Vital Signs

Endangered Species

Billy Bathgate
Produced by Arlene Donovan and Robert F. Coplesberry
Directed by Robert Benton
Written by Tom Stoppard
Based on the book by E.L. Doctorow
Released by Buena Vista Pictures

Advance word was that this film was troubled, which helps it, I think. With lowered expectations, one comes hoping only for an engaging Dustin Hoffman performance in a more or less predictable gangster flick. What is there interesting—never mind profound—for even E.L. Doctorow and Tom Stoppard to say about Dutch Schultz, anyway?

The gangster movie, with its long grand tradition, has given us images of James Cagney, Paul Muni, George Raft, and Edward G. Robinson that are as much a part of our national culture as Mickey Mouse or Babe Ruth. These films were often B movies on which writers and directors could operate with rather more freedom from the front office than was usual because the studio executives were busy worrying about other, more expensive projects. The spectacular rise and precipitous fall of the lawless existential hero who is glamorous, brutal perhaps, but impressively authentic amounted to a ritual that seemed to be our modern equivalent of tragedy. For the gangster's hubris, there was an inevitable punishment in which audiences shared for having dared even momentarily to admire and invest themselves in an assertion of unbridled id.

Billy...

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