By John H. Foote

(**) Streaming on Apple TV

Meyer Lansky has been portrayed on film twice: Ben Kingsley did it in Bugsy (1991), beautifully capturing the man’s intellect and quiet intimidation; Richard Dreyfuss did the same in HBO’s Lansky (1992). Though not in name, Lansky inspired the role of Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II (1974), played superbly by Lee Strasberg, scoring him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Kingsley was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, among the 10 nominations Bugsy received.

Lansky was a brilliant strategist but was equally ruthless in matters of money. Though he and Bugsy Siegel were boyhood friends, he did not hesitate to arrange to have Siegel killed for losing money during the building of the Flamingo, the beginning of what would become Las Vegas. Truthfully, an entire film could have been built around Kingsley’s wonderful performance as Lansky. His calm was infectious, his manner, forthright and unwavering. When Virginia Hill, Siegel’s girlfriend, stole $2M from the building fund of the casino, Charlie Luciano made it clear to Lansky that Siegel had to answer for it. Lansky agreed and a few nights later Siegel was shot through the head in his Hollywood home.

Yet Lansky defended his friend for the rest of his days, appreciating that Siegel saw something in the desert no one else did. An entire city, possibly the world’s most famous and infamous, was built around that single casino that Bugsy Siegel envisioned in the desert with the mob’s money. I suspect the mob quickly made its money back by a hundredfold and Bugsy could have been forgiven, but business is business with these guys.

As portrayed by Ben Kingsley in Bugsy, Lansky comes across as an elegant man who had been bullied as a child and protected by Bugsy Siegel, hence his loyalty to his friend. He casually hands Bugsy (Warren Beatty) a briefcase with $1M in it to help with the casino as easily as he were handing over five bucks. But there is steel there, dangerous menace in his voice when it is needed. In Lansky, Dreyfuss was less menacing, but just as interesting. He portrayed Lansky as a man bone tired of his life, sick of all the questions, the investigations, and just wants a quiet retirement where he can enjoy his money. Strasberg portrayed his version of Lansky as a man who believed he was immortal and going to live forever, and so works at consolidating great power within the mafia. His attempt on the life of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is his undoing and he pays with his life, shot dead in the airport.

This new film opens where the HBO film left off. Lansky is headed for a dinner with a reporter who is writing a book about his life. Lansky lived a quiet life, never flaunting his immense wealth or power, as to not draw attention from the government or the police. They all knew who he was and what he had done, but there was nothing to connect it to him. The man was brilliant.

In this version Harvey Keitel is Lansky, and he is a formidable character. Given Keitel’s previous roles and his talent as an actor, he is entirely believable as the villain. Talking with a dark twinkle in his eye, all knowing about matters such as murder and crime, Keitel is wonderful. But so much of the film is told in flashbacks, and the actors portraying the younger versions of the criminals simply lack the intensity or presence to make it work. More on that to come.

Having just received a death sentence from his doctor, Lansky summons the young writer David Stone (Sam Worthington) to his table in his favourite restaurant and offers him a plum deal. He will tell his life story through a series of interviews if Stone promises to publish the book after Lansky dies. A best seller for sure, so Stone agrees, leading the police to question Stone, looking to find Lansky’s life savings, some $300M. Simply talking to the police is seen as a betrayal by Lansky, and Stone realizes his own life could be in danger. Could be? Is there any doubt?

Lansky keeps his end of the deal, spinning his story of how he rose from terrible poverty to become part of one of the biggest and most dangerous mafia families ever operated in the United States, with tentacles reaching into Cuba. Lansky was at the centre of it all, the brains, the money guy. He knows where all the bodies are buried because he put them there. He was not a violent man, but had no trouble ordering the executions of others. Keitel’s performance works best in these scenes, with a lack of hesitation he brings to his Lansky when talking about the business and doing what had to be done. He has few regrets if any, and certainly will not admit to any to this kid. We can feel his entire being change when he finds out the writer is talking to the police. He is wary, more careful, deciding whether this kid should die. The actor is superb, and head and shoulders about everyone else cast in the film.

The film was clearly made on a very low budget. Writer-director Eytan Rockaway is barely known and the actors he cast as the younger versions of Lansky, Siegel and Luciano are bland, adding little interest to their scenes. John Magaro as the young Lansky is dreary, attempting to play intelligent rather than radiating the intellect Lansky must have had to rise to where he did. At best, it is a high school performance, and at times doesn’t even earn that distinction. In the end, it is only Keitel who shines, but even he can’t make up for a weak cast and uneven screenplay that cannot figure out where it wants to go.

But let’s just focus on Keitel: the man is among the greatest yet often overlooked actors of the last 40 years. It was working for Martin Scorsese that he first came to the attention of directors in Hollywood, with powerful performances in Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976). Not even being fired from Apocalypse Now (1979) slowed him down. He continued to make excellent films and give wildly daring performances in films such as Bugsy (1991) as mobster Mickey Cohen (Oscar nominated), Bad Lieutenant (1992) for which he should have been Oscar nominated, The Piano (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994) and so many others. His work might not always please the critical community, but no one has dared on screen as often and as powerfully as Keitel.

I only wish this film had offered more of him. Would an entire movie about Lansky telling his story have worked? No flashbacks, just Keitel? I would pay to see that. Trust your actor, especially when they are giants.

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