As most DVD fans know, a lot of the "extended cuts" of films being put onto disc are a scam created to sell us a second version of a movie we already have. While alleged "director's cuts" used to be a rare prize, a chance for an auteur to return to a film that had been mangled by the studio system and restore his or her original vision, thus setting things right from an artistic standpoint, now we are given all manner of different versions of movies as a marketing ploy. It wouldn't surprise me if sequences are built into a production schedule with the full intention of not being in the theatrical release and added back in when the DVD comes out. I suppose that's better than just tossing in random deleted scenes. Having seen countless hours of deleted scenes on DVD, I can safely say the majority of them were deleted for a reason.
It's a frustrating trend because there should be such a thing as a definitive version of a movie. A motion picture is not an object that should be endlessly monkeyed with. Rather, once it's out there and part of the public consciousness, it should be left alone. While the concept of "director's cuts" initially emerged to fix egregious transgressions against creative intent, and thus has rescued some notable films from being locked into butchered versions, this new way of doing things has almost completely flipped the situation to create more opportunities for the studio suits to screw with how creative people get their art to the masses.
Surprisingly, after that long preamble, I can tell you that this is not the case with the Bugsy - Extended Cut DVD. I'm sorry. I know I probably worried you Bugsy fans by making you think that this would be the Van Gone Wilder edition of high-minded gangster pictures. I appreciate your indulging me so that I could get some things off of my chest.
No, from what I can tell, this new version of Barry Levinson's 1991 movie was done with the director's blessing and involvement, and while there is no evidence presented to suggest the newly added fifteen minutes restores elements forced out of the film against Levinson's wishes, I do believe we have an enhanced final product all the same.
You see, the thing is, I don't recall having actually seen Bugsy all the way through since I originally saw it in the theatre. I have seen bits and pieces of it on cable, but I wasn't totally enthralled by it the first time around and so never put the time in to view it again. As a result, I couldn't tell you what they put back in to the movie*, which may be frustrating for those of you who really want to know, but I think it also speaks to the intelligence of the choices made. Sticking a quarter of an hour back into any movie could drag it down, throw off the rhythm, and effectively destroy what everyone endeavored to craft into a solid piece of material. That Bugsy still flows gracefully from beginning to end should make the movie's fans extremely glad.
Now that I've watched it again, actually, I really, really liked this movie. Bugsy has aged incredibly well. Maybe it's because I'm older and have more knowledge to draw on, but I particularly appreciated the stylistic touches that hearkened back to old Hollywood, both in the look of the picture and the hyper-realized patter of James Toback's dialogue. If I recall, one of the main things that turned me off about Bugsy in 1991 was Warren Beatty's portrayal of the infamous gangster. I thought the reduction of the man to a couple of catchphrases and obsessive-compulsive tics was kind of cheap. Boy, was that the wrong impression. Beatty's freight train performance is the movie's driving force. He manages to be completely magnetic and glamorous while also being amorally brutal. You want to watch him for his suave verbal cons just as much as you can't look away from his violent explosions. It's a riveting and complex performance.
For those who don't know, a quick rundown of the plot in Bugsy: During WWII, the New York gangster Bugsy Siegel moved to Los Angeles to do a quick job, got hypnotized by the bright lights of Tinsel Town, and never left. He palled around with movie gangster George Raft (Joe Mantegna) and sheathed the loose cannon gunman Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel). Bugsy--who hated his nickname and angrily insisted people call him by his real first name, Ben--had a desire to be in motion pictures himself, and so he chased publicity and fame. He also chased Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), a messed-up dame who liked playing hard-to-get but also had an attraction to Siegel's animalistic power. For a notorious womanizer like Bugsy, chasing the romantic dream of one woman was unheard of, as was his other romantic fantasy of setting up a gambling casino in the Las Vegas desert. His relentless pursuit of both dreams would run him afoul of his partners in organized crime, including his longtime friend Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley).
That's Bugsy in a nutshell, a warped and yet classic representation of the American Dream. A man starts with nothing, gains everything, and then begins to lose it all. In addition to Beatty's bravura performance, Levinson put together a dream of a supporting cast for him. All of them--Mantegna, Keitel, Bening, Kingsley, Bebe Neuwirth, and Elliott Gould, giving one of his best ever performances as the slow-witted flipside to Bugsy--are a pleasure to watch. The participants of this movie are expertly arranged, like a well-strategized chess game.
So, if you need to rediscover Bugsy, this new DVD is an excellent way to do it. If you are one of the smart ones who knew all along, you've now got a good excuse to take another look. It's one of the best modern variations on the classic gangster picture you will ever see and should be up there with some of the more celebrated efforts from Coppola and Scorsese. In fact, watch Bugsy and then watch Casino again, then compare the difference in closing shots of the future of Las Vegas. Is what the city has become really what Bugsy Siegel dreamt, or is it the worst case of "be careful what you wish for" ever?
* The bonus features on disc 2 do point out one scene that had been cut from the theatrical release that was rescued for this version. *SPOILER* After Bugsy takes care of the stool pigeon, Harry Greenberg, he is extremely agitated by what he has done. In the extended cut, when the gangster returns home, he nearly resorts to a rash action, which prompts a confrontation between him and Virginia. It's a powerful sequence, and it deserved to be brought back to life.
This 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen version of Bugsy really does justice to director of photography Allen Daviau's fantastic sense of style. Every curly whisp of smoke shows up on the screen, lending to the classic Hollywood feel of the movie. Sometimes I thought the flesh tones were a little hot, and occasionally some of Beatty's checked suits played some havoc with my old TV, but otherwise, I found nothing to grouse about.
A Dolby digital mix in 5.1 that is excellent. Sound is very important to this movie, especially with Ennio Morricone's score. There are times where sound effects and dialogue are mixed low for effect, so that you can just hear what is happening on the periphery, and that really comes across in this mix. There is also a 5.1 French track and a regular mix in Portuguese, plus subtitles in all three languages.
All of the bonus features come on the second disc.
The main one is a fantastic 90-minute documentary called "The Road to Damascus: The Reinvention of Bugsy Siegel." It's an exhaustive overview of the production built on a recent three-way conversation over drinks between director Barry Levinson, writer James Toback, and star Warren Beatty. Their rapport is fantastic, and they speak candidly about the experience of making the movie and how they fit into each other's process. This conversation is augmented by interviews with other cast members, production crew, and critic Richard Schickel, as well as behind-the-scenes footage. It's one of the best DVD documentaries I have seen in a long time, and I applaud the studio for keeping it as one program rather than breaking it up into bite-sized morsels. I hate when you have to watch six-minute segments one by one, complete with themes and credits.
I should note, however, that no one actually talks about the extended cut, even when they mention the suicide attempt that was restored. I don't know if this should cast suspicion on how involved any of the principals were in this extension or not, so this is just an FYI.
Outside the documentary, there are two deleted scenes: a very short snippet of a conversation between Bugsy and the Italian countess played by Bebe Neuwirth, and the original ending for the scene after Bugsy humiliates California gangster Jack Dragna. This version is actually discussed in "The Road to Damascus," and has Beatty and Bening making love on the stairwell as originally written in the script. Returning to the dinner table first was something invented on set.
Finally, you can watch Beatty acting out the complete Bugsy Siegel screen test that runs several times in the movie.
Highly Recommended. The new Bugsy - Extended Cut DVD has the best of everything: an underrated gangster movie with exceptional performances and top-notch production values, an extended version of a movie that actually improves on the original, and bonus features that are worth watching for a change. Don't miss out by thinking this is another cheap cash-in by a studio looking to double-dip. This time, the upgrade is for real.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.