Here’s an odd cinematic footnote: Seventeen years before he played a supporting role in Bugsy (1991), the whip-smart drama about real-life gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Harvey Keitel starred as Siegel himself in a 1974 TV movie called Virginia Hill. In real life, Hill was Siegel’s girlfriend for several years. As the title suggests, Virginia Hill tells the Siegel story from his companion’s perspective, exploring how a small-town girl ended up with the violent criminal who invented Las Vegas but then doomed himself by spending too much of the Mob’s money. Cowritten and directed by costume designer-turned-filmmaker Joel Schumacher, Virginia Hill crams too much material into its scant 74-minute running time, and Dyan Cannon disappoints in the title role. Among other problems, Cannon seems so self-assured from her earliest scenes that it’s hard to accept the way Siegel dazzles Virginia. Keitel isn’t much help, since he’s robotic except during one scene in which an enraged Siegel physically assaults his lover. (Violent rage, always a Keitel specialty.)
After the introduction of a Congressional hearing that provides the movie’s wraparound structure, Virginia Hill gets underway with flashbacks depicting Virginia’s adolescence, when her acceptance of favors from male suitors made her a social pariah. Fleeing to the big city alongside childhood friend Leroy (Robby Benson), for whom Virginia assumes responsibility, Virginia becomes involved with gangsters Leo Ritchie (Allen Garfield) and Nick Rubanos (John Vernon). After earning the criminals’ trust, Virginia is tasked with spying on Siegel. Eventually, Siegel and Virginia develop real feelings for each other, so she’s with him when he envisions Vegas—and when he seals his fate. In terms of plot and themes, this stuff should be dynamite (as it was in Bugsy), but Virginia Hill is unrelentingly pedestrian. Cannon plays the role too abrasively for viewers to develop empathy, and there’s zero chemistry between her and Keitel. As for Schumacher, he was still a ways from the stylish pulp of The Lost Boys (1987) and the crowd-pleasing histrionics of his blockbuster John Grisham adaptations.
Virginia Hill: FUNKY