sure of details of his complicated empirenand, without any particularnthought, takes one of the cupcakes,nwhich are his favorite kind. The kid isnsafe. It’s so contrived and old-fashionednas to be sweet, and that sweetness is justnwhat Stoppard and Benton are aimingnfor. Schultz’s business manager, OttonBerman (Steven Hill, the rumpled oldncharacter actor who is brilliant here),nlooks up, adjusts his cigar stub, andnremarks on Billy’s luck.nAh, but is it good luck or bad?nWhen Dutch goes down, as we knownhe will, what will happen to the kid?nThis is the peculiar question that servesnas the backbone of the film, orderingnthe incidents and giving them theirnodd moral spin. At the very opening ofnthe picture, before the main title, wensee Dutch and his henchmen hustlenBo Weinberg (Bruce Willis) and hisngirlfriend, Drew Preston (NicolenKidman from Dead Calm), aboard antugboat. It is night. There is fog overnthe water. Billy jumps across the wideningnswath of black water to land onnthe afterdeck of the tug. We cut to thencabin where Weinberg is sitting like ancartoon victim, his hands bound andnhis feet encased in a tub of hardeningncement. We know that he is in deepntrouble, but what is the kid doingnthere? How can he be the witness to angangland hit like this and not be inndanger, himself? At first, we are led tonthink he’s a friend of Weinberg’s andnhas perhaps come to try to save him,nbut it seems that Schultz knows the kidntoo. Billy has a peculiar privilege here,nand his, we may safely guess, is to benthe vantage point for the entire movie.nIt works out, in these terms, to anmore or less satisfying conclusion.nWeinberg, as we discover, has askednBilly to look after the woman andnprotect her. This is a not-yet-drownedn50/CHRONICLESnman clutching at moral and imaginativenstraws, but Billy makes the promise,ngiving his word, which he is innocentnenough to take seriously. Howncan this very junior go-fer do anythingnto protect the tough-as-nails womannwho, it turns out, is the spoiled, borednwife of a rich, gay husband and is outnlooking for kicks with tough guysnwhose style, and whose lives of risk, shenfinds exciting and attractive? A kind ofnexistentialist groupie, she explains tonBilly that she isn’t Dutch’s girl but, onnthe contrary, Dutch is her gangster.nBilly’s apprenticeship is relatively innocuous.nHe is never required to donanything illegal or even unpleasant.nHis duties mostly involve taking care ofnMrs. Preston, posing improbably as hernward, and keeping her company atnSaratoga where Dutch sends her sonthat her presence will not compromisenhis public relations campaign in annupstate New York hick town wherenhe’s gone to try to get a better shakenfrom a naive jury on his tax-evasionncase. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Prestonnturns out to be a difficult woman tonhandle — for Dutch and for Billy, too.nIt isn’t long before we see her walkingnthrough woods, and then swimmingnnaked in a mountain pool at the base ofna waterfall. This is for Billy’s benefit, ofncourse — she wants to seduce him, tonget back at Dutch. Billy understandsnthat this is maybe not such a good ideanand involves a degree of risk, but he’snyoung and lucky, and we know he willngo for it and her.nHis promise to the late Mr. Weinbergnnow carries another kind ofnweight, and with some real interest wenwatch the pieces fall into place. The hitnthat has to come is at last set in motion,nand the thugs in their distinctive haberdasherynare on the move. Billy at thentrack at Saratoga has to think fast, taken• long-odds chances, and at least makenan effort, however desperate. This isnthe American way—which is an extravagantnclaim, but one the movie isnmore or less insistently trying to putnforward.nWhat complicates the moral calculationnof the film is that Billy, havingnallowed himself to be seduced by Mrs.nPreston, has betrayed the Dutchman.nAccording to the rules of the game henhas volunteered to play, he deservesnpunishment. That he escapes is a matternof pure luck, as the shrewd andnnncalculating Otto Berman observes.nThe Dutchman is on his last legs,nbeleaguered and harried. As Ottonmakes clear, “He was the king backnthen. You’ve never seen the real DutchnSchultz.” Billy winds up with an envelopenfull of thousand dollar bills, whichnhe uses to talk his way out of a lastnimpossible predicament with Luciano.nHe even gets to keep the money!nIt is a happy ending, according to allnthe reasonable conventions of moviemaking.nAnd yet we are troubled. If it isnonly luck, then Billy’s streak will end.nAnd if Billy is us, is America’s paragon,nwhat does that say about our nationalndestiny? Schultz is unattractive innmany ways, crude and violent, but . . .nhonest. He isn’t a hypocrite. He admitsnwhat he is, while Billy never does.nBilly’s “innocence” is a matter mostlynof physiognomy, a trick of the light innwhich ignorance can seem blessed.nDrew Preston is fascinated withnSchultz but is unfaithful to him, in partnbecause it is in her character, and innpart because she is playing a game andnis curious to see whether she can getnaway with it. She seizes upon Billynbecause he is at hand and attractivenenough. But he is not serious. He is antoy, and we know this. Even Billy maynsuspect it, but he is willing to take whatnshe offers without asking questions.nIndeed, there is a point Stoppardnand Benton are intent on makingnabout the questions Billy asks. Otto,nBilly’s reluctant mentor, shifts that cigarnstub, shakes his head, and says,n”You wanna stay in the crime business,nkid, you gotta stop asking all thesenquestions.” Billy does ask a great manynquestions, but they are always irrelevantnand unimportant. As he admits tonMrs. Preston, at the start of their affair,n”I used to calculate the odds, but I’venlost my wits, I’ve lost my place . . .”nThat’s what she likes about him. It isnwhat we are supposed to like, and canntoy with for a while. But the choicenDoctorow’s novel and this film versionnof it pose, between intelligent villainsnand lucky fools, is not an easy one, andnat Dutch’s death we are left feelingnbereft and diminished. Stuck with BillynBathgate, we are elated, giddy, but notnaltogether sanguine about our personalnand, national prospects. -nDavid R. Slavitt is a poet and novelistnliving in Philadelphia.n