MPI // 1992 // 71 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // August 14th, 2008
The life and death of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel
In some ways, it's hard to understand the fascination with Bugsy Siegel. Unlike his childhood friend Lucky Luciano, he wasn't a ruthless visionary who conceived of a multiethnic organized crime corporation. Unlike his other childhood friend Meyer Lansky, he wasn't the dazzlingly conniving moneyman who designed the intricate network of banks and casinos to keep the corporation running. He was mainly Luciano's and Lansky's enforcer, and he didn't shrink from violence (in fact, he seems to have enjoyed it immensely) but under most circumstances, he would have been dismissed as merely the brawn, and not the brains, of the three gangsters who emerged from NYC's Hell's Kitchen district in the 1930s.
Where Siegel differed, and what ended up making him arguably more of a household name than Luciano and Lansky, is that he had a larger-than-life personality and a knack for attracting publicity. Luciano and Lansky were cold, distant personalities who only worried about business. Whenever possible, they preferred to fade into the background. Siegel, by contrast, loved drawing attention to himself. He palled around with big-time Hollywood celebrities like George Raft, embarked on bold ventures like the Flamingo casino and hotel, and committed his murders brazenly, almost daring the authorities to arrest him. He was, in short, one of the first gangsters to understand the value of good public relations, and many of the legends that emerged about him he encouraged himself whenever possible.
Don't Call Me Bugsy is a good biography of Siegel, one that strips away many of those legends away. Siegel was, first and foremost, a violent thug, and there's no shortage of stories, mainly from law enforcement officials and crime reporters, of some of his most gruesome murders. However, Don't Call Me Bugsy refuses to make Siegel into a larger-than-life figure. Siegel's much vaunted experiment in Las Vegas gambling, for instance, has long been mythologized into a visionary quest to make a gambling haven that no one else could have even imagined. In fact, as this DVD proves, Siegel's interest in Vegas was more prosaic. He loved gambling and was interested in starting a standardized sports gambling wire in Vegas, so why not add a casino as well? The casino's more European upper-class pretensions were admittedly unusual, since at the time in 1947, most casinos were sawdust joints, more suited to cowboys shooting dice than high rollers wearing suits and sipping martinis. The DVD makes clear, though, that these pretensions were not some elaborate plan by Siegel to remake Vegas into a money driven oasis, but an extension of his notoriously egotistical and fastidious personality. He was meticulous about his appearance, even when relaxing, he was obsessive about table manners, and he insisted, at all times, that others refer to him as "Mr. Siegel" (or, by women, "Benny"). The title of the disc refers to his refusal to answer to the nickname he was given as a child (after someone told him he was "crazy as a bedbug").
It was that fussiness that led to his undoing. As he supervised the building of the Flamingo, he turned it into a polished but expensive debacle. He insisted that each hotel room have its own sewer line, a colossally expensive decision. He demanded that the walls be lined with marble, even if the marble was then completely covered over with wallpaper. The Flamingo was supposed to be a risk-free experiment, but Siegel's mismanagement made it fall massively over budget and hugely behind schedule. This, then, would be the end of Siegel. The most feared gangster on the West Coast, the supposed visionary behind Las Vegas, was undone by bad contracting.
Don't Call Me Bugsy is full of fascinating revelations like that. The disc paints an evocative picture of the world of organized crime in that era, and the research pays off in some interesting stories. The interviews are also well-chosen. In addition to law enforcement officials, there's also Siegel's lawyer, crime writer Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition), and even actress and singer Rose Marie (The Dick Van Dyke Show), who performed onstage at the Flamingo the night it opened. She tells a hilarious story of how she upbraided Siegel (whom she didn't recognize) for shortchanging her paycheck. Screenwriter Charles Bennett (The 39 Steps) and Hollywood agent John Maschio are almost parodies of '30s showbiz types, with their exaggerated accents, cigarette holders, and comically outdated lingo, but they just add to the overall atmosphere, and have some interesting stories to tell.
The full-screen transfer is hit-and-miss. Don't Call Me Bugsy was released in 1992, as a companion piece to the Warren Beatty film Bugsy, and, like too many early '90s releases, suffers from bad video quality. The archival footage looks fine, but the interviews range from washed-out to dim, and the lighting doesn't flatter any of the speakers. The Dolby Stereo mix is satisfactory. Disappointingly, there are no extras. Nonetheless, Don't Call Me Bugsy is a worthy introduction to the life of one of organized crime's most talked-about figures (it is, actually, much more entertaining and informative than Bugsy itself) and crime buffs should give it a look.
Not guilty, even of bad contracting.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 71 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Not Rated