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 Bathgate stands in the same relation to the old film noir gangster classics as Shane does to the earlier and more innocent Westerns like, say, The Virginian. This is a decadent piece, playing upon our familiarity with the genre and depending on our nostalgia for its exhausted conventions. In Shane, or The Shootist, the Western gunfighter was a relict, obsolescent if not obsolete, and the message was that a philosophical frontier had closed. This diminution of a moral landscape was figured in the change of light and air in these Westerns, and when the gunfighter rides off to disappear into the heartbreakingly beautiful landscape, and when Brandon de Wilde cries out, “Come back, Shane! Come back!” it is impossible for that cry not to resonate in our own heads and hearts.

The rise of Dutch Schultz is merely assumed in Billy Bathgate. It is his fall we witness, and this through the eyes of the ambitious kid from Bathgate Avenue, Loren Dean’s Billy, who functions here as Brandon de Wilde did in Shane. It is through Billy’s eyes that we watch the death throes of Schultz, and, without pushing matters too much, the end of individualism and authenticity.

Brian de Palma’s Scarface was camp, a send-up as much as an homage to Howard Hawks’s earlier film. With Al Pacino, what de Palma devised was an extravagant display of the pornography of violence. Violence is, indeed, a part of the genre, but usually more punctuation than text. In Billy Bathgate Stoppard and director Robert Benton contrive a nostalgia for the old days, for their flamboyant gangsters, and for Schultz. Hoffman is quite wonderful as the Dutchman, almost poignant in his limitations and the failures of his ambition. He wears expensive suits but manages never to look quite right in them. He uses highfalutin words that he gets inevitably wrong, confusing, for example, “prodigy” with “protege.” His diction is grandiose: “What does a man have to do to be deserving of a break, to reap the fruits of his labor?” He is an extinct species but doesn’t realize it. Neither does. Billy, at least at the beginning, and the machinery of the film involves the younger man’s gradual understanding that Schultz’s way of life is not merely wrong (a category that doesn’t apply here) but, in terms of social Darwinism, gone. Crooked politicians one has bought and paid for get scared and turn unreliable. Ambitious lawyers like Tom Dewey gather like vultures and make life difficult. And larger, more vicious predators like Lucky Luciano come out of the underbrush to change the ecology irretrievably.

Schultz can erupt, pull out a gun, and blast people who, through their disloyalty or greed, have deserved harsh treatment. He can also, when driven to it by circumstances beyond his control, inflict pain on the innocent—even on Billy, at one point. Needing a plausible explanation for the blood in his hotel room (he’s just shot an insubordinate associate), he has his goons bloody Billy’s nose and hold the young man down so that his blood pours out to mix with the gore in the carpet. But Schultz doesn’t enjoy this kind of thing. It comes with the territory, is part of the business.

Billy, an apprentice in this criminal enterprise, is a smart kid, tough, graceful, and, perhaps most important, lucky. He wangles his way into the Dutchman’s numbers-racket headquarters in as nice a piece of film business as one could want, watching from across the street as runners with brown paper bags come up to the door, hold up their bags with some share of the take, and are admitted. Billy then shows up with such a bag, holds it up as he has seen the others do, and is ushered inside. There, instead of money, it turns out that his bag has only . . . cupcakes!

Will they beat him up? Kill him? Schultz comes out, busy with the pressure of details of his complicated empire and, without any particular thought, takes one of the cupcakes, which are his favorite kind. The kid is safe. It’s so contrived and old-fashioned as to be sweet, and that sweetness is just what Stoppard and Benton are aiming for. Schultz’s business manager, Otto Berman (Steven Hill, the rumpled old character actor who is brilliant here), looks up, adjusts his cigar stub, and remarks on Billy’s luck.

Ah, but is it good luck or bad? When Dutch goes down, as we know he will, what will happen to the kid? This is the peculiar question that serves as the backbone of the film, ordering the incidents and giving them their odd moral spin. At the very opening of the picture, before the main title, we see Dutch and his henchmen hustle Bo Weinberg (Bruce Willis) and his girlfriend, Drew Preston (Nicole Kidman from Dead Calm), aboard a tugboat. It is night. There is fog over the water. Billy jumps across the widening swath of black water to land on the afterdeck of the tug. We cut to the cabin where Weinberg is sitting like a cartoon victim, his hands bound and his feet encased in a tub of hardening cement. We know that he is in deep trouble, but what is the kid doing there? How can he be the witness to a gangland hit like this and not be in danger, himself? At first, we are led to think he’s a friend of Weinberg’s and has perhaps come to try to save him, but it seems that Schultz knows the kid too. Billy has a peculiar privilege here, and his, we may safely guess, is to be the vantage point for the entire movie.

It works out, in these terms, to a more or less satisfying conclusion. Weinberg, as we discover, has asked Billy to look after the woman and protect her. This is a not-yet-drowned man clutching at moral and imaginative straws, but Billy makes the promise, giving his word, which he is innocent enough to take seriously. How can this very junior go-fer do anything to protect the tough-as-nails woman who, it turns out, is the spoiled, bored wife of a rich, gay husband and is out looking for kicks with tough guys whose style, and whose lives of risk, she finds exciting and attractive? A kind of existentialist groupie, she explains to Billy that she isn’t Dutch’s girl but, on the contrary, Dutch is her gangster.

Billy’s apprenticeship is relatively innocuous. He is never required to do anything illegal or even unpleasant. His duties mostly involve taking care of Mrs. Preston, posing improbably as her ward, and keeping her company at Saratoga where Dutch sends her so that her presence will not compromise his public relations campaign in an upstate New York hick town where he’s gone to try to get a better shake from a naive jury on his tax-evasion case. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Preston turns out to be a difficult woman to handle—for Dutch and for Billy, too. It isn’t long before we see her walking through woods, and then swimming naked in a mountain pool at the base of a waterfall. This is for Billy’s benefit, of course—she wants to seduce him, to get back at Dutch. Billy understands that this is maybe not such a good idea and involves a degree of risk, but he’s young and lucky, and we know he will go for it and her.

His promise to the late Mr. Weinberg now carries another kind of weight, and with some real interest we watch the pieces fall into place. The hit that has to come is at last set in motion, and the thugs in their distinctive haberdashery are on the move. Billy at the track at Saratoga has to think fast, take long-odds chances, and at least make an effort, however desperate. This is the American way—which is an extravagant claim, but one the movie is more or less insistently trying to put forward.

What complicates the moral calculation of the film is that Billy, having allowed himself to be seduced by Mrs. Preston, has betrayed the Dutchman. According to the rules of the game he has volunteered to play, he deserves punishment. That he escapes is a matter of pure luck, as the shrewd and calculating Otto Berman observes. The Dutchman is on his last legs, beleaguered and harried. As Otto makes clear, “He was the king back then. You’ve never seen the real Dutch Schultz.” Billy winds up with an envelope full of thousand dollar bills, which he uses to talk his way out of a last impossible predicament with Luciano. He even gets to keep the money!

It is a happy ending, according to all the reasonable conventions of moviemaking. And yet we are troubled. If it is only luck, then Billy’s streak will end. And if Billy is us, is America’s paragon, what does that say about our national destiny? Schultz is unattractive in many ways, crude and violent, but . . . honest. He isn’t a hypocrite. He admits what he is, while Billy never does. Billy’s “innocence” is a matter mostly of physiognomy, a trick of the light in which ignorance can seem blessed. Drew Preston is fascinated with Schultz but is unfaithful to him, in part because it is in her character, and in part because she is playing a game and is curious to see whether she can get away with it. She seizes upon Billy because he is at hand and attractive enough. But he is not serious. He is a toy, and we know this. Even Billy may suspect it, but he is willing to take what she offers without asking questions.

Indeed, there is a point Stoppard and Benton are intent on making about the questions Billy asks. Otto, Billy’s reluctant mentor, shifts that cigar stub, shakes his head, and says, “You wanna stay in the crime business, kid, you gotta stop asking all these questions.” Billy does ask a great many questions, but they are always irrelevant and unimportant. As he admits to Mrs. Preston, at the start of their affair, “I used to calculate the odds, but I’ve lost my wits, I’ve lost my place . . . “

That’s what she likes about him. It is what we are supposed to like, and can toy with for a while. But the choice Doctorow’s novel and this film version of it pose, between intelligent villains and lucky fools, is not an easy one, and at Dutch’s death we are left feeling bereft and diminished. Stuck with Billy Bathgate, we are elated, giddy, but not altogether sanguine about our personal and, national prospects.