“I’ve spent my entire life coming back tomorrow”
A director with a career infused by music for three decades, Alan Parker’s feature length debut came in the form of Bugsy Malone. Completely populated by kids under seventeen, it’s a gangster film that exists as though in an alternate reality, working on all levels whether treated seriously or as farce. The child actors are in Prohibition-era specific costumes, attend a popular speakeasy run by the biggest crime boss in town, and talk the talk as though they’ve lived the life, seen poverty and strife, and have the dreams and aspirations to make something of themselves. But while the film’s main thread is a love story between Bugsy (Scott Baio) and Blousey Brown (Florrie Dugger)—a girl looking for her big break in show business—their tale must survive the gang war around them as Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) attempts to wipe Fat Sam (John Cassisi) off the map.
Dan isn’t afraid of consequences, deciding it’s time to make his move against the only competition in town. A posh, well-mannered gentleman—Lev is straight-faced and collected throughout, his haughty demeanor a treat, the performance so good that you wonder why he never acted again before his untimely death at 32—he is as far from his loudmouth, ill-tempered opponent as can be. The epitome of Italian mobster, Fat Sam talks with his hands, berates the incompetence of the stooges he surrounds himself with, treats his girlfriend and lead showgirl Tallulah (Jodie Foster) as lucky to have his ear, and worries little about anything besides his pockets being lined. With Dan running around town, taking out his men, however, Sam can do nothing else but fight back. Still stuck in a dying age of hand thrown pies won’t do the trick, though, not when his enemy has acquired the weapon of the future.
Wait … did I say pie? Yes, along with the eccentric use of children as ruthless thugs, unfortunate patsies, and big dreaming singers and dancers, Parker couldn’t very well put guns and bullets in their hands, spilling blood left and right. This is a G-rated film, so he instead creates the gimmick that is creamy death. Sam and his men stockpile pies while Dan has “splurge guns” with rapid fire, high accuracy, and lightning speed. No longer must he take the time to pick up a pie, cock his arm, and throw. With the new Tommy guns that easily disassemble to hide in suitcases with their cream cartridge ammunition, no one stands a chance. Newspapers write front pages about the ensuing war, giving all the details they can pilfer about the new gun; Dan gains confidence and Sam pushes away fear. Resorting to cardboard cutouts of men at his speakeasy’s office window to pretend he hasn’t lost his entire crew, Sam does his best to keep up appearances, hiring new talent—including Blousey—and hatching plans.
Bugsy—a ladies’ man who isn’t the most popular guy with the male persuasion; a con man who gets by without declaring allegiances to sides—finds himself in front of Sam, taking a job as driver for some quick cash. A history with Tallulah is revealed, the relationship with Blousey becomes rocky as a result, and Malone ends up in the crosshairs of a splurge, his brain the only thing setting him apart from hired heavies falling down all over town. A friendship of trust grows with Sam and Bugsy decides to stay on in order to earn more scratch so he and Blousey can go to Hollywood, hopefully to make her dreams come true. But before he gets the chance he’s mugged, discovers an upstart boxer (Paul Murphy’s Leroy Smith), and draws up a plan to steal some splurge guns for himself, enlist his own army, and put an end to the fighting that has instilled fear into the hearts of the public.
Part of the charm of Bugsy Malone comes from the neat hybridization of adding song to a lifestyle reserved for square-jawed silence. Composed and written by Paul Williams, the music is a catchy blend of humor, romance, and exposition. We learn about “Fat Sam’s Grand Slam” from Razamataz (no that Michael Jackson), Blousey belts out her hopes for the future, and Knuckles (Sheridan Earl Russell) et al. dance a jig in the streets about their proclivities to being “Bad Guys”. And the joke goes further as we realize the stylized warble of a voice we hear is surely not coming from these kids’ diminutive frames. Every song is dubbed and performed by adults, lip-synched in varying degrees of believability by the actors. Jodie’s Tallulah is by far the worst, her stuck-up visage showing how highly her character thinks of herself, but also giving a closed-lipped delivery no singing could possibly exit from; and Albin ‘Humpty’ Jenkins as Fizzy, the janitor who wants to audition as a tap dancer, is the best, hamming it up for the camera while getting his blues on.
But Parker somehow makes everything work, a feat that shouldn’t be underestimated concerning it was his first time directing theatrically. Getting what he wanted from a bunch of teenagers couldn’t have been easy and the fact everyone besides Baio and Foster pretty much never acted again, the comical gold delivered has to be attributed to the orchestrator. It’s a joy to watch the artifice and the filmmakers’ fearlessness when it comes to letting us see all the strings. Between the horrible fake singing, the hilarious bicycle-powered old-fashioned cars, and the freeze frames held on each kid murdered by cream, it’s nice to know no one is taking this too seriously. All involved are having a blast and we are too, especially with the brilliance of Cassisi and Lev. If I were to make one complaint it’s the surreal finale where the actors give in to the fact they are kids in a food fight. The fourth wall breaks as smiles widen and cream no longer kills. With a rousing rendition of “You Give a Little Love” we watch them let loose, no longer pretending they aren’t merely kids putting on a show.