after watching Clark Gable play tough in Manhattan Melodrama to the 1980s New York drug dealer who patterned his persona after Al Pacino’s Scarface. Barry Levinson’s smart, glamorous Bugsy tells of a real-life mobster who thought he actually was a movie star. But this Warren Beatty vehicle is by no means the first film to trace the crisscrossings of psychopathy and celebrity; a dandy 1933 rarity called Lady Killer probably gets that nod. Who knows? Young Bugsy Siegel himself may have sat in a New York movie house and fueled his own dreams with this Jimmy Cagney caper. The parallels are there to see on video: The two tapes make a terrific double bill.
Made just before the studios’ self-administered Production Code clamped down on movie violence and sex, Lady Killer is an eye-opening reminder of how racy movies were in the early ’30s (the video is part of the ”Forbidden Hollywood” series of pre-Code films hosted by critic Leonard Maltin). Though Killer’s plot is absurd, its energy is enough to compensate: In 77 breathless minutes, a gracefully contemptuous Cagney goes from movie-house usher to murder accessory to Hollywood screen icon without batting an eye. The message is that a street kid can easily become a star in America; the movie bristles with democratic possibility.
Because it was made almost 60 years later and is draped loosely over the real story of Ben Siegel, Bugsy pretends to know better. Sent for one week to Hollywood by Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) to muscle in on the local action, the dapper Siegel (Beatty) is seduced by the town’s instant promise: He buys a mansion, arranges a screen test in a vain attempt to fix his acting career, becomes known in the papers as Hollywood’s signal mobster. One headline puts it in a nutshell: ”Gangster or Star?”
As long as Bugsy sticks with Siegel’s conquest of Hollywood, it’s superb entertainment and smart food for thought. James Toback’s script is as stylized as Lady Killer’s but a lot more knowing. The Oscar-winning art direction loses something on the TV screen but still manages to look ravishing. And the star gives what may be the performance of his career; by precisely calibrating Bugsy’s charm, cheer, and sadism, Beatty connects with the viewer more than he has in years.
Yet the movie’s hubris escalates with Bugsy’s, and both come in for a fall. As Siegel gets infatuated with Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) and follows the daft vision that will found Las Vegas and get him killed, Bugsy spins out of control. By the end it seems that the filmmakers really are asking us to take this guy for a hero. The facts don’t back that up (for one thing, Siegel schemed to sell explosives to Mussolini, not to assassinate him); besides, Vegas has always looked less like a visionary dream of America than its creepiest metaphor.
Bugsy’s dreams were more focused on Hollywood anyway, and the movie lets him go to glory while watching his screen test one last time (not the way it happened, but a nice touch). Unlike Lady Killer, Bugsy assures the savvy modern viewer that a gangster could never make it on the silver screen. But that’s a little disingenuous. If Ben Siegel wasn’t some kind of star, why is Warren Beatty playing him in a $50 million movie? Lady Killer: B+ Bugsy: B