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It's kind of shocking to see less than 20 reviews (as of March, 2006)
for a movie that stars Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman and also has
Bruce Willis and Loren Dean.
This story of gangster "Dutch" Schultz is told, like the beginning of Goodfellas, through the eyes of a young guy (Dean) who breaks into the business, so to speak. Probably in this case, he was more attracted to Kidman than the business, and who could blame him?
Dean was a complete no-name at the time and is a fine actor. Hoffman plays the crude Schultz and Kidman is his immoral wife. For some people, this film is remembered for quick full frontal nudity shots of Kidman. The most interesting person in the film, I thought, was Schultz' lawyer/confident Otto Berman, played by Steven Hill. Willis also helps make up a good cast, but his role is short.
For a gangster/action flick, there wasn't a lot of violence in here and I liked the period detail. It looks nice, especially on DVD. One downfall on some of these modern-day films: there isn't one morally upright character in the story and the filmmakers make Dean and Kidman into sympathetic figures. Overall, however, a good crime movie.
Billy Bathgate is based on E.L. Doctorow's historical novel about New
York in the Thirties. Doctorow also authored Ragtime and while this
film isn't as gaudy and expensive as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate is an
accurate recreation of the times of post Prohibition New York City.
The main reason to see Billy Bathgate is the mesmerizing performance of Dustin Hoffman as Arthur Fleigenheimer better known as Dutch Schultz. It's a harrowingly accurate portrayal of Schultz who was every bit the hot tempered homicidal maniac Hoffman shows him as. It's very much along the lines of Vic Morrow's performance as Schultz in Portrait of a Mobster, but Hoffman is better. If you do a search on the web about Schultz and see a film, you'll find Dustin Hoffman looks quite a lot like him in real life.
The film is seen through the eyes of its title character who is a young man from the Bronx played by Loren Dean. Schultz reigned supreme in the Bronx of the Jimmy Walker early Fiorello LaGuardia days. One can't forget that this was the Depression, there were no jobs to be had for young Billy of Bathgate Avenue and his gang. It's the reason we see them hanging around on the subway tracks outside Schultz's headquarters when Billy's juggling act catches the Dutchman's attention.
Doctorow is true to gangland lore about why and how Schultz was done in. As you watch Hoffman's performance, these sudden fits of violence you can certainly understand why Lucky Luciano wanted to rid themselves of this problem.
Part of Schultz's temper might have been bedroom performance. As heiress Nicole Kidman so aptly puts it to Billy, he's quite an ordinary man your Mr. Schultz. Also look for some really good performances in this excellent cast from Steven Hill as numbers cruncher Otto Berman, Tim Jerome as lawyer Dixie Davis, and Bruce Willis as the luckless Bo Weinberg. Kidman's not bad either as the immoral heiress who has affairs with gangsters for kicks.
But Billy Bathgate really belongs to Dustin Hoffman, it's one of his best screen performances and should not be missed by anyone especially fans of Dustin.
Through a chance meeting in the street, our hero Billy Bathgate (Loren
Dean) encounters and impresses the notorious 1930's gangster and
bootlegger Dutch Schultz and even becomes his protégé.
Gangster films, like westerns, have so many cinematic plus points built in that making a totally duff one is pretty hard. This is a very professional piece of work, but hardly takes the genre to another level. One of the games you can play while watching is ticking of the clichés one-by-one.
(For the record the lead's poor mother - she works in a laundry - doesn't reject his "dirty" money, which I thought was compulsory in this type of movie, but most other must-haves are observed: The "surprise" summary execution and the chase through the period streets - to name but two - are both here!)
Dustin Hoffman is surpassingly good as a gangster who treats other people as collectable/disposable items. While he has a cold streak, you feel that only people that cross him are going to get the chop (one of whom is Bruce Willis - who looks like he took a small part to wear the clothes).
More ambiguous is his love (or is she?) interest Nicole Kidman who he seems to enjoy mentally torturing. I couldn't get a clear grip on her mentality or why she goes along with it all - not even for her own security reasons.
Dean is a good looking young actor who looks about ripe for corruption, but the role doesn't require him to be cool or knowledgeable merely look on as a witness, so that we can too. His attraction for Kidman, who seems to like casually undressing in public, is natural given that he is supposed to be a wide-eyed virgin.
Naturally hanging around with gangsters isn't a safe sport and soon Billy is in hot water that he has to think himself out of, but I think you can safely guess that what the final outcome will be.
Billy Bathgate is the work of solid pros from the script to the scenery (very believable 1930's NY), but the piece never reaches the heights and for long periods jogs along like a marathon runner conserving energy.
While delivering no fireworks or giving you anything new it gets you through to the end without being bored. Nevertheless it is hardly the type of film you would want to own or even sit through twice.
My third viewing since it came out. The thing is stirring, romantic. The score and its timing are magnificent. Every frame is part of this masterpiece. Why it never won an academy award, I don't know (I haven't checked what it was up against that year) It's a little small But as I get holder that means less and less when great craft is present, as it is here. All the talent was used and used well. You can see that everyone gave everything they had to their roles. Great cast. The understated (Berman) the overstated (Schultz) The oblivious fearless magnificent love object The kid All great performances Even the smaller parts, the loyal Schultz hit men, Luck Luciano All great and in the team pulling in just the right directions at the right times The photography, perfect. The score, that majestic theme coming in and lifting you up, pulling you along at the right time. Not a gangster movie, more an allegory and morality play. Everyone was an archetype, a representative of basic forces Right, Wrong, Evil, Goodness, Selflessness, Betrayal, Compassion, Desire, Tenderness, Madness, Destiny (played by Luck) It's a mesmerizing movie for anyone prepared to watch a timeless drama. Forget about the gangsters, it's mythic. And it does it by paying insanely close attention to characterization. But thematically (via the writer) and theatrically (via the director) I can't want to forget enough about it to cry again the next time.
Some review comments about it having an "abrupt ending" were peculiar since the ending was HISTORICAL. The chop house shooting happened. The characters could have been drawn better, much better, especially regarding motivations. Perhaps this is why people were left unsatisfied at the ending; they didn't care about the characters. A major reason for that is the lead title character was completely forgettable. Yes, Nicole Kidman struts around stark naked; you'll see more of her here than in "Eyes Wide Shut". (She's really a little too thin). If you stumble across the movie check it out; better yet, read the book.
This film had some problems, but is still underrated. Hoffman is intense
and frightening as Dutch Schultz and I can't believe he wasn't nominated for
this. The lead kid, Loren Dean, simply has no acting talent whatsoever.
Nicole Kidman is fetching as the spoiled, rich girl and Steven Hill is
excellent. Robert Benton is a wonderful filmmaker and I rate this a 7 out
The novel is better than this, but there are wonderful scenes and even Bruce Willis is believable for the only time other than Pulp Fiction. I can't believe this bombed as it did, but I think in the future people will give a higher rating than they did at the time. One of Hoffman's best performances along with Midnight Cowboy and Straight Time.
Well acted, with a nice dual story going on, add in Nicole Kidman naked
and hey.. this isn't bad at all!! Add in Dustin damn Hoffman as our
lead gangster, and stuff is getting interesting!! Our main character
however, is BILLY- a streetwise kid with a heart of gold that wants to
see if he has a shot at making it big with Dutch - the guy who owns the
neighborhood. Things are in transition for Dutch, and Billy is exposed
to the pressures and pitfalls of running a criminal organization by
falling in with Dutch.
Enter Nicole Kidman- Dutch is smitten with her beauty, she's married but she has a thing for gangsters apparently...
This has a lot of tension in the triangle between Mrs. Harrison (Nicole), Dutch (Dustin) And Billy.
A cameo from Bruce Willis is a welcome counterpoint to the interpretation of Dutch, and you will recognize one of Dutch's henchmen from Fargo or Reservoir Dogs. ;-) I would have liked the ending to be a bit more elaborate but the ride there was pretty damn elaborate so it's all good.
The big screen adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's novel shows impressive credentials and handsome production values; so why is the finished film so inert? Is it because the story itself, about a fresh-faced Bronx kid who, during the Depression, learns the hard facts of criminal life from mobster Dutch Schultz (and falls for the boss' girlfriend) is so familiar? Could it be the abrupt, anti-climactic ending to the film's clever hopscotch structure? Or is it because the movie is too much about Billy (played by clean-cut newcomer Loren Dean, a throwback to pre-Touchstone Disney) and not his psychotic mentor? No evidence is visible of the much publicized production problems other than a few scenes where dialogue was obviously overdubbed, but the film still looks as if it were made under duress. A strong supporting cast, and Dustin Hoffman's exciting performance as the vulgar Dutch, are saving graces.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If there is one thing that strikes you about Billy it is that he is not
a killer. He likes the money and the sharp suits and the girls and the
party life of being mobbed up. But he doesn't have it in him to look
someone in the eye and pull the trigger (Notice how it never occurred
to Dutch Schultz to ask Billy to kill Drew. Or even let him in on the
plan). Billy is not Henry Hill.
Otto Berman, Schultz's money man, the 'consigliere', in the film immediately recognizes that about Billy and takes him under his wing in a mentoring way. He is constantly risking Schultz's psychotic wrath by protecting Billy, telling him more than Schultz means him to know. In the end he saves Billy's life by getting him out of that steak house when he knows that everyone has turned against them and they are doomed.
This film denies the viewer the vicarious thrill of reveling in mob movie violence on several counts. One is that Billy is a horrified onlooker to Schultz's violence. Never an active participant. The second is that Schultz's violence is always self-defeating. Prohibition is over and the Jewish Schultz has been reduced to whatever scraps Luciano and the Five Families deign to leave him (protection rackets and the Harlem numbers rackets). He is on the way down. It sure looks as if Luciano is perfectly happy to toss prosecutor Dewey a bone to make him happy and that bone will be Schultz. In the end Schultz's political protection abandons him notwithstanding the offer of a $17,000 bribe (multiply times 20. $340,000. That's a lot of money. After all, the $50 Berman lent Billy covered a new suit, black leather shoes, a new dress for Becky, a present for his Mom, and a night on the town credible enough to earn rooftop sex with Becky. Around a thousand.). And furthermore, the presence of Drew. She's no 'moll'. She is a bored, slumming wife and daughter of old money power and privilege. It is the people in her world who really pull the strings, who make phone calls, who have state troopers as personal bodyguards. Schultz is just a cheap hood, not even good enough to meet her friends as Billy is.
The ending for Billy is best. He is out of a world where he never belonged. He has a nice nest egg. And he will doubtless have the undying gratitude and friendship and maybe patronage of Drew and her powerful family.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having only recently enjoyed cinema screenings of the three films in
Francis Ford Coppola's 'Godfather' saga (1972-1990), you can forgive me
for entering into this particular gangster picture with inflated
expectations. 'Billy Bathgate (1991),' directed by Robert Benton,
certainly shares a few peripheral characteristics with the all-time
great gangster epics Hoffman's Dutch Schultz has the same confused,
world-weary outlook as Michael Corleone in his later years, and Billy's
interactions with fellow members of a street-gang recall Leone's 'Once
Upon a Time in America (1984).' But this film isn't quite epic enough
to fit the bill, and instead falls among the more stylish and less
sprawling entries into the gangster genre, works like 'Miller's
Crossing (1990)' and 'Road to Perdition (2002).' Viewed from this
perspective, 'Billy Bathgate' is a good film, with a universally-strong
leading and supporting cast, and excellent cinematography by Néstor
Almendros (in his final film). Benton previously achieved success with
the intimate, Oscar-winning family drama 'Kramer vs. Kramer (1979),'
and here he brings the same keen eye for human interaction.
Billy Bathgate (Loren Dean, whose naggingly-familiar face I'd previously seen in 'Gattaca (1997)') is a street-kid, a bright and resourceful youth who idolises the local organised-crime boss, Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman). When offered a place in Schultz's ranks, Billy quickly becomes acquainted with the thrills and pitfalls of money, guns and power. However, for the bulk of the film, Billy remains a relatively passive onlooker of his boss' downfall, observing his ingenuity and brutality largely as one separated from danger by a pane of glass (which is, indeed, how we get our first good look at him). Only after rejecting his naive notions of Schultz as something more than an "ordinary man" does Billy feel empowered to react against his boss' immoralities, breaching his duties to spare the life of Schultz's strong-willed but reckless girlfriend Drew Preston (Nicole Kidman). Among the film's supporting roles are many familiar faces, including Bruce Willis as a disloyal crime associate, Steve Buscemi as a scar-faced lackey, Stanley Tucci as a rival crime boss, and Mike Starr as an ill-fated employee.
Though the general circumstances (and abruptness) of his assassination is faithfully reproduced in the film, the true-life Dutch Schultz died on October 24, 1935, at age 33. Thus, Dustin Hoffman was already twenty years older than the man whom he was supposed to be playing, and this certainly influenced how Schultz was portrayed, as an outdated relic grappling to understand his weakening grip on The Bronx. Loren Dean is very good in the main role, and it's disappointing that he hasn't been more prominent in the last decade or so. Also, I hadn't realised that Nicole was such a stunning lady in the early 1990s; she gave me a vague Gene Tierney vibe, and took my breath away every moment she was on screen! As an aside, I was amused to notice that the film's Australian VHS cover rated 'Billy Bathgate' M15+, for "medium violence and coarse language." How the classification board managed to overlook no less than two instances of full-frontal female nudity is beyond me. This isn't 'The Godfather,' but any fan of gangster pictures should certainly look this one up.
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