Directed By: John McNaughton
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Eric Roberts, Ryan Merriman
Tag line: "The Mind That Organized Crime"
Trivia: This movie was nominated for a 1999 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography in a Miniseries or a Movie
Meyer Lansky, one of the key figures of organized crime in the 20th century, has been portrayed in a number of movies and television series over the years. The character of Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasburg in The Godfather Part 2, was inspired by Lansky, and so, supposedly, was James Woods’ Max in Once Upon a Time in America. Ben Kingsley was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Lansky in Barry Levinson’s Bugsy, and most recently, Anatol Yusef portrayed him in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, an outstanding series produced by Martin Scorsese. But while the notorious gangster was nothing more than a supporting character in each of these productions, in John McNaughton’s 1999 film Lansky, he finally took center stage.
While waiting to find out if Israel has granted him asylum, an elderly Lansky (Richard Dreyfuss) looks back on his life, from his childhood in Russia, when he and his family fled the country to avoid persecution, to his earliest days in New York City, when, as a child (played by Ryan Merriman), he met Benny Siegel (Anthony Medwetz), who would become his lifelong friend. Together with Charlie “Lucky” Luciano (Paul Sincoff), Lansky (played as a young adult by Max Perlich) was heavily involved in gambling, and during prohibition helped run booze over the border. Lansky finally hit the big time when he and Luciano hooked up with Arnold Rothstein (Stanley DeSantis), who taught them more about illegal gambling than anyone else. When Rothstein was killed, Lansky and Luciano seized control of the New York mob, organizing the various families into a single unit.
During World War II, Lansky (Dreyfuss once again), who was working closely with the State Department, arranged the release of his friend Luciano (played as an adult by Anthony LaPaglia) from prison, in exchange for Luciano’s assistance in convincing the Sicilian mafia to assist with the upcoming Allied invasion. In later years, Lansky was instrumental in helping his pal Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (Eric Roberts) build "The Flamingo", the first ever Las Vegas Hotel / Casino, which would ultimately cost twice as much as anticipated. Other problems would soon arise, including a revolution in Cuba that stripped Lansky of all his holdings in that country, as well as an FBI investigation that, among other things, threatened to keep his youngest son Paul (Ron Pacheco) out of West Point. With a tax evasion charge hanging over his head, Lansky and his second wife Teddy (Beverly D’Angelo) fled the U.S., hoping to settle in Israel. But will the government there allow him to stay, or will he be deported to the United States, where, despite his advanced age, he’ll more than likely do prison time?
Unlike most crime films that center on this particular era, Lansky isn’t a violent movie. In fact, aside from the gunning down of mob bosses Joe Masseria (Bill Capizzi) and Salvatore Maranzano (Rob Gilbert), both of whom needed to go before Lansky and Luciano could take over, the majority of the film's killings occur off-screen. What Lansky does instead is focus on the backroom deals that turned the New York mafia into a multi-million dollar conglomerate. As portrayed in this film, Meyer Lansky was more a businessman than a gangster (during the days of prohibition, he spent time studying statistics in an effort to better understand the monetary side of organized crime). As for the acting, Dreyfuss is excellent in the title role, playing a guy who, even when things got tough (as the cost of Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo hotel continued to grow, Lansky was put in the unusual position of having to plead for his friend’s life), always maintained a level of control.
While its preference for business over bloodshed may seem strange to some, the solid supporting cast (especially Roberts, whose Siegel is flamboyant as hell), coupled with Dreyfuss’s terrific turn as the lead, makes Lansky an organized crime story that’s definitely worth telling.