Raise your hands if you recall that Harvey Keitel played Mickey Cohen in support of Warren Beatty and Annette Benning in the 1991 big budget take on Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel that earned him his one and only Oscar nomination in a career that has now amassed over 150 acting credits according to the IMDB. I believe I see a fair number of hands moving upwards and that’s great. Now how many of you who raised your hands knew that Harvey actually beat Warren Beatty to playing Bugsy by seventeen years when he played the man who put Las Vegas on the map opposite Dyan Cannon in the role Miss Benning ultimately wowed us in, Virginia Hill? From director Joel Schumacher no less. Can I get a hand count please? Hold them high. I’m not seeing too many.
Virginia Hill (1974)
The made for TV movie of the week. That means inexpensive and condensed into 74 meandering minutes. Dyan Cannon takes the title role in a film that is mostly told in flashback as she testifies before a grand jury circa 1951 on her affiliations with known mobsters. It sends her memories back to Kentucky and an abusive father. After a good thrashing, she leaves home for Chicago with dim witted Robby Benson in tow. He’s like a kid brother who needs looking after and he’s Dyan’s one true friend. The Benson character is no where in site when Barry Levinson presented us with the 1991 Beatty-Benning flick.
It’s in Chicago that she’ll meet an underworld figure played by Allen Garfield who offers her security, a home and no financial worries. It’s from here she’ll meet John Vernon who appears to be a crime lord. He sends her to Hollywood with the intention of meeting Keitel’s Bugsy. She’s to report back to him on how Keitel is making out with this Vegas idea and the building of the Desert Flower Hotel. I always thought it was the Flamingo that Siegel built. Is this a situation where this telefilm didn’t have permission to use the hotel’s name? Then again maybe this is the truth and the 1991 film got it wrong. Damned if I know.
At least both films agree on the figure of six million dollars. That’s what Bugsy has buried in the creation of his desert oasis and the mob isn’t happy about it. This version of the story intimates that Bugsy has siphoned off 650K for himself and it’s for that reason he’s going to be taken out via the mafia “hit.”
You’ll also see screen heavy John Quade make an appearance as a thug who Keitel evens a score with in what turned out to be the first film directed by Schumacher. Watching this back to back with Bugsy, I found it interesting to see Keitel utilized the cigar as a prop enacting both roles. Not surprisingly, Harvey makes a good Bugsy Siegel. He brings that volatile screen presence to the role that has carried him through many a gangster film. It’s unfortunate that this wasn’t a big screen adaptation along the lines of Godfather knock off with some money behind it. Real life gangsters have always been popular on screen and the telefilm was an inexpensive way for studios to present these stories in a Coles notes version.
Let’s be honest here. This one is strictly for the fans of Keitel and Cannon. Well, little Robby Benson too.
Yes it’s a Warren Beatty film. No doubt. It’s also the one that sees Annette Bening deliver that memorable line, “Dialogue is cheap in Hollywood Ben… why don’t you run outside and jerk yourself a soda. ” It received ten Oscar nominations with two wins. One for Best Art Direction and the other for Best Costume Design. I hadn’t seen it since it came out so this proved to be a nice revisit.
Beatty plays it like a smoother Clyde Barrow. He’s got the swagger and looks to capture Hollywood and with best pal Joe Mantegna as George Raft, Beatty has the key to the city in 1941 when he arrives. Film buffs will take pleasure in seeing Mantegna as Raft filming Manpower opposite Dietrich and Eddie Robinson. It’s on the movie set that Beatty will meet Bening and it’s a stormy romance at first glance.
More often than not this is a love story wrapped around an underworld figure. Beatty turns psychotic on occasion when referred to as the slang, Bugsy, and when anyone makes a rude comment concerning his lady love he’s sure to beat the hell out of them. It’s a violent love affair with Beatty taking most of the physical abuse. Bening has a penchant for throwing things while in the earlier film, it’s Keitel who manhandles Cannon with his fists.
Bugsy offers a good cast complimenting our leading pair. Mantegna, Keitel, Ben Kingsley and Elliott Gould among them. All enhanced with another wonderful score from Ennio Morricone. Even if it does remind me of the one he turned in for Leone’s Once Upon a Time In America. Keitel doesn’t make his first appearance as Mickey Cohen till about the forty minute mark but when he does, it’s what his fans have come to expect. He verbally abuses Beatty upon their first meeting and refuses to return a score of cash he’s lifted from one of Beatty’s soldiers. It won’t be long before Beatty wins over the rough, tough talking Keitel.
If anything I wish Harvey was in the film more than he is and that it gave us a little more of that underworld feel. But then, it’s not a Scorsese film. It’s a Barry Levinson – Warren Beatty flick that turns a gangster into a romantic figure. I should also add that’s a beautiful film to look at. Great care has been taken to send us back in time to the 1940’s of Hollywood.
Let’s end this look into Harvey Keitel’s role as Mickey Cohen with a quote from the ultra cool face of the Reservoir Dogs. **Stop here if foul language is deemed offensive.**
“FUCK YOU! Lookit me, FUCK YOU! And if I was you I’d shut my fuckin’ mouth and watch my step! Yeah, *you*, Smiley! Or would ya like me to blow your fuckin’ Adam’s apple down your spine?
Yes it’s foul mouthed and rude but when Keitel delivers a line like that in a gangster movie, I just want more.