Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel

Warren Beatty is a smooth-looking actor, and this quality is brought to bear in his portrayal of Bugsy in the film of the same name. It is a perfect vehicle for Beatty when one considers the fact that the real man not only created the seductive vision of himself he delivered to the world, but ended up falling for it as well. The tale of Narcissus is brought to mind when one considers this man’s life and career, and its ending is as tragic.

The Life and Times of Bugsy Siegel

Bugsy could well have been honoured with his visage on a postage stamp as the founder of Las Vegas were it not for his less than savoury undertakings in the mafia underworld which helped him to create it.

Siegel made his way out west with Eastern mob money in the first years of the 1940s, where he promptly fell in love with one Virginia Hill, a leggy starlet played to perfection by Annette Bening in Bugsy. He lost his heart to the movies as well, even managing to secure a screen test thanks to his good looks, but reserved his acting skills to scenes played out behind closed doors for mobster gatherings rather than splashing them across the silver screen.

The reason his name is so instantly recognisable these days is thanks to his work in Vegas: the vision he created as the gambling capital of the United States of America was born in a sleazy, two-bit casino at a then-unknown crossroads in the only state to allow legal gambling. He saw possibilities where no one else did: a town filled with classy casinos that provided first-rate entertainment for its wealthy clients. Unfortunately he spent so much mob money on it that he was sent to sleep with the fishes, so to speak, before he saw the dream realised and was able to reap the benefits he no doubt envisaged.

Bugsy as Romance, Not History

James Toback’s screenplay focuses on the romantic entanglement between Bugsy and his beautiful showgirl, and plays down the psychopathic nature of this character. Siegel is portrayed as a dashing, charming character, and the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with him, as his predatory, cold-heartedness and calculating nature is almost effaced. We are shown a family man, proud husband and father who works hard to provide for those he cares about, which is greatly at odds with the adulterer who makes killing people his business and tries to defy a very powerful organisation in spending its money in pursuit of his dream.

Virginia Hill is at least as calculating as Bugsy is, and her seductive energy and good looks are put to task in securing as large a share of the pie as she is able to. Toback’s screenplay brings forth themes that this writer often made use of –men obsessively attracted to certain types of woman, caring not a fig for the consequences, and men extending themselves financially to the point where they were physically in danger, usually from criminal elements of society. These themes also run through his 1976 film The Gambler, with James Caan, and the movies he himself directed, namely Fingers; Exposed and The Pick-Up Artist.