Bugsy Malone

Director: Alan Parker
Screenplay: Alan Parker
Stars: Scott Baio (Bugsy Malone), Florrie Garland (Blousey), Jodie Foster (Tallulah), John Cassisi (Fat Sam), Martin Lev (Dandy Dan), Paul Murphy (Leroy Smith), Sheridan Russell (Knuckles), Albin “Humpty” Jenkins (Fizzy), Paul Chirelstein (Smolsky), Andrew Paul (O’Dreary), Davidson Knight (Cagey Joe), Michael Jackson (Razamataz), Jeff Stevenson (Louis), Peter Holder (Ritzy), Donald Waugh (Snake Eyes)
MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 1976
Country: U.S. / U.K.
Bugsy Malone Paramount Presents Blu-ray
Bugsy Malone

There is no way around it: Alan Parker’s feature debut Bugsy Malone is a bizarre film. Although it is much beloved in certain circles and was a major theatrical hit in England, it remains to my eyes an oddball experiment in cinematic genre mishmash and gimmickry that is only partially successful at best. When it works, it works almost in spite of its set-up, and when it doesn’t work, it is awkward, clumsy, and at some points just plain uncomfortable. Yet, Parker and his team of craftsmen put it together with a mix of such assuredness (perhaps foolhardiness) and clear love of the material that you can’t help but admire it on some level.

The film’s unique conceit is that it is an homage to Prohibition-era gangster films and movie musicals, but with all the roles played by children ages 8 to 13. That means we have a bunch of school-age kids strutting around in pinstripe suits and fedoras and sequined cocktail dresses, wielding tommy guns (that shoot custard pie filling, rather than bullets), and barking accented gangster slang at each other against a backdrop of beautifully designed, but highly artificial urban streets, nightclubs, and back offices. The production design by Geoffrey Kirkland, who had spent a decade working in television and would be nominated for an Oscar a few years later for The Right Stuff (1983), is wonderful in a self-consciously theatrical kind of way, as is the sharp cinematography by Peter Biziou, who would work with Parker on a number of subsequent films, including Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) and Mississippi Burning (1988), and Michael Seresin, who also became a regular collaborator with Parker on films such as Midnight Express (1978), Birdy (1984), Angel Heart (1987), and Angela’s Ashes (1999) .

The sheer exuberance of this fresh-faced-kids-pretending-to-be-world-weary-adults conceit helps to hide how paper thin the plot is: the titular character, Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio), is a genial knockabout who gets caught up in a war between two competing Chicago gangs, one led by Fat Sam (John Cassisi) and one led by Dandy Dan (Martin Lev). Caught in the middle with him is Blousey (Florrie Garland), a would-be starlet trying to catch a break, and Tallulah (Jodie Foster), a club singer and Fat Sam’s girlfriend who would clearly rather be with Bugsy, even as he is smitten with Blousey. The gangland war hinges on Fat Sam wanting to get ahold of the same automatic weapons (known as “Splurge Guns”) that Dandy Dan’s goons are wielding, which fire splats of cream filling. Fat Sam’s only means of attack are literally smacking someone in the face with a pie.

The film was born out of stories Parker told his kids on long car trips, which makes for a nice backstory, but doesn’t necessarily justify what ends up on the screen. There are moments that work, and some of the musical numbers, all of which were written by pop maestro Paul Williams, have a nifty kick (I especially liked the group closing number, “You Give a Little Love,” which follows a massive pie fight). The effectiveness of the songs, however, is undercut by the decision to have the kids lip-synch to adult singers’ voices (including Williams’s), which creates an odd, uncanny disjunction that ruptures whatever illusion the film had otherwise created of a gangster world populated by kids.

The quality of the performances by the mostly amateur actors (Foster was the only one who had significant acting experience) is broad and uneven. Baio, who would go on to teen heartthrob status with his role as Chachi on the television series Happy Days (1977–1984), has a natural charisma, but he is clearly working hard to seem like a cool customer. Florrie Garland has little such charm, and everything she does seems labored and flat, whereas John Cassisi feels right at home as the anxious, loud-mouthed Fat Sam. More so than it did in the ’70s, the film’s use of prepubescent girls enacting various sexualized poses while dancing in skimpy clothing, as well as Foster, who had just finished her role in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), playing up Tallulah’s sexual aggressiveness is discomfiting (the boys, on the other hand, seem largely oblivious to anything sexual, perhaps because they are so enamored with getting even with each other). Such discomfort doesn’t infect every part of the film, but it lingers in the back of your mind and underscores how the entire concept of the film is such an odd fit with little discernible impact beyond its “What—seriously?” value.

Parker, of course, would go on to a major film career that would earn him both notoriety and multiple Oscar nominations (often with the same films), while virtually everyone on screen outside of Baio and Foster would never grace the silver screen again (although there is a throwaway joke featuring a character named Baby Face who is played in his screen debut by actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher, who has since helmed films like 2015’s Eddie the Eagle and the 2019 Elton John biopic Rocketman). While Bugsy Malone may be worth seeking out for its misplaced novelty, it offers little else.

Bugsy Malone “Paramount Presents” Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French
  • “Give a Little Love: Paul Williams on Bugsy Malone” featurette
  • “Filmmaker Focus: Executive Producer David Puttnam on Bugsy Malone” featurette
  • Theatrical trailers
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateAugust 31, 2021

    Given that Bugsy Malone’s visual quality is one of its strongest attributes, it is a good thing that Paramount has given some significant care to its restoration and presentation. The print used for the transfer wasn’t spotless, but it is overall very clean and boasts good detail, clarity, and color. The film is a bit soft by design, especially with some of the smoky interiors and foggy exteriors, but the transfer handles it well without blocking or pixilation (or needless DNR). Colors are particularly impressive, with good, strong primaries and nice contrast in the darker scenes on the streets at night. There is a strong presence of grain that looks fantastic in motion. The original monaural soundtrack has been remixed into a solid new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel track that helps to open up Paul Williams’s musical numbers and give the sound effects more room. There are some directional effects, including the shooting the “Splurge Guns,” but nothing that pushes the limits of the original mix too far. Along with the fine presentation, we get a pair of new featurettes: in the 6-minute “Give a Little Love,” songwriter and composer Paul Williams discusses his work on the film, while the 5-minute “Filmmaker Focus” features executive producer David Puttnam discussing the film’s origins, its production, and its subsequent legacy (director Alan Parker passed away in 2020, hence his absence). There are also theatrical trailers for Bugsy Malone, Paper Moon, Grease, and Black Beauty (1971).

    Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2)

    James Kendrick

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