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Based loosely on the organized crime syndicates of the 20's and 30's, Billy Bathgate is the story of a young man's rise from gopher to right hand man in Dutch Schultz' gang. Having been impressed by the youth, Schultz takes him under his wing so to speak. Billy soon finds himself in a world where wealth and fortune live next door to danger and death.
For more about Billy Bathgate and the Billy Bathgate Blu-ray release, see Billy Bathgate Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on February 23, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Director: Robert Benton
Writers: E.L. Doctorow, Tom Stoppard
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Loren Dean, Bruce Willis, Steve Buscemi, John Costelloe
» See full cast & crew
Billy Bathgate Blu-ray Review
Tier 2 Crime cinema.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, February 23, 2013
Money can do anything.
Shades of Goodfellas, Director Martin Scorsese's 1990 Oscar-contending crime family masterpiece saga, echo throughout 1991's Billy Bathgate, something of a copycat Gangster film about the rise of a young man into the ranks of one of the most feared mafia outfits in the United States. Director Robert Benton's (Kramer vs. Kramer) picture is no match for the brilliance of one of cinema's defining works and arguably the finest Gangster picture of them all, but it's nevertheless a rock-solid film in its own right, molded from the same cinematic and historical clay, a captivating picture defined by a fantastic script, perfect flow, and high-end acting. Though the film reportedly differs a great deal from E.L. Doctorow's 1989 source novel, Billy Bathgate nevertheless makes for a dramatically satisfying Crime film, an excellent companion All-Star to Scorsese's Hall-of-Fame master work.
Young Billy (Loren Dean) dreams big and, after a chance meeting with mob boss Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman), he dreams even bigger. He believes Dutch's kind words were no fluke but rather a sign, a hint of future greatness, the beckoning of destiny. He takes it upon himself to move in closer to Dutch's operation and wiggles his way into the boss' heart with some tasty pastries that just so happen to be Dutch's favorite. He finds himself performing menial tasks around headquarters while slowly ingraining himself in the operation and winning Dutch's trust. He has his breakout moment when he brings Dutch evidence that one of his most trusted men, Bo Weinberg (Bruce Willis), hasn't been completely honest with Dutch. Suddenly, Billy finds himself a much more prominent figure in the operation and is tasked with caring for Bo's girl, the seductive Drew Preston (Nicole Kidman). As Billy's relationship with Drew grows more intimate, so too does his understanding of how the mob really works, that it's much more than easy money and that the price for that cash runs deeper than he could have ever imagined.
Billy Bathgate is the epitome of the character-driven drama. The movie is not about the world in which the action plays out, and neither is it about era violence and the viscousness of the period crime scene. The picture succeeds because it paints characters who are superficially one dimensional -- making them easy to identify -- but at the same time far more complex on a deeper level, a complexity that slowly reveals itself over time, a complexity that's a result of character interaction and, yes, that action and drama that both only enhance the characters rather than define them. The film takes simple archetypes -- the young man with a world opening to him, the seductively beautiful damsel, the hardened criminal -- and opens them up fully, revealing complicated inner-beings behind a generic exterior shell.
The cast is fantastic in digging deep inside and allowing the superficial only to serve as a guide rather than the defining characteristic. Dustin Hoffman dominates the picture as an edgy mentor and negative role model that is exposed with time; he captures the character's dichotomy beautifully, displaying a soft underside that's sometimes overpowered by his violent exterior, an exterior Billy comes to realize is the true Dutch, not the kindly man who took him under his wing. On that same note, Loren Dean is great as Billy, the wet-behind-the-years mob initiate whose starry-eyed dream of the high life is slowly shattered with the passage of time. Dean plays the part well, not so much outwardly maturing but rather inwardly gaining a more complete understanding of the world, seeing beyond the glamour and into the harsh truths of the life of crime.
Though the film is a complete product of its characters, it's still a very strongly crafted production and delivers a fantastic, authentic-in-feel backdrop for the story. Billy Bathgate is a very well photographed picture in which every scene is perfectly composed and seems as if a sea of classic stylings not just through a superficial period sense but in the photography, lighting, and mood. Sets and costumes look great, both convincing down to every chip in bricks, worn paint on wood, and every stitch in the period clothes. The picture naturally comes alive; it lives and breathes its time period but it does so to such a degree that it all falls into line behind character study and advancement as the perfect background support. It's an underrated technical achievement on both ends of the camera that helps shape a complete cinema experience.
Billy Bathgate Blu-ray, Video Quality
Billy Bathgate looks pretty great on Blu-ray. This is easily one of the best transfers yet from Mill Creek. It's a sturdy, accurate, film-like image that retains a consistently moderate layer of film grain. Details are crisp and sharp, mostly, and reveal intricate little textures on period brick and wood façades -- particularly those that are well worn and weathered -- as well as the usual faces and clothes. The color palette is never overly dull and quite vibrant in some of the film's brightest moments, such as a race track sequence that shows off some colorful bouquets, green grasses, and sun-lit clothes. Blacks are usually solid, though in a few scenes they do show some unwanted crush and, on the other end of the spectrum, turn a shade of dark purple. Flesh tones, however, remain fairly consistent without too much of an unnaturally warm push. The print is clean and free of major wear, and there's little evidence of banding, blocky backgrounds, or edge halos. This is a very satisfying transfer from Mill Creek.
Billy Bathgate Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Billy Bathgate's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 lossless soundtrack isn't what one might label "robust" or "immersive," but it gets the job done with little effort. There's a nice, natural front side presence to the deep, rather haunting notes heard at film's start. Clarity here and elsewhere in music and sound effects is constant, not perfect but certainly not anywhere near a level of sonic distraction. The opening boat sequence offers some very nice subtle atmospheric effects, such as creaking wood, the powering motor, and waves and wind outside. Later, a train rumbles effortlessly from one front speaker to another, and the din of typewriters, ringing telephones, and other machinery heard inside the mob offices in chapter three create a satisfying listen. Gunfire is suitably crisp as well. Dialogue plays evenly and clearly. For a two-channel track, this one's pretty good, and it serves the film well.
Billy Bathgate Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
This Blu-ray release of Billy Bathgate contains no supplemental content.
Billy Bathgate Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Billy Bathgate might rightly be lost under the enormous presence of Goodfellas, but it's nevertheless a superb picture in its own right, one that's home to excellent characters and performances up to the challenge of shaping them well behind the general superficialities. It's also a very good looking film, so well done that and so convincing that all of the detail fades into the background in favor of a story that, like the characters, has a feel of unoriginality to it but evolves into something better as it approaches its conclusion. All around, Billy Bathgate impresses in every area of concern. Better yet, this is one of Mill Creek's finest Blu-ray releases. It's featureless, but picture and sound qualities are as good any other the studio has released. Recommended.
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