Aside from being memorialized as Moe Green in The Godfather (and getting shot in the eye for his troubles), Benjamin Siegel doesn’t get enough credit from the movies for his role in turning Vegas from a desert outpost to a resort mecca. Or at least, that’s the message of Bugsy, which paints the legendary gangster as a tragic romantic visionary. (It’s why he’s played here by Warren Beatty and not, say, Robert Loggia.) Sure, Siegel may have been a thug with a brutal temper, but he also saw the town’s future and had the misfortune of being just a few years ahead of his time. Add to that a fatal fascination with showbiz (there’s a fun irony in watching him film a Hollywood screen test and try in vain to imitate George Raft, who had made a career of imitating wiseguys like him) that includes an ill-advised romance with starlet Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), and you have a recipe for a fall from great heights.
Inspired by Hill’s legs, Siegel builds the Flamingo, the first grand casino-hotel in Vegas, only to be swamped by bad timing and worse weather for the most miserable opening night ever. For the first time in director Barry Levinson’s headlong rush of a movie, James Toback’s crackling screenplay allows Siegel to take a breather, sitting down as passively as Burt Lancaster in The Killers as he waits for his Mob masters to come collect their pound of flesh.
Even though, in real life, this movie shoot is where Bening lured Beatty into marriage and away from a legendary Lothario lifestyle, on-screen, it’s not clear that Bening’s Hill is a woman worth giving up everything for. But that’s about the only thing wrong with this ode to the first guy to bet the house on his dream in Vegas and lose.