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In a year in which gangster-movie inflation is at its all-time high, director Robert Benton's Billy Bathgate has turned a profit, and done it the old-fashioned way - with heartfelt storytelling, inspired camerawork, and impeccable timing.
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, Billy Bathgate explores the criminal education of the title character, a young Depression-era hood who becomes apprenticed to the great Dutch Schultz. The teen-age Billy lives on Bathgate Avenue, in the heart of the Bronx's tenement zone, and he spends his days executing petty street hustles, practicing his juggling and his magic tricks, and tending to his mother, a disheveled, unhealthy laundress. Dutch's opulence and power are the alpha and the omega for Billy, and when he finally gets the chance to meet his idol, Billy senses that it's the start of a profitable business relationship - the ambitious young boy possessed by great luck, the legendary criminal who wants a spiritual son to invest with his wisdom.
But Billy Bathgate - which stars Dustin Hoffman as Dutch and Loren Dean as Billy - isn't merely another lazy Xerox of the traditional apprenticeship blueprint. Billy's starry-eyed admiration notwithstanding, it's clear that Dutch is not so legendary any more. He's been charged with federal income tax evasion, the word on the street is that he's on the wane, and he doesn't seem to have the self-control to bring himself successfully through his tribulations. Faced with the prospect of his own demise, the once-poised Schultz has become paranoid, violent, and capricious. His power is rapidly diminishing, and whatever power he still has, he uses in the service of brutality.
Dutch's instability is bad news for his associates, particularly Bo Weinberg (Bruce Willis), an ultrasmooth man-about-town who has a long-standing and mutually profitable relationship with the Dutchman. When he learns that Bo has cut a deal with a rival gang boss, Dutch doubles over with the pain of betrayal. He cannot contain his rage. The only recourse is murder. After staging a drive-by abduction in which he kidnaps Bo and his newest girlfriend - a beautiful young socialite named Drew Preston (Nicole Kidman) - Dutch heads for the harbor. In a chilling scene that becomes Billy Bathgate's formal and thematic framing device, Dutch sets his old friend's feet in concrete and subjects him to a series of lectures about power and propriety.
Obviously a man with some serious doubts about his own masculinity, Dutch spares no expense in torturing his prey before killing him. "The things you used to do," he tells Bo, "the simplest things like scratching your nose or crossing your legs, these are things that are not available to you now." The protracted pre-murder conferral is not only a duel between Dutch and Bo, but one between Hoffman and Willis. With an elegant, economical performance - which swings wildly from endearing insecurity to brute cruelty - Hoffman both controls this scene (indeed, the whole film), and allows the other actors substantial latitude, and Willis proves again that he is capable of fine dramatic work.
After Bo's disposal (which a horror-struck Billy witnesses), Dutch takes over the carnal custodianship of Drew, and the gang decides to do a little public-image manipulation by "retiring" to a small town in upstate New York. Billy, who has been adopted as an auxiliary member, tags along, leaving behind his poor Bronx childhood for what he hopes will be a life of criminal excitement. Doctorow's skillful command of period detail translates to the screen nicely. Livestock auctions, friendly neighbors, and bingo games abound, and the local moviehouse double-features Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy in Naughty Marietta and Shirley Temple's Bright Eyes.
But for Billy, the country offers anything but the simple life. Wary of upsetting the small-town moral balance - and facing increasing pressure from his business manager (Steven Hill) to discard Drew altogether - Dutch forces Drew to pretend she is Billy's governess. To Billy's horror, he finds that she is attracted to him, and that he has a hard time resisting her advances. Self-preservation, lust, and a growing sense of Dutch's vulnerability collide within him, climaxing in a lyrical forest scene in which Billy relates to Drew the precise circumstances of Bo's death. Billy's predicament - how to navigate the dangerous emotional waters, with the Scylla of a beautiful woman on one side and the Charybdis of a murderous gang boss on the other - comes to represent his own passage into manhood. And with the exception of a few clumsy scenes that keep the world safe for Puritans (including two sharply discontinuous cuts that obscure Drew's nudity), the drama is compelling.
Way back when, Benton wrote the screenplay for Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, and he still has a flair for alternating moments of violence and moments of tenderness, scenes of social interaction and scenes of interpersonal intimacy. In a role with endless opportunities for overacting (or just plain bad acting), Dean succeeds wonderfully. And Kidman, who was equally beautiful but nearly weightless opposite her husband Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder, is convincing as a woman worth dying for.
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