Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 24, 2021 9:42 am 
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A violent gangster biography narrated in the elderly Harvey Keitel's gentle voice

This is an old fashioned gangster flick, but with a few twists. It's inspired by actual conversations the director's father Robert Rockaway had with the gangster Meyer Lansky before the latter's death. Lansky and organized crime are presented as complex, in Lansky's words "a world of grays," and not all evil-doing. Yes, these are ulra-violent bad guys, and the movie revels in its scenes of violence, though enacted rapidly and at one remove. But Lansky & Co.'s crooked but ably managed gambling industry is also part of the backbone of the early twentieth-century American economy. He also has non-criminal accomplishments. He aids the US war effort and the fight against the Nazis. A Jew himself, he provides financial support to the fledgling State of Israel, though, subservient to the US government, Israel will never let Lansky take up residence in the new country.

This film seeks present-day three-dimensionality by emphasizing another main character - a well-known but down-on-his-luck writer called David Stone (English actor Sam Worthington), whose work on a book about Lansky frames the unreeling biopic. Stone gets a change of fortune when the aging mob boss Meyer Lansky (Harvey Keitel) unexpectedly summons him to Florida in 1981 for a series of interviews leading to a biography. The movie is ostensibly about Stone's story too. Lansky demands a full picture of the writer's private life including updates on his messy marital and romantic issues. He's got Stone's number; any unapproved revelations, and there will be consequences.

While the movie is made up largely of flashbacks of Lansky's life as a gangster kingpin, what's happening to Stone and between him and Lansky in the present time is important too, and arguably the only original element here. But the by-the-numbers screenplay by Eytan Rockaway with information from his father Robert can inject little that's structurally or stylistically fresh in its attempt to tell the two parallel tales of the mastermind of Murder Inc. and the National Crime Syndicate and the beleaguered, naive writer with career and marriage problems. A New York Times review by Ben Kenigsberg argues that the only interesting part of this movie is the Harvey Keitel part and the rest should have been omitted, somehow. He has a point, but if that were done, there would be no movie.

Keitel, now 82, undoubtedly shines in the relatively static role of the elder Lansky. He seems honed by his years into a being both mellow and sharp. He's lost the external blather: it's all real and unmediated now. Wortington is handsome and troubled. He gets that part right. The writer part - well, that's always hard to convey in a movie.

Stone is staying at a motel. Early on in his conversations with Lansky, we learn Stone is estranged from his wife, with whom he has two little kids, one only 18 months. The lonely writer befriends a pretty girl at his motel, Maureen (Minka Kelly) who one day is menaced by big Ray Hutchinson (James Devoti). Stone steps in and gets knocked out. Subsequently, we learn Maureen was hired by the FBI. Schematic scenes show the feds are frustrated and desperate after decades of tracking Lansky and being unable to find the large sums he's reportedly got tucked away. Gangsters in prison have been small help, but we see one provide a tip: "Geneva."

Stone's starting issue is the big one: "Mr. Lansky, what about the $300 million they say you have hidden away? Where is it? Does it exist?" Lansky dismisses this claim, saying he wishes he had even one million. The FBI would very much like to know about the money too. Their bosses have almost given up on ever finding out. Lansky is impenetrable, and strolls unbothered down the Miami boardwalk walking his Spitz dog from year to year.

As old Lansky starts telling Stone his story, the thirties period flashbacks roll out. As the young Lansky, John Magaro is sly, cool, with a remote, tunnel voice, and David Cade is both pretty and menacing as Lansky's early muscleman and womanizer partner Ben Siegel (don't call him "Bugsy"). They are Jews. Lansky is a Jew who came to America from Russia as a youth. He tells Stone about only one remote, grim memory - undramatized - of an scary attack by Cossacks. Young Lansky is good, very good, with numbers, and amid lowlife New York figures out dice and gambling and how people cheat at them.

He's the smartest gangster of his time, and the most businesslike. He runs casinos as businesses. The brutality, of which there is plenty, is shown as always managed by Siegel but with Lansky the complicit, ever-present observer. This movie is notable for its breezy, near-constant scenes of violence. How these soft-hand, hard-hand partners, Lansky and Siegel, become so powerful so fast we hardly know. But soon they tie in with gangland kingpins, starting with Charlie Luciano (Shane McRae).

After skimming through the thirties, the movie moves on to the forties and show scenes of Lansky's War efforts, the major evidence for his "good" side. It begins with the scene of a vicious attack by organized by Lansky and his gang on a Nazi rally, severely beating the Nazis. This gets into the newspapers and puts Lansky in the public eye. His wife - he's married now - demurs (she does nothing as a character but complain), saying because they know her husband's a criminal, people look away in scorn from her and their two kids when they walk down the street. For the FBI, Lansky hunts down pro-German spies on the docks, using his men. We glimpse their medieval style interrogation methods used on the captured spies. The mobster's doing good is as violent and cruel as his criminality. A haunting images shows a row of men hanging upside down to be tortured.

When Salvatore Maranzano (Jay Giannone), "Little Caesar," Italian gang boss of the bosses of all New York, wants to move in on Lansky's business, Lansky has Siegel kill him, brutally. They set up Murder, Inc., a group of merciless killers. Lansky gets a seat on the high table of the mafiosi, Joe Banana, Al Capone, "Italian, Jewish, and Irish mob bosses from across America. Together they formed the largest organization of crime the world has ever known, the national crime syndicate" says the omniscient voiceover.

Not for the first time, the movie relishes a moment of violence: it shows us Ssiegel hacking Maranzano's torso into pieces with a big knife. Lansky is guilty by implication through his constant presence when acts of sadism are performed. But the movie never stops stressing that he's the brain, the smart numbers man, who lectures his cohorts that he runs his side of organized crime just like Ford Motors or Coca Cola, a business. (This movie is billed as "The man who turned crime into a billion dollar business.") It's almost like they're trying to tell us Lansky's a gangster who's not really a gangster. Maybe this is meant to be the point of view of the out-of-luck writer humbly grateful to the celebrity oldster who's given him a break, a man of wisdom, an old charmer, whose famous name will sell books.

Lansky's particular innovation is a change in gangland policy: not snuffing out failing or cheating business underlings, but straightening out their books and propping them up so they make more money for the syndicate. In short: he emphasizes profitability over cruelty and fear.

Anne Lansky (AnnaSophia Robb), Lansky's wife, is an example of this movie at its most one-note. She is nothing but a constant nag and accuser. She is also, it suddenly seems, unstable. In a brief scene, she rapidly becomes hysterical and suicidal: Lansky has her taken away. We see her given period, primitive shock treatments. One longs for a more female-centric and lighthearted gangster movie like Jonathan Demme's great Married to the Mob. Women are mere objects here.

An interjected scene depicts a man arriving with an appeal and Meyer contributing to the fledgling State of Israel, in the name of Golda Meir (who will have a cameo later, with someone playing her, when he gets turned away).

Writer David Stone is in deep shit. FBI agents inform him he has unwittingly horned in on a decades-long investigation. They have been watching him. His motel "girlfriend" was arranged by them to collect information from him and he has unwisely (and perhaps rather implausibly) told her a lot of what he's been learning from Lansky. But the interviews continue, with Stone telling Lansky nothing about his new problems, even though Lansky keeps observing that something looks wrong.

Lat in the aciton, Stone asks Lansky to tell about Vegas. The film has already rapidly sketched in his involvement in lucrative, tax-free gambling casinos in pre-Castro Cuba. "Vegas?" Lansky begins. "We built that town. And it turned out to be our biggest headache."

Despite good casting for the young and old Lansky, this is a movie that never steps outside genre convention. It takes on a tough and interesting gangster topic: Meyer Lansky would seem to be peculiarly mysterious and complex. Some claim he was never as big as legend has made him, though clearly Irish and Italian mafiosi respected and feared this tiny man under five feet tall who weighing 136 pounds at his heaviest. And speaking of smallness, one biographical summary cites a rumor of lifetime earnings of $20 million, not three hundred. It acknowledges his mellow advice to children and grandchildren (not seen in this film) "akin to poetry" and provided in a soothing, gravely voice. But it says "some claim" he was never more than an "expendable middleman", and that he was an "overzealous rogue" who "squandered away" whatever fortune he had. It's possible his claim in the film to Stone that he wishes he had even a million dollars is truthful. According to Wikipedia Lansky's accessible net worth when he died was $57,000.

Due to its violence, this is not suitable for younger viewers. For cinematic sophisticates, it will soon pall. It nonetheless does reasonably well what it sets out to do: dramatizes a famous American gangster's life story in all its ambition, ingenuity, illegality and violence. And it's complications: it's just not easy being a good guy if you also happen to be a notorious criminal.

Lansky, 119 mins., has no festival or debut history. It opens in Russia June 24, 2021, in the USA June 25 and in Spain August 27. Released by Vertical Entertainment.

An article in the Tampa Bay Times about Meyer Lansky's daughter Sandra retells this story from the inside.

A New York Times review by Ben Kenigsberg argues the writer-Keitel segments are the important part and flashbacks are a waste.

A Chicago Sun-Times review by Richard Roeper says the movie spends "too much time on the David Stone character." He concludes "while this is a well-filmed and well-acted story, much of the material has been covered in superior movies."

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