Meyer Lansky (1902-1983) was one of the dominant figures in the American underworld from the 1930s until his death. He was a key figure in the National Crime Syndicate, a confederation of Italian, Irish and Jewish gangsters, and one of the founders of Murder Inc., the enforcement arm of the mafia.
Lansky, whose friends and associates ran the gamut from Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel and Charles (Lucky) Luciano, was an integral component of a unique generation of boldface Jewish mobsters who rose from the slums of New York City in the early 20th century.
Eytan Rockaway’s mildly entertaining biopic, Lansky, now available on the Netflix streaming network, traces the arc of his career from a bootlegger during Prohibition to a casino operator in pre-revolutionary Cuba and postwar Las Vegas.
The film begins in 1981 when Lansky (Harvey Keitel) and journalist David Stone (Sam Worthington) meet in a Miami diner to discuss a potential book project. A methodical person, Lansky has thoroughly researched Stone and believes he’s the man for the job.
“I’m here to tell you the real story,” he says, though he realizes his unsavory reputation has preceded him.
Lansky warns Stone that he cannot publish a word of the manuscript unless he approves of it. “Betray me and there will be consequences,” he says darkly. “But I hope our collaboration will be a successful one.”
As plausibly portrayed by Keitel, Lansky is a hard man bereft of illusions. Before their first meeting ends, he tells Stone a story about one of his boyhood experiences in czarist Russia that left an indelible impression.
The film switches back and forth between the past and the present as Stone fleshes out Lansky’s rise from poverty to influence.
In the first flashback, the young Lansky (John Magaro) forms friendships with the violent-prone Siegel (David Cade) and Luciano (Shane McRae), a street-smart criminal who appreciates Lansky’s toughness, cool-headedness and facility with numbers.
Decades later, the FBI launches an investigation to track down the $300 million in savings Lansky has supposedly stashed away for his retirement. An FBI agent attempts to recruit Stone as an informant.
Lansky’s Jewish background is important to him. In a scene from the late 1930s, Lansky’s foot soldiers violently break up a German-American Bund meeting in New York City in which antisemitic epithets are flung around. In 1943, the federal government recruits him to ferret out Nazi spies on the New York waterfront.
Lansky’s personal life is jagged. His first wife berates him as a “criminal” and blames their son’s cerebral palsy on him. As a rule, Lansky describes himself as a businessman and denies he’s a gangster.
His business ventures are divided into two segments.
In Havana, Lansky forms an alliance of convenience with Cuba’s corrupt president Fulgencio Batista, and succeeds in transforming Cuba into the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean.
As a war in the Middle East brews, an emissary from the Jewish community in Palestine sent by Golda Meir solicits funds from Lansky. He doles out wads of cash and induces an Italian associate to contribute. “If you need any weapons or ammunition, let me know,” he says.
Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Siegel is supervising the construction of a grand hotel/casino, the Flamingo, for the mafia. But anxieties flare dude to cost overruns and suspicions that Siegel is skimming funds. Lansky defends Siegel, but the mob has decided to rub him out.
Flash forward to Tel Aviv years later. In the hope of finding Lansky’s supposed fortune, an FBI agent examines his safety deposit box in bank vault. What he finds does not amuse him. In 1970, Lansky makes aliyah, hoping to acquire Israeli citizenship and keep the FBI at bay. But U.S. pressure on Israel shatters his dream, rendering him a “wandering Jew.”
Rockaway’s impressionistic film is only skin-deep, but it gives viewers a general overview of a mobster who played an influential role in expanding the scope and influence of the American underworld.