How ‘Billy Bathgate’ broke all the gangster movie rules

Robert Benton’s “Billy Bathgate” (1991) takes place in New York in the 1930s, when the streets were filled with gangsters.

Loren Dean plays Bathgate, an idealistic young teenager who wastes time with his friends and girlfriend (Moira Kelly in an almost silent role). Bathgate’s talent for juggling catches the attention of the infamous criminal Dwight “Dutch” Schultz, played by Dustin Hoffman, who gives the kid an appreciative audience and money for his efforts.

When Bathgate sees an opportunity he does not want to miss, he envelops himself in Schultz’s inner circle. Schultz’s volcanic temperament and propensity to murder anyone who annoys him makes Bathgate realize that the easy money earned in the presence of gangsters includes having to help dispose of the corpses they leave behind.

I was reading EL Doctorow’s 1989 novel at just the right time when the title character was almost the same age as me. It’s a fantastic, richly detailed book that combines real characters with fictional characters and scenarios, Doctorow’s mix that marked his “Ragtime” (the book and movie it inspired).

I miss the paperback novel about “Billy Bathgate” that I owned, where the front page had “bullet holes” that revealed a top of a violent image under the book jacket (a perfect visualization of Bathgate’s perspective of Schultz’s world).

Doctorow’s novel has a scale and depth that the film, despite a budget of $ 40 million, can never match.

The script, by none other than Tom Stoppard, cuts many corners from Doctorow’s novel, though the essence of the story remains. Doctorow’s literary approach to combining historical and fictional characters came out better in the novel. A longer, more thorough remake would be a welcome choice.

Nevertheless, while Benton’s film was a high-profile flop in theaters, its absorbing and restraining deserved a new look. Benton has always been a well-known acting director, and fittingly, this is a cleverly crafted, character-driven performance piece.

At the center is Hoffman, who tried to reconfigure his career after “Ishtar”. I very much admire Hoffman’s work here, as he removes everything that is extremely sympathetic or paternal about Schultz, loses the twinkle in his eye (which makes him so endearing in other films) and embraces playing a total bastard.

Schultz is an ugly, insoluble character, and Hoffman does not edit or humanize him.

Bruce Willis, in a surprisingly expanded cameo, excels as Schultz’s former friend, Bo Weinberg. Willis is especially touching when he evokes the broken in Weinberg in his painful last moments.

When he came out of “Hudson Hawk” a few months earlier, Willis probably felt that his feet dried in cement was a breeze compared to reading reviews of his previous films. Willis’ work in “Billy Bathgate,” as well as his performances in “In Country,” “Mortal Thoughts,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “12 Monkeys,” are among his absolute best.

It is worth noting that Willis also starred in a later Benton work (and a personal favorite, once a year watch for me) “Nobody’s Fool” (1994), in which the former John McClane is again paired with a legendary actor (Hoffman here, Paul Newman in “Nobody’s Fool”).

When Willis loves his instructor and is fully committed to the material, he is wonderful.

Bruce Willis' young tribe

Dean was put in an impossible position with this film and got not only the lead role but also the title character in a high profile, upcoming gangster epic. The actor overcame the film’s short run in cinemas and has had a long running career subsequently.

Dean is very good at this, playing every scene is as natural as possible and never tries to match or oversee his fellow stars, which was the right choice. Nicole Kidman has a flashy role as Schultz’s newly acquired minor, and like Dean, she does not try to steal the film, but instead adds dramatic weight by playing the real thing and never resorting to histrionics.

The great Steven Hill almost goes away with the whole film – his embodied and complex portrayal of Schultz’s patience, seen it all, man has a gravity that is different from the rest of the film.

“Billy Bathgate” is not an action movie or even a particularly attractive movie. Benton avoids the visual grandeur or scope of something resembling Coppola or Scorsese. If this is reminiscent of a movie, then it’s the legendary James Cagney thriller “The Public Enemy” (1931), which also simply told us that crime definitely does not pay off.

Benton is uninterested in flashy optics, as the scenery and costumes are vibrant and large, but appear authentic instead of beautiful.

Disney was in at all with this one, and tried a gangster classic a year after “Goodfellas” had become a milestone in the genre. The newspaper ads posted by the studio considered this the “Film Event of the Season” and the “Film Event of the Year,” which is exactly the kind of misguided self-promotion that makes everyone want to give it a peek. eye.

Perhaps the biggest shame is that despite all the hype and prestige the film carried, it was not even close to opening in first place; Benton’s film was knocked out, by all films, by Wes Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs” (which, to be clear, is still a much better film than “Billy Bathgate”).

“Billy Bathgate” is basically a forgotten work, considered a flop and thrown aside, as soon as Weinberg is eventually kicked out into dark water. Because the film feels so intimate and leans on characters as they try to work their way through each day (a characteristic touch of Benton’s film), there is no genre baggage or expectation of a massive sequence that never comes anyway.

This is about how Bathgate’s sharing the company with immoral degenerates will either give him the strength to leave or become like the criminals he admires.

RELATED: Why we did not need a new cut of ‘Godfather III’

“Billy Bathgate” is primarily about the title character’s ability to work his way through any space and in some cases just escape the danger he faces. I think guns are fired in exactly two scenes, and Benton does not treat these moments as demonstrative set pieces.

There’s a lot here to enjoy, like Kidman’s character’s sad will to continue after Weinberg has been murdered and she becomes Schultz’s prisoner. It was the first time I’ve ever seen Stanley Tucci, and he’s making a slimy, cunning Charles Luciano. Steve Buscemi, Mike Starr, Kevin Corrigan and Frances Conroy make strong impressions in small supporting roles.

Bathgate is a tourist in this world, a servant and an overzealous spectator, whose willingness to help in any case allows him and us to tell glimpses of the monstrous Schultz. That’s what makes the final scene so perfect, as Bathgate emerges from yet another close mouthful with death and randomly walks away.

The boy is definitely lucky.

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