Smaller Than Life

Kosher Nostra: Dreyfuss as Mamet's elusive Lansky in HBO's reserved biopic.Photo: Ron Batzdorff/HBO

What I want to know is, what happened to Spinoza? Through both hours of David Mamet’s lean, mean Lansky (Saturday, February 27; 8 to 10 p.m.; HBO), I waited in vain for a mention of the author of Ethica. This was because I distinctly remember, sometime in the late seventies, hearing on the radio about an interview in the Miami Herald in which Meyer Lansky, during one of several incarcerations for income-tax evasion, after he had been refused asylum in Israel or even in Paraguay, wanted the world to know that he was reading Spinoza. I have been vexed ever since with a vivid image of the bookkeeper of organized crime meeting the philosopher of moral autonomy; of the maker of license plates at a sitdown with the grinder of lenses. It’s a reference omitted from both Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Eastern about Jewish gangsters, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and Francis Ford Coppola’s grandly operatic The Godfather, Part II (1974), in which Lee Strasberg himself played the Lansky-like Hyman Roth. But surely David Mamet would be as tantalized as I was by this tidbit.

Apparently not. Lansky is Mamet being Pinteresque – knowing and inarticulate, anxious and unspecified, impudent and evasive, laconic but also callous, cryptic but also spinal-tapped, barbed between ellipses. As in Pinter, there is nobody here to like. “You do what you have to do at the time,” says Meyer (Richard Dreyfuss), at the end of his 70 years. And, walking his dog into the sunset: “Who you are is who you are.” This is a lot less than Spinoza had to say about free will. On the other hand, screenwriter Mamet at least resists the temptation to wiseguy. After so many Cosa Nostrums out of Hollywood tending to suggest that however violent, mobsters are also cute – picking up tips from previous films on how to patter and swag; doing the Tarantino – it’s a relief to hear them in their brute banality.

Anyway, if Dreyfuss as Lansky can’t communicate subtleties of feeling or a rich interior life to either of his wives (Illeana Douglas, Beverly D’Angelo), how likely is he to confide such filigree to John McNaughton’s fidgety camera? What this autumnal patriarch does best is refuse to second-guess himself. Flashing back to the pogroms of his Polish childhood, the crap games of a delinquent youth on the Lower East Side, the syndicating of oddsmaker Meyer and buddies like Bugsy Siegel (Eric Roberts) and Lucky Luciano (Anthony LaPaglia), the birth of a crippled son, the high-rolling Havana days, the embarrassment of the Kefauver hearings, the flight to Israel (where the Law of Return uniquely failed to apply), the ignominious extradition from uppity Panama, he is not only entirely unrepentant but sees no point at all in bothering to imagine having done anything different, because, of course, he’s already done what he did.

Which isn’t to say he’s equable. Much of the flashing back is from Jerusalem, where he visits the Mount of Olives cemetery and the Western Wall while waiting for court and Knesset to decide his fate. If he won’t rage, he at least snarls, blaming Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell for withholding American jets unless Israel sends him packing. As, later, he will complain to an Israeli reporter in a Miami coffee shop that J. Edgar Hoover is out to get him after so many years of pretending that crime wasn’t organized at all, because the G-man needs some “non-Italian” fall guy. “The Cossacks are coming!” says Dreyfuss/Lansky. It is a measure of the Dreyfuss/Mamet reticence that we don’t know if even he believes this, any more than we are sure he’s capable of genuine regret at having acquiesced in the murder of poor Bugsy, who got in over his head in Las Vegas.

It must be said that Bugsy has more fun than anyone else in this movie. Eric Roberts’s proclivity to excess is actually encouraged. LaPaglia’s Luciano will enjoy himself intermittently, say, when he’s softening up Sicily for an allied invasion while on sabbatical from the federal pen. But Meyer … well,
a cunning Dreyfuss restrains his own tendency toward overmuch; an audit is an audit, even of your own turpitudes. After all, Meyer rationalizes, he never shot anybody, personally.

Mamet insinuates that organized crime – like organized religion, organized labor, the army, or the boxing ring – is just another launching pad for upwardly mobile immigrants. Accordingly, we can think of Bugsy’s Social Darwinism as primitive accumulation leading to the laissez-faire stage of capitalism, which then evolves into the higher monopolistic forms of Luciano’s corporate-syndicalist vision, which then requires Lansky’s sort of managerial revolution. As well as money, what’s laundered are class and social origins.

But maybe, in wanting some Spinoza to spice my Lansky, I’m as meretricious as Hollywood. Are Jewish gangsters supposed to be more interesting or intellectual than Italians, just because Warren Beatty and Harvey Keitel played Bugsy before Eric Roberts, and E. L. Doctorow and William S. Burroughs wrote novels about Dutch Schultz, and Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby seems as crucial to our mythic imagination as Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick? Gangsters show up, too, in the novels of Saul Bellow and William Kennedy. It’s as if, in an American literature of loners and losers, of deer-slayers, Lone Rangers, private eyes, and Huck Finns, we must always code our romance with money in fables of the urban outlaw, or end up as dead salesmen.

Smaller Than Life