Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel (Warren Beatty) was a real life mobster, originally from the New York. In the forties, he decides to turn a small business trip to Los Angeles into an extended stay, erratically buying a house while his wife, Esta (Wendy Phillips) and kids are waiting for him back in New York. Siegel meets actress Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) and they start a steamy affair. When they drive five hours to the desert to check out a tiny gambling oasis, Siegel shuts it down, but help but notice how they make a consistent profit. He decides to take it upon himself to build the beginnings of Las Vegas and the Flamingo hotel, after his nickname for Virginia and her long legs. As Siegel is arrested for the murder of Harry Greenberg (Elliott Gould), he entrusts Virginia to oversee all the construction and money handling with the Flamingo. But is Virginia to be trusted?
What the film portrays best is Siegel’s erratic lifestyle. Right away, we see him chew a man out for calling him ‘Bugsy’ to his face, a name he did historically despise. Not long after that, he shoots a man with a whole office full of people watching. This murder is never explained or catches up to Siegel, it just happens. Later, when he’s only planning on being in Los Angeles for a few days, he knocks on a man’s front door and offers to buy his house, in cash, for twice of what it’s worth right there on the spot. When he pulls up in a grey car, we assume he acquired it in a similar crazy deal. A man who does all these crazy things on a whim could be capable of any convoluted scheme. Only a crazy mind like Siegel’s could hatch building up a metropolitan oasis in the middle of a desert, like Vegas. The way Beatty makes this all charismatically believable deserves him the Oscar nomination.
One of the best scenes in the film is when Siegel is at home with his family and his gang of mob buddies show up at the door. He’s preparing a cake for one of his daughters birthdays, complete with a floppy white chefs hat, yet he ushers the mob men into a den across the house. Between pitching his big Vegas idea to the men, he runs back across the house trying to please his family as well. On top of that, he calls someone to make sure they’re watching Virginia, who he seems suspiciously jealous of and has a crazy scheme to meet and assassinate Mussolini. It’s like a painful plate-spinning act, where we see that Siegel is just spreading himself too thin be successful at all these things he’s trying to keep going.
Honestly, I wanted to like this film more than I did. Mobsters have always peaked my interest with their lavish lifestyles half in the spotlight and half surrounded by mystery and corruption. Bugsy had these things, but they just did not satisfy completely. This film isn’t like a fun game of cops and robbers, but a hard-nosed look at the life of Benjamin Siegel. The man presumably wanted to become successful in a legitimate way, but he spread himself too thin and all he had to show for it was a failed marriage and a crazy idea for a casino resort in the middle of the desert. Not many people think of Siegel as they jet off to Vegas looking for a crazy weekend anymore, but they should.
“Why don’t you run outside and jerk yourself a soda.”