Billy Bathgate
directed by Robert Benton
(Touchstone, 1991)

Billy Bathgate juggles his way into the good graces of a 1930s New York gangster. His knack for listening at the right doors and his puppy-like loyalty to his boss soon boost him into the inner circle of the gang -- but, unfortunately for Billy, it's a gang on the way down.

The film, adapted by Tom Stoppard from E.L. Doctorow's novel, which in turn was based on the life of the real Dutch Schultz, begins with preparations to send hitman Bo Weinberg (Bruce Willis) to the bottom of the harbor in the proverbial cement overshoes. With him is Billy (Loren Dean), the earnest young protege of mob boss Schultz (Dustin Hoffman). Of course, Billy doesn't let on to Bo that he's the one that ratted him out to Dutch....

Although lacking the intensity of some gang films on the market, Billy Bathgate is an enjoyable outing. Of primary interest is Hoffman, who gives Dutch Schultz the air of a drowning man who doesn't yet realize he's even in the water. Hoffman plays him low-key, confident that he'll prevail in the end no matter what the odds may be -- and he's certainly not against getting a little blood on his hands in the process. When things start to turn against him, he seems genuinely surprised that the world would pick on an honest gangster.

Dean sometimes seems more like an afterthought. Although his character is always present on-screen, watching everything around him with wide-eyed wonder, he's so unobtrusive and bland that he rarely captures your attention. Of course, that ability to hide in a crowd serves him well, as he always seems to be in the right place to overhear the right tidbit of information.

The low-key Hoffman and drab Dean don't make for a colorful movie. Fortunately, a bit of splash is provided by Willis, who doesn't get much screen time, and Nicole Kidman as Drew Preston, his high-society moll who knows when to switch loyalties. She of course develops a certain fondness, and a lack of modesty, towards young Billy, who is given her care during much of the film. (Kidman's brief but complete nude scenes were apparently a first for Disney-owned Touchstone.) Steven Hill, as Otto Berman, is very good as Dutch's stolid business manager.

Billy Bathgate doesn't break new ground in the gangster genre and its pace is a little slow at times, but it'll absorb you into the story regardless until its abrupt, somewhat unsatisfying end.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 28 July 2001

Buy it from