Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Salvatore Giuliano (1960); Things Change (1988); Bugsy (1991)

Salvatore Giuliano (1962)

Director: Francesco Rosi

An interesting but dizzying tale based on real events and told with skill and some creativity.

The titular historical figure is presented as an enigma. Between roughly 1940 and 1950, Giuliano was an outlaw who fought for and against various factions, and often for himself, within a fractured Sicily. Between Italian nationalists, Sicilian separatists, aspiring communists, and the Mafia, Giuliano managed to either placate or keep all potential adversaries at bay. Through kidnapping, murder, effective guerrilla fighting tactics, and a juggling of connections, he evaded capture for an entire decade. In 1950, however, he finally met his fate.

The figure of Giuliano is curious enough, but this movie takes a very interesting approach to telling the story. Instead of presenting a sort of biopic with its infamous subject at its center, director Francesco Rosi keeps the outlaw at the periphery. In fact, aside from a few shots of Giuliano's dead body, we never see his living, breathing face in the movie. Instead, the bandit is used to probe into the social and political forces swirling around the Sicilian countryside, and how they both create, sustain, and ultimately wipe out a person of Giuliano's singular nature. It's an engaging approach which had me constantly trying to piece the puzzle together, with mostly satisfying results.

Admittedly, there are some details that I simply could not keep up with. Rosi seems to have made this movie assuming that many of its viewers would be familiar with Giuliano's story, given his infamy and the fact that his life played out only twelve years before the movie's release. Perhaps to an Italian, European, or even a some American viewers in the 1960s, the endless stream of names and factions was easier to keep straight, but such was not the case for me. This chaotic narrative structure was frustrating at times, but never so much that I lost the general thread of the tale.

The cast was apparently mostly stocked with Sicilian locals, which is always a double-edged sword. You get plenty of characters who are the genuine article, in terms of appearance, but they are often lacking in acting skills. This can be a bit distracting.

Salvatore Giuliano is a well-made film with some commendable artistry to it. It's certainly worth seeing for fans of Italian cinema and mafia movies. It makes for an interesting compliment and even prequel film to more modern, realistic takes on the subjects such as Gomorrah. I'm not likely to watch it again, though.

Things Change (1988)

Director: David Mamet

Though noticeably lighter than Mamet's other movies, Things Change is yet another of his that I find competent but far from mind-blowing.

The movie centers on two very different New Yorkers: Gino (Don Ameche) and Jerry (Joe Mantegna). Gino is an elderly shoe-shiner who hails from Italy. One day, two mafiosi approach him with a deal: take the rap and spend three years in jail for one of their associates who bears an uncanny resemblance to him, and in return their bosses will pay him handsomely. Gino accepts, and he is given over to the care of Jerry, a mafia soldier who is in the doghouse with his bosses. Jerry, seeing that the kindly and genteel Gino will be spending his next few years in prison, decides to buck his bosses' orders and fly Gino to Lake Tahoe for a good time. Once in Tahoe, however, Gino and Jerry get mixed up with local mafia members and have to dance around being discovered.

The movie is fairly light-hearted, in the way that few mafia or David Mamet movies are. There are plenty of attempts at charming humor, but I found most of them uninteresting, despite sometimes being unexpected. The bond between Gino and Jerry is a bit touching, but it does smack a bit of sentimentality and a lack of natural progression.

I've now seen about a half dozen David Mamet movies, and I am simply not much of a fan. His plots are fine, and he has a keen eye for visuals. However, his dialogue is very often overthought and has a herky-jerky feel that can feel artificial at times. And for whatever reasons, every Mamet-directed movie I've watched features at least one oddly stiff performance by actors. Things Change is no exception.

This movie wasn't a chore to watch, but it's not hard for me to see why it is currently out of print and it is never really mentioned among the best gangster movies of all time, despite solid performances by great actors like Ameche and Mantegna. Hardly a must-see for mafia movie buffs.

Bugsy (1991)

Director: Barry Levinson

A movie that has several impressive things going for it, but ultimately fails to live up to its potential.

Bugsy tells the story of infamous gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel's final decade of life from 1937 to 1947. The film has three things going for it: some fascinating history of mobsters and Las Vegas, brilliant visuals, and a lot of strong acting. Without these things, the movie would be borderline awful. With them, it all rounds out to be a glamorous but highly messy film.

By all historical accounts, Siegel was a volatile mixture of charm, good looks, and unpredictable violence. Caring less about money than about grand schemes and respect, he thought and lived large. Warren Beatty does a fine job as the iconic gangster, simply oozing confidence and a hair-trigger temper. However, he is often severely let down by an uneven script, which has numerous and odd shifts in tone. Siegel's erratic mood swings rarely feel organic, just as the reactions by those around him are sometimes peculiar if not downright ridiculous. There are also several scenes which perhaps seemed like good ideas on paper but fail in the execution. Having Siegel running around his house in a goofy chef's hat while trying to juggle a child's birthday party and defend himself against his murderous mafia partners is apparently meant to be humorous. Instead, it comes off as odd and a bit tiresome, as do several other scenes. On top of this is that the pacing of the film never seems quite right, with whole months or years zipping by, often with  overly subtle or no time cues to indicate the passage. This plays havoc with the personal relationships, which are a key element to much of the movie's drama.

Despite all of these problems I had with the film, I was fascinated to keep learning a little more about how Siegel was involved in the earliest roots of turning Las Vegas into the Mecca of hedonism and wanton spending that it is today. From the moment we see him and a few friends drive out and see a lone, sad "casino" spark Siegel's ultimate vision, I had to see the movie through to the end. It didn't hurt that the movie is a pleasure to look at, in all respects.

What I had forgotten was just how much praise this movie received back in 1991. It was nominated for ten Oscars, in fact (it only won 2, for Art/Set-Direction and Costume Design). These days, though, it is not even mentioned as being in the same league as all-time great gangster movies, let alone great all-around movies. I am honestly surprised that it received all of that original acclaim, given that it came out a whole year after Goodfellas, which raised the bar so very high for such movies. Bugsy clearly has its merits, but they are equaled by its glaring faults.